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With less than 70 days until the annual Rocky Mountain Showdown with CU, there are still many questions to be answered around Ram country. Heading into Mike Bobo’s second season, expectations for the green and gold are high, despite the large roster turnover from 2015.
Coming off of three straight bowl appearances, the Rams have their eyes set on competing for a Mountain West championship, something the team has not accomplished since 2002. The 2016 season could be the turning point for a CSU program that has spent the past half-decade rebuilding and rebranding it’s athletic image.
With the on-campus stadium set to open in 2017 and dreams of joining the power-5 are in the background, CSU has a chance to become the most dominant athletic program in the Mountain West. Colorado State led all schools in the conference with nine conference championships in 2015, but despite a successful first season under Bobo, the Rams were still playing second fiddle to programs like Boise State, Air Force and San Diego State. 2016 will either be the season CSU jumps to one of the elite football programs of the conference or remains a middle of the pack contender.
Heading into the season, these are some of the biggest questions to be answered on the offensive side of the ball.
Who will be the Rams’ signal caller?
First and foremost, fans are dieing to know who will be under center this season. Throughout spring ball, Nick Stevens and Faton Bauta battled side-by-side, each having ups and downs and neither separating themselves from the other as the clear-cut starter.
Despite finishing his first season as a starter, earning second-team All-Conference honors, leading the team to seven wins and a NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl appearance to boot; the California native Stevens once again finds himself not knowing whether the starting gig is his.
Graduate transfer Faton Bauta is the new kid in town with an SEC background and the arm strength Ram fans have been craving. Although the general public assumes Bauta will win the job, with his SEC resume and close relationship with Bobo, the competition is just heating up.
Even with his ties to Bobo and the Ram coaching staff, after riding the pine for four years in Athens, Ga. Bauta is actually less experienced than the younger Stevens. Stevens saw more playing time last season than Bauta did his entire career at Georgia. Also worth nothing, Stevens is a proven leader for this team, something that goes a long way in the locker room.
Whether it is Bauta or Stevens under center for the Rams this season, Colorado State will be in good hands. Both are extremely comfortable within the offense and each will have the run game as well as an experienced offensive line to fall back on.
Besides the quarterback conundrum, the offense seems fairly stable heading into the season. With an extremely experienced and talented offensive line, combined with a run-heavy offense — featuring Izzy Mathews and Dalyn Dawkins — the Rams just might have one of the best rushing offenses in the conference.
Who starts at running back?
Matthews is a big, bruising back who’s worked on losing weight to gain speed in this offseason. Mike Bobo told us he’s capable of being a three-down back and Matthews said improving his pass blocking has been a focus in the lead up to his sophomore season.
Dawkins is more of a scat-back, able to bust off big runs when he gets through the line or around the corner. He’s not afraid of finishing off those runs with power, though, and Brian Dawkins’ nephew plays with a nastiness his uncle — the hard-hitting safety — played with.
Also expected to make an impact in the rushing game will be incoming freshman running backs Rashaad Boddie and Marvin Kinsey, both of which were highly recruited out of high school.
Running back could be the most exciting competition at Colorado State, so stay tuned for those battles.
Who steps up at receiver?
At wide receiver, multiple players will have a chance to breakout in the new era of Ram football. Rashard Higgins and Joe Hansley carried this team for the past three seasons and leave some giant shoes to fill for the young Ram receiving corps.
For months, I have been saying sophomore WR Olabisi Johnson is destined for a breakout season. Along with Johnson, Xavier Williams could be in for a big season. After showing glimpses of greatness in his first three seasons, inconsistency has held Williams back his entire collegiate career, which is something Bobo has emphasized he would like to see improvement in. Williams has the size and athleticism to dominate in this conference: Will 2016 be the year he puts it all together?
Outside of Williams, the biggest question for the wide receiver corps is: Who will be the team’s slot man? Deionte Gaines was to be that player, and his explosive ability to turn any play into a touchdown will be missed. On the spring depth chart, Marcus Wilson was listed behind Gaines — who transferred to Southern Illinois — and Wilson played well in the spring game with four catches for 28 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown. He seems to display solid speed and great quickness; keep an eye on the sophomore this season.
Which five start on the O-line?
The offensive line should be one of the high points for the team this season. The Rams legitimately have eight or nine guys capable of playing at a high level, and it would not surprise me if the team uses six or seven of them in a consistent rotation.
Graduate transfer Paul Thurston joined the team late this spring, adding yet another talented player to the mix. With Jake Bennett already in place at center, Thurston could make a switch to guard this season, which would give the Rams one of the most experienced starting-five in the conference. Thurston would have to take the left guard spot from Colby Meeks, though, who’s been consistently improving.
Outside of those two, seniors Fred Zerblis and Nick Callender look to be handling the right side of the line, while junior Zack Golditch will likely start at left tackle.
Football season is in the air Ram fans and the closer we get, the more we will find out about this team. Stay tuned for part two of this series, where we will look at the biggest questions on the defensive side of the ball. If you have any questions about the team or something you would like featured in the piece, send us a tweet @CSURamsNews.