September 3, 2010

Rams Roundtable: Rocky Mountain Showdown

If it is Friday, then it must be time to join our panel of experts to talk about this week's Colorado State football opener. This weekend we are joined by Kelly Lyell from the Fort Collins Coloradoan; Mike Brohard of the Loveland Reporter; Voice of the Rams, Brian Roth and our own Matt Stephens to talk about the Rams chances in the Rocky Mountain Showdown. Pete Thomas comes into this game with no starts under his belt, but he has had his moments during pre-season practice. What have you seen in him that gives you hope that he can be a stud in the Steve Fairchild system? How much does the fact Colorado's talent lies in its defensive secondary concern you for his first start?

Brohard: I'm not sure Thomas will be a certified stud in the system this year, but he should be good. I think the best measure has been the confidence his teammates have in him. The vets on the team like his poise, and the DBs give him points for looking off receivers and other tricks of the trade. The Buffs' secondary may be solid, but it's the pressure CU puts on him that will matter most. If the CSU offensive line holds up, Thomas should be fine.

Roth: I think it is his maturity, first and foremost. Secondly, I think Steve is a very, very good quarterbacks coach. Thomas will be as prepared as a true freshman can be heading into Saturday. Steve Fairchild will make sure of that.  But, there will be some mistakes made and bad decisions by the young QB. You just have to hope they are not big, game-changing mistakes. The thing that concerns me more than the Colorado secondary, which is very good, is the inexperience around Thomas on offense. The biggest question to me is this:  Will the offensive line (protection/running game) give Thomas an opportunity to be successful?

Lyell: Pete Thomas is far more mature, mentally and physically, than one would expect from an 18-year-old just out of high school. Sure, he's going to be nervous when the game starts, but everyone on the field, even fifth-year seniors, will have some nerves to deal with. Thomas has a tremendous arm and shows amazing poise in the pocket. CU does have a strong secondary, so Thomas will have to be good to be an effective passer, but the Buffs seem to be focused on stopping CSU's running game, so Thomas will have some opportunities to beat them through the air.

Stephens: Quite honestly, it worries me a lot. Thomas has shown that he has some great physical tools, but mentally in practice has made some bad passes, often because he has been forced to throw before he's wanted to due to the fact this CSU offensive line is very inexperienced.
Still, over the past two weeks it seems like he's been hitting his stride and making better reads. His deep ball is still needing work, but working with Fairchild will make him into a great quarterback in the end. Who has impressed you on the offensive side of the ball this pre-season? Given all the new faces on the offensive line, under center and at the receiver spots, what are reasonable expectations for this team right now and what kind of execution should Ram fans expect on the offensive side of the ball?

Brohard: Raymond Carter has looked good all camp, and I think Eric Pietz goes unnoticed with what he does. Most of the receivers have had their moments, but my inkling is thatLou Greenwood will be the one producing the most big plays this season. With so many new faces, it may take a few weeks before there's a real gauge to how effective it can be on the scoreboard.

Roth: I really like the position change for wide receiver Lou Greenwood. He is a running back by trade, but I think he will be a terrific wide receiver. He is a guy that I am looking for to make some big plays in 2010. When he becomes fully comfortable as a receiver, look out. As for the offense, it will struggle at times, especially early in the season. There is just no way around that. However, I think there is talent offensively and they will make enough plays in the early season to keep Ram fans patient.

Lyell: Besides Thomas, who has been very impressive, I've also been impressed with the play of running back Raymond Carter, the transfer from UCLA, and the receiving corps, in general, including Byron Steele, Lou Greenwood, TJ Borcky, Matt Yemm and Tyson Liggett. Because of the offensive inexperience, reasonable expectations are a probably for a 5-7 or 6-6 season this year out of the Rams, but the overall talent level appears to be higher this year than last year.

Stephens: The obvious choice for me is running back Raymond Carter, but the past week or so his hands that used to be so soft when it came to receiving, have dropped a lot of easy passes. Still, he's a guy that you just think still hasn't show everything he has in practice and is waiting for game day to explode.
Also, wide receiver Byron Steele has singled himself out so far as a go-to target for Thomas and appears to be the best guy in that unit right now-though I'm still picking Marquise Law to be the Rams' most productive WR by season's end. The offensive line is a concern of the Rams, given all the losses to graduation. How good can this new unit be and how good is it now? How important is its development in aiding that of quarterback Pete Thomas and the new receivers?

Brohard: I don't think the line is a concern, at all. It may not be as good as last year's group yet, but give it time to grow. The tackles are solid, and the interior has talent. Pat Meyer will rotate some players in and out, so the five who start Saturday may not be the same five next week. Or even the game after.

Roth: The success of Pete Thomas, especially in the season opener on Saturday, is directly tied to the offensive line. Like I said above, they have to be good enough to give Thomas an opportunity to be successful. If the Rams can't run the ball effectively and can't give the young QB some time in the pocket, then he will have no least not on Saturday. How good will the offensive line be? I have no idea. We'll have an idea after Saturday. How good can they be? The CSU coaches consider the young offensive linemen as a major strength of the program.  That should bode well down the line.

Lyell: The offensive line is a huge question mark for the Rams, but the players who will be starting in the opener have quite a bit of experience under their belt, especially for a team that lost four longtime starters from last year's team. Tackles Mark Starr and Paul Madsen split a starting job last season, and guards Jake Gdowski, Conner Smith and Ryan Griffith all have been starters at various times in their careers. This unit, as coach Steve Fairchild has said, can be very good as it comes together, the question is how long it will take for this group to jell. The sooner the line comes together, the better off Thomas will be, because he's sure to face a lot of all-out blitzes this season by teams trying to rattle the true freshman.

Stephens: It's everything. No matter how good these wide receivers and Thomas may be, they won't be able to show all of their skills unless the offensive line provides enough time for them to make plays. Credit should be given to the offensive line in terms of run blocking, they've open some big holes, but pass blocking is another story. Defensively, injuries (I think it was 33 games lost to injuries on the defensive side a year ago) and an inability to get off the field on third down (opponents had a 55 percent success rate) kept the Rams from tasting much success. What have you seen this pre-season that makes you believe improvement in the defense is probable?

Brohard: For one,Ricky Brewer is back and motivated. That has been infectious. Elijah-Blu Smith is a quiet leader, and Mychal Sisson is just flat-out good. What to watch for is the defensive line, especially outside. The coaches have loaded the end position with some athletes, but how quickly they become good at rushing the passer will go a long way in determining how productive a unit Colorado State becomes.

Roth: The injuries in 2009 will directly make the Rams better defensively in 2010. Guys like Ivory Heard, James Skelton, Nuku Latu, Marcus Shaw and Chris Gipson are all guys that are on the Rams two-deep and who have experience they would not have otherwise had if not for an injury-riddled 2009. That along with the cast of experienced playmakers such as Ricky Brewer, Mychal Sisson, Elijah Blue-Smith and Guy Miller will make the Rams much better on defense in 2010. They have some guys that can fly around and make plays. That should lead to more turnovers.

Lyell: The biggest improvement I've seen defensively has been the return of Ricky Brewer. With he and Mychal Sisson as the outside linebackers, the Rams have high-level playmakers on both sides of their defense. The increased athleticism that Davis Burland Broderick Sargent bring at defensive end should improve both the pass rush and the Rams' ability to defend outside runs. Having defensive ends and outside linebackers that they can trust should help the secondary focus on stopping the pass first before helping out against the run. Last year, the secondary often seemed to be playing the run first and was out of position when teams went to the air.

Stephens: Mainly it's a combination of Ricky Brewer and the athleticism of the defensive ends that gets me excited. It definitely hurts that Christian James will miss the first couple of games at defensive end this season, as he showed in spring that he was definitely the team's best guy on the outside, but Broderick Sargent and Davis Burl are two very talented players.
And with Brewer back with the linebackers, he has shown to be the leader the team was missing a year ago. This will be his last season, so you know he's going to do everything he can to make his mark. His edition also adds more depth, bumping Michael Kawoluk down - a guy who started last season until getting injured in the game against San Diego State. Much was made of the team's nine losses to end the year last season. Is this a team that is poised to get the bad taste of losing out of its mouth? If the Rams find themselves down seven in the fourth quarter, is this a team that fights to a win, or submits to another loss based on their experience a year ago?

Brohard: The players never really talk about it. That tells you the coaches aren't harping on it, either. In fact, this version of the Rams seems very distanced from the 2009 group, and that isn't a bad thing, really. The players see this as a different team, one ready to make its own history. I remember when the 2006 team dropped its last seven games, the 2007 team came into camp wearing that like a scarlet letter. That feeling doesn't exist with this team.

Roth: Steve Fairchild is 10-15 in his two years at CSU. Given the state the of program when he took over, I think that is a reasonable record thru 25 games. They won some close games they probably should have lost in 2008. And they lost some close games this probably should have won in 2009. Looking at Saturday and beyond, I honestly don't feel the the Rams inability to finish in 2009 or the 9-game losing streak is a factor with this 2010 team. I just don't get the feeling that anyone, staff or players, is lamenting the past.

Lyell: It's hard to say what effect the nine-game losing streak will have on this team. Veteran players said it's all but forgotten, because this is a new team with so many new players. Still, it's difficult to shake that "here-we-go-again" mentality when things go wrong, and it could come back to haunt the Rams in games that are close at the end. Not sure if you wanted a prediction or not, but I'm saying the Buffs' experience, particularly on offense, and the sour taste of last year's loss in Boulder, trumps the Rams' young talent. CU 20, CSU 17.

Stephens: I really think last season is completely out the window. Sure, it's probably on the back of the player's and coaches minds, but everyone I've talked to has said that this is a new season. While the losing streak is officially in tact for the time being, the Rams have a clean slate. Although, senior tight end Eric Peitz did tell me it would be extra nice to officially end the streak against Colorado.

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