With Spring comes new beginnings.
For Colorado State Rams football players, the new year brings new opportunities, new challenges and new goals. For many of the individual players, it means a new position as well. CSU head coach Jim McElwain discussed the changes in his spring practice press conference Monday, explaining the team was deep at some positions and less so at others.
“Obviously, a heavy emphasis on the D-line, with (Terry) Jackson, (LaRyan) King and (Brett) Jordan in there, and then moving Justin (Hansen) over there, too, from a position standpoint.” McElwain said of the many newcomers to the defense.
Without a doubt, Colorado State’s defensive line has been one of the team’s weaknesses for years, and McElwain’s been realistic about the lack of size up front since he came to town. In all, there are six new D-linemen this spring for the Rams; two junior college transfers in Jackson and King, four being moved from tight end or o-line to the defensive line. Jordan and redshirt freshman Johnny Schupp are converted tight ends, while Hansen is a 6’5” 310-pounder that will bulk up the middle of the CSU front seven.
While the Rams have been soft on the line, they’ve been very deep in the defensive backfield in recent seasons. It’s partly why safety Austin Gray made the position switch to wide receiver.
“You know, the safeties; I’m putting a lot in the baskets of Trent Matthews, Kevin Pierre-Lewis and Nick Januska as well as (Jason) Oden,” Coach Mac said. “Because we’re moving a starter from that spot over to wide receiver. So, those guys better communicate and organize in the back end.
“In talking with him, he has a lot of confidence in playing the position,” McElwain said of Gray. “I spoke to some people back in Texas that [said] he was a pretty quality wide receiver. So it was something I put some time and thought into. And really, it had more to do with the depth at the safety position and where he can help us. Because he’s a leader too, and one thing we need to do is come up with a leader on offense. That’s something we’re short right now.”
Gray was developing into a great safety in his sophomore season, putting up nine tackles against the San Jose State Spartans and eight versus the Utah State Aggies. However, a few weeks later, he sustained a concussion when the Rams played the Fresno State Bulldogs, which effectively ended his year. It was also some of the reason why he spoke to McElwain about switching back to his more natural receiver spot after last season.
“I felt like our receiver corps needed a little more depth, me and Coach Mac talked about it, and I always want to do what the team needs and we decided that’s what I needed to try this spring,” Gray explained to me Wednesday following practice.
When I asked him about living up to McElwain’s expectations of being a leader, he said, “Naturally, just being older is going to help me in being a leader in that role. But obviously, I have to prove myself too.”
While the media is only allowed a few minutes to view practice, I was able to find Gray and see him struggle a bit to shake corners and run routes precisely. When he was open and hit with the ball, though, it stuck to his hands and he turned it up field looking for yards to gain.
“Back in the high school days, that was your number one thing; to know your receivers and know where they’re going to be at as a quarterback,” Gray said of building chemistry between himself and the quarterbacks. “Me personally, me and my quarterback, were best friends and were on the same page. It’s one of those deals, where – me and Garrett (Grayson) talked about it last week – we started throwing it around a little bit. It’s one of those things where we have to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
For Gray, he’s got to build a rapport with both Grayson and sophomore Conner Smith, as they have a quarterback competition brewing already. But, luckily, he’s more comfortable in his new role.
“A lot of things feel more natural to me at receiver than they did at the safety position,” he finished.
Colorado State has many shorter receivers, meaning his 6’3” size will be an asset to QBs and the offense in general. Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin said at Signing Day that taller receivers will allow the Rams to go deep more often, opening up options they didn’t have last season.