NCF Nation: Nico Ranieri

Steve Fairchild is pretty sure the jury is still out his Colorado State Rams.

After winning seven games in 2008, the Rams started this past season 3-0 and proceeded to lose their final nine games. Fairchild doesn’t have a definitive reason for the slide, but he’s not convinced either season really defines his team.

“We won seven games that first year and I’m not sure we were that good of a football team,” Fairchild said. “We had a little bit of a skid this past season and I’m not sure we were that bad of a football team.

“I think the truth lies somewhere in between.”

Colorado State had a promising start after defeating rival Colorado at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo. Then it defeated Weber State and a struggling Nevada team. But then the wheels came off. The Rams were manhandled by BYU, suffered some injuries and never fully got back on track. They lost three games by two points or less.

“I knew when I took this job that it was going to be a minimum three or four-year type of deal where we’re going to have to change everything from recruiting to getting a little commitment from the administration in terms of facilities,” Fairchild said. “It’s just a process. I think we didn’t take as good of a step as we would have liked to last year, but I’m quite confident that we’re headed in the right direction.”

Despite the poor season, the Rams did manage to wrap up the best recruiting class since Fairchild took the job.

For the second consecutive season, the Rams will have a quarterback competition in the spring. Senior Jon Eastman, junior T.J. Borcky, redshirt freshman Nico Ranieri and incoming freshman Pete Thomas all will be competing. Thomas was one of the top recruits in the class and he’s the favorite to win the starting job.

The Rams added a couple new coaches. Fairchild named Pat Meyer offensive coordinator and brought back Dan Hammerschmidt, who worked with the Rams in the 90s, to help with the passing game. Fairchild also will be intimately involved with all aspects of the offense.

“It will be the same system,” Fairchild said. “We’ll always tweak it and do some self analysis in the offseason, but I’m kind of the offensive coordinator anyway, I call the plays.”

The Rams do return 92 percent of their rushing yards and only lost two starters on defense. The biggest question will be the offensive line, for which Fairchild felt confident the Rams could find suitable replacements.

“I’ve said all along here, ever since I took this job that it’s a process that’s going to take three or four years before we even get there,” Fairchild said. “We’ll stack a few recruiting classes in there and get the type of depth and speed and things that we need to compete. We didn’t arrive after that first year and we’re not there yet and we probably won’t be there after next year. But we’ve just got to keep working.”
Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

Air Force Falcons

Spring practice starts: Feb. 18

Spring game: March 17

What to watch:
  • Air Force is in a comfy position because it has all of its passing, rushing and scoring back from 2009. The biggest key to next season will be the play of quarterback Tim Jefferson. He didn’t get to go through spring football last year, so this should help the Falcons even more for 2010.
  • While all of the offensive skill positions return, the offensive line is depleted. All five starters are gone and while there are competent backups ready, they’ll need to use the spring to get on the same page and continue to open holes for the Falcons' triple option.
  • The defense returns six starters, but they’ll be learning under a new full-time defensive coordinator in Matt Wallerstedt. Wallerstedt was the co-defensive coordinator last year, but it will be interesting to see what twists he adds to one of the NCAA’s best defenses in 2009.
BYU Cougars

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:
  • The top position battle for the Cougars this season will be at quarterback. Riley Nelson has the edge since he was Max Hall’s backup last year, but returning missionary James Lark and early enrollee Jake Heaps will be in the mix, too. The Cougars will add one more quarterback competitor in the fall.
  • Tight end is another interesting competition since both Dennis Pitta and Andrew George are gone. Devin Mahina, Richard Wilson and Mike Muehlmann all will be competing for that starting spot.
  • The Cougars lost their entire starting defensive line and four of the six on the depth chart. The other two players on the two-deep played and there are some returning missionaries that could step in and help right away.
Colorado State Rams

Spring practice starts: March 25

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • Quarterback seems to be the popular question for the Colorado State in the spring. This year, there’s much anticipation over early enrollee Pete Thomas. Thomas will challenge senior Jon Eastman, junior T.J. Borcky, and redshirt freshman Nico Ranieri. Borcky will also play wide receiver.
  • A year ago, the offensive line was a position of strength for the Rams, this year they’re trying to replace four starters and the only returner, tackle Paul Madsen, didn’t even start the entire seasons. Guard Jake Gdowski and tackle Mark Starr figure to be in the mix along with several redshirt freshmen and sophomores.
  • The defense should be a strength for the Rams this year. They lose just two starters and return 24 lettermen, including linebacker Ricky Brewer, who was an all-conference performer in 2008 but was suspended all of 2009.
New Mexico Lobos

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • With Donovan Porterie still waiting to hear about a sixth year, there will be a quarterback competition this spring. Sophomore B.R. Holbrook is the favorite against juniors Tate Smith and Brad Gruner, but the spring winner will have to fend off top recruits Tarean Austin and Stump Godfrey in the fall.
  • Running back Terence Brown, who was the penciled in starter last season before tearing his ACL in the spring, will once again be the favorite to win the top rushing spot for the Lobos. While two freshmen and a sophomore manned the position last year, the Lobos ranked 110th in rushing.
  • In making the running game better, the Lobos have to get better on the offensive line. They lose three starters, including center Erik Cook. There are a few young players waiting in the wings, and the Lobos added three more in this recruiting class.
San Diego State Aztecs

Spring practice starts: Feb. 20

Spring game: March 20

What to watch:
  • The biggest issue facing San Diego State has got to be its running game and coach Brady Hoke has stockpiled running backs in an effort to solve the problem. Dwayne Garrett, Adam Muema and Deonte Williams will compete for backfield playing time with returning starter Brandon Sullivan, backup Davon Brown, and three other running backs who were signed in the 2009 class. as well as, Atiyyah Henderson, who is trying to get a sixth year of eligibility. Figuring out which of those players can balance this offense will be the spring focus.
  • The offensive line also will be an interesting competition to watch. Since Hoke didn’t recruit any offensive linemen in his first class and has to replace seniors at right tackle and left guard, the Aztecs brought in junior college linemen Juan Bolanos, Riley Gauld and Joe Unga to compete immediately.
  • The search for speed on the edges of the defense will begin this spring as defensive coordinator Rocky Long looks to get better at defensive end and at the Aztecs hybrid position. Perry Jackson is the only defensive end joining the Aztecs this spring and they return both of their starting ends from last season.
TCU Horned Frogs

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:
  • Replacing All-American defensive end Jerry Hughes will be a big task, but TCU has a history of finding diamonds in the rough. In fact, when Hughes replaced Chase Ortiz, no one knew who he was. D.J. Yendrey, who played defensive tackle last season, and Braylon Broughton, who was Hughes’ backup, will compete for the starting role.
  • The Horned Frogs will look for a replacement for Clint Gresham at deep snapper. Gresham was the team’s deep snapper for the past three seasons and in that time TCU never had a bad snap.
  • Aundre Dean, a running back transfer from UCLA will work at strong safety this spring. He worked out at strong safety some last season, but now the move will likely be permanent. It’s just as well. The Horned Frogs have a quite a few running backs lining up for playing time.
UNLV Rebels

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • UNLV’s offense will undergo a makeover with new coach Bobby Hauck at the helm. Instead of the spread style that the Rebels ran the past five season, they’ll switch to a more run-based, possession attack. The transition shouldn't take long to master, but finding the right players to run the scheme will be a chore.
  • One of the top goals this spring will be finding a more consistent power attack that goes along with Hauck’s offensive coaching philosophy. Channing Trotter was the Rebels top rusher with 479 yards and eight touchdowns, but the next two top rushers were the Rebels' quarterbacks. UNLV ranked 86th in the country in rushing with 126.83 yards per game.
  • The speed defense will also be a focus this spring as the Rebels struggled against the run (220.58 yards per game allowed) and ranked 106th in sacks and 117th in tackles for loss. Only two starters from the defensive line return and the depth is not experienced, so finding some players to fill those holes will be a major concern.
Utah Utes

Spring practice starts: March 9

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • One of the things to watch this spring is the development of junior college transfer John Cullen and how he fills in for departed senior Zane Beadles at left end. Cullen was brought in specifically to fill that hole and him jelling with the rest of the line will be important for quarterback Jordan Wynn this spring.
  • The defensive end position is up for grabs this spring with transfer James Aiono, Junior Tui’one, Christian Cox, Nai Fotu and Lei Talamaivao, who is moving from tackle to end. Talamaivao won the starting defensive tackle spot twice, but suffered a broken leg in each of those years.
  • Former backup quarterback Chad Manis is set to be the starting middle linebacker for the Utes. Manis spent some of last year still working at the quarterback position while making the transition to linebacker. The Utes lost all of their starting linebackers from 2009.
Wyoming Cowboys

Spring practice starts: March 6

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • Wyoming will spend the spring transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense. The Cowboys, who allowed 393.31 yards per game and 27.31 points per game, will still be multiple, but will work out of the 4-3.
  • The Cowboys graduated both of their top defensive ends, so they moved Gabe Knapton and Josh Biezuns, two of their better defensive players, to defensive end. Knapton ranked second on the team in tackles and Biezuns was third on the team in sacks and tackles for loss.
  • With Knapton and Biezuns moving to the defensive line, the Cowboys will be entertaining some competition at linebacker this spring. Players such as Ghaali Muhammad and Ben Durbin, who both played in 2009, will have the opportunity to earn starting roles.
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild has never been shy when it comes to his quarterbacks, especially during the past six months as he struggles to find a replacement for Billy Farris.

In the spring, Fairchild called his quarterbacks "awful" and "embarrassing" after the team's spring game. Earlier this week, Fairchild explained his expectations to the Fort Collin Coloradoan:

"All they've got to do is put together just an average practice or two in a row, and they'll be the starter, but nobody's done that."

Grant Stucker and Jon Eastman seem to be the frontrunners with Klay Kubiak (shoulder) and Nico Ranieri (hernia) limited because of injuries. Fairchild also asked walk-on transfer M.J. McPeek to join the team for the rest of camp. McPeek was a preferred walk-on last fall at Kansas State, but redshirted before transferring to Colorado State. Per NCAA transfer rules he won't be able to participate this season. Initially, Fairchild didn't want to use a spot on the 105-man roster for him. But with Kubiak and Ranieri limited, he needed another arm.

At the Mountain West's Front Range Kickoff Luncheon in Denver on Thursday, Fairchild was asked if he might be sandbagging a little bit in regards to his quarterbacks since a rivalry game against Colorado loomed as the season opener.

"Please tell [Colorado coach Dan Hawkins] I'm not," Fairchild said. "It's the truth. I mean that sincerely.

"We do hold the bar high [at quarterback]. There's no question. That's the only way I know how to do it at that spot. I expect better play than what we're getting. I'm not going to sugarcoat it for those guys. Somebody's going to rise up eventually."

It's been rare that Fairchild has been complimentary to his quarterbacks, but he did say that it was too bad Kubiak was missing fall camp because he really wanted to see him compete. Kubiak missed all of spring football with shoulder surgery and is still feeling the effects of that injury.

With two weeks remaining before the season opener against Colorado, the Rams are in a similar position as they were a year ago. The only difference is that Fairchild said he could see Farris begin to separate himself from the pack this time last year. This year, the separation is a little more difficult to pick out.

"I think Billy about this time in camp last year started to kind of get into his groove," Fairchild said. "And he wasn't perfect, but you could see that guy, he's going to be our guy. And I'm still waiting on one of these guys."

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