The Rams are trying to reinvent themselves as a team filled with tall, athletic receivers.
It’s clear head coach Jim McElwain has gone out and found big, physical and speedy wideouts in his first two recruiting periods, as Colorado State sports 10 receivers standing 6’2” or taller.
Two of those young men – Rashard Higgins and Jordon Vaden – showed up as the top players at the “X” receiver position, with Higgins running with the ones. He’ll almost certainly start Sunday, a sign he’s impressed coaches in practice. The 6’2” 180-pound true freshman is long and lean, while being one of the speediest players on the CSU roster.
Because he does not like to anoint players, all McElwain said of the Mesquite, Texas native during his press conference Monday was, “82 runs fast, that’s a good deal. That’s a novel concept to have at that position.”
But likely starting quarterback Garrett Grayson was more open when it came to the topic of Higgins. “I love Rashard Higgins,” Grayson exclaimed. “I love all of them, I’m glad they’re all here, they’re all fast, all tall. But, I’m really liking him.”
“I think they’ve all picked it up well,” Grayson said of the young receivers’ understanding of the playbook. “I think he’s (Higgins) just so athletic and if you give him the ball in space he’ll make someone miss. That’s what we need to do.”
Grayson also explained how Higgins as well as Sammie Long have stayed after practices some days to work on specific routes, which does wonders for the QB-WR timing and chemistry.
Vaden is a redshirt freshman from Henderson, Colorado, a 6’3” 185-pounder with speed as well. And then there’s Willie Udofia, a redshirt sophomore junior college transfer who has impressed many coaches himself.
Of course, sophomore Joe Hansley knows a thing or two about being a freshman receiver, as he was key to the team’s offense last season. Hansley finished the year fourth on the Rams in receptions (21) and receiving yards (274), while tying tight end Kivon Cartwright with a team-best three touchdowns.
Unlike this year’s crop of freshmen, though, Hansley’s shorter stature makes him a solid slot man.
Hansley’s listed second behind the old man of the group, junior Charles Lovett, CSU’s receptions and yards leader last season.
This new youth movement at wide receiver could bring both positives and negatives to McElwain’s offense.
Sure, he’s finally got those lanky and fast men to challenge the defense deep – which offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin said they plan on doing – but McElwain’s also got to rely on them to stay focused, keep their confidence and perform at a high level.
How does the junior Grayson calm them down after making mistakes? “I said, ‘Hey, that’s what you’ve got to do every time. Just go out there and play catch,” he said. “Don’t worry about what the defense is doing. Just play catch and then make a play after you catch it.’”
If Higgins, Vaden, Udofia and the other youngsters can relax and “just play catch,” their sheer athleticism will give Colorado State something they’ve been missing for years; someone that can stretch the defense, both vertically and horizontally, with flies and screens. Now McElwain can call the back corner fade near the goal line, allowing the youthful wideouts to become playmakers.
And maybe most importantly, these speedy receivers pushing up field will keep safeties from dropping down into the box, ending the Rams hopes of running.
Yes, Colorado State figures to be a run-first – and run often – offense, as they have the most veteran offensive line in the Mountain West, two talented backs in Donnell Alexander and Chris Nwoke, as well as McElwain’s Alabama roots. But they’ll have to pass to keep defenses honest, while also hoping to break open for big plays.
Bubble screens turned touchdowns and deep bombs down the sidelines will simultaneously disallow defenses to stack the line of scrimmage as well as put points on the board for CSU.
The Rams offense could be dynamic this season, and if they are, it will almost certainly be in large part due to their young receivers.
Colorado State kicks off their season this Sunday, September 1 against the intrastate rival Colorado Buffaloes. The game takes place inside Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium and kickoff is set for 4 p.m. MT. It can be seen on CBS Sports Network.
Note: Charles Lovett was listed as “questionable” to play this week against Colorado when Wednesday injury reports were handed out.
More CSU Rams:
CSU’s initial depth chart shows some surprises
2013 prediction: Colorado State will go back to a bowl
Clint Oldenburg weighs in on Jim McElwain, new on-campus stadium
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist. Follow Rich on twitter or facebook for all your CSU Rams news and opinion.