GUEST POST: Patrick Mayhorn's Non-Conference Previews: Colorado State
Head coach Jay Norvell is hitting the transfer portal hard to open his CSU tenure.
SITE STUFF: I’m still taking time off, but there remains plenty of content in the pipeline thanks to a heavy-hitting lineup of guest posters.
We continue with a look at Michigan’s opening opponent from Patrick Mayhorn, whose outstanding work you can find at The Outside Zone and Flipping the Field. He’s now covered the entire non-conference schedule for us.
If you missed it, here’s Hawaii:
And here’s UConn:
Coming soon: Thicc Stauskas’ Big Ten football position rankings.
There’s an interesting dynamic in the way that the transfer portal is discussed in college football circles. Since the passing of a rule allowing for one free transfer without losing a year of playing time, just about all of the (seemingly endless) discourse about college football’s hottest topic has revolved around the damage done to smaller programs and the growing concentration of power atop the sport.
Just over a week ago, the college football world collectively lost its mind at reports that Pitt wide receiver and 2021 Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison was considering a departure from the Panthers, potentially out of a desire to join another transplant, former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams, at USC. There’s been no easier content in college athletics since about July of 2021 than that which either alludes to or directly participates in the sport’s newest moral panic – widespread concern is tremendous for business.
Yet, the only truly tangible, measurable impacts of the portal through its infancy have almost exclusively lived elsewhere.
Power programs have plucked players from lesser schools. In the 2021 cycle, to name a few, Georgia grabbed safety Tykee Smith from West Virginia, Notre Dame plucked interior lineman Cain Madden from Marshall and Alabama nabbed Tennessee linebacker Henry To’o To’o and Ohio State wide receiver Jameson Williams.
All three teams were strong, with the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide facing off for the title. But it’s hard to say that their success was a direct result of the portal in the way that the conversation might indicate. No team has found serious national title hopes when they previously had none through raiding the portal.
Where the portal has had a real, noticeable impact is in the levels below blue blood, positively and negatively. Suffering tenures have been put out to pasture through mass exodus, like Todd Graham’s at Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors had (well-founded) issues with their coach and because they had the freedom to do so, they took action. Several who were disgruntled with Graham decided to return upon his firing.
On the other side of the spectrum, the advent of this new talent market has offered a tremendously valuable asset to coaches beginning a new tenure and transitioning into a new system or culture.
Sustainable or no, Mel Tucker won 11 games without an offensive line or cornerbacks because he found Kenneth Walker III at a yard sale. Thomas Hammock turned an 0-6 team into MAC champions with Spartan cast-off Rocky Lombardi directing his offense. Blake Anderson brought quarterback Logan Bonner with him from Arkansas State to Utah State and took the Aggies from 1-5 to 11-3.
Western Kentucky liked Houston Baptist’s offense so much that it hired offensive coordinator Zach Kittley and told him to bring as many players as he wanted (he carried along a good portion of his offense) to flesh out an air raid system. The Hilltoppers jumped from 5-7 to the Conference USA title game. Kansas managed just a meager 2-10 record but leaned on plenty of players who travelled with head coach Lance Leipold from Buffalo, beat Texas and came within a score of both TCU and West Virginia in the season’s final three games.
Beyond the speedy rebuilds, Utah pulled QB Cameron Rising from Texas, RBs T.J. Pledger from Oklahoma and Tavion Thomas from Cincinnati and DB Brandon McKinney from Washington to win its first Pac-12 title and go to Rose Bowl. Baylor added Dartmouth pass catcher Drew Estrada and LSU nose tackle Siaki Ika and won the Big 12.
The abstract portal may generate infinite takes, but its physical manifestation has very specific, identifiable use cases – making easier a quick turnaround, and plugging a few holes to push well-built programs over that last obstacle.
For Colorado State as it enters a new era, firing Steve Addazio and tabbing Nevada head coach Jay Norvell as his replacement, the quick portal turnaround is priority No. 1 with a bullet. It has been since Norvell arrived in early December.
For Norvell, hitting the portal isn’t just a push for immediate success, it’s an outright necessity for both his schematic plans and for filling out a roster decimated by transfers out and graduations. Unlike Addazio, Norvell’s bread and butter is in the passing game. Nevada fielded a top 20 scoring offense in 2021 built around 346.2 passing yards on nearly 44 passes to just 25.8 carries and 77.5 rushing yards per game. Two halfbacks, Toa Taua and Devonte Lee, rushed for more than 130 yards on the season. Seven pass catchers toppled 150 in receiving yards.
Colorado State rushed 10 times more per game than it threw in Addazio’s final season and allocated more than twice as many receptions to its tight end, Trey McBride (90) than to its top receiver, Dante Wright (44). Norvell has made his name off of his passing bonafides, working under West Coast acolyte Bill Callahan at Nebraska and alongside Kevin Wilson at Oklahoma.
He fused the offenses together for a watered down but similarly effective air raid at Arizona State in 2016 and parlayed a top 40 offense into the Nevada job. Colorado State didn’t hire him to run Addazio’s system, and there’s no reason to wait around recruiting high schoolers who better fit the scheme in modern college football. That work will come, but for a first season, Norvell wanted as many familiar faces as he could find. The Rams have added 14 players from the portal this offseason – ten of whom played for Norvell at Nevada.
As for the roster itself, those additions fill some serious voids. Starting quarterback Todd Centeio has transferred to James Madison, so Norvell brought with him Nevada reserve Clay Millen and added former Washington 2022 commitment Jackson Stratton, a long-time Wolfpack target. Given the departure of backup Evan Olaes as well, it seems that the job is Millen’s to lose, despite throwing only two passes in 2021 behind Carson Strong.
He’s just a redshirt freshman, but he was a top 500 recruit when he signed with Nevada in 2021 and he was very impressive through spring practice, ending it by completing 22 of 33 passes at the CSU spring game for 292 yards and four scores. Plus, with the theme of the offseason, he knows the system. That’s why he’s here.
“Clay is a really smart player. He’s kind of your thinking man’s quarterback,” Norvell said after Colorado State’s spring game. “He understands how to use the offense and he’s just really starting to feel comfortable playing.”
There are no such vacancies at halfback, but Norvell brought with him youngster Avery Morrow to add some much-needed speed to a talented but power-oriented group. Former Boston College running back David Bailey carried 197 times for 752 yards and nine scores last season and is the presumed starter, but Morrow will be tough to keep off the field. He’s a better receiver and Norvell likes to deploy one speedier back and one bigger one. Bailey is 6-0, 235 pounds and will fill the latter role nicely, while none of the returners really suit the former better than Morrow.
Ty McCullough, E.J. Scott and Wright – CSU’s three receivers with double digit receptions a season ago – are each back but have some work to do to hold onto their spots. Norvell will bring with him an extra starting spot on the outside, stepping away from Addazio’s 11 and 12 personnel and into 10 personnel as a base, but he’s also bringing with him Tory Horton and Melquan Stovall from Nevada.
Horton started five games on the outside for the Wolfpack and did a little bit of everything last season, reeling in 52 receptions for 659 yards and five scores, while Stovall made five starts in the slot and hauled in 56 receptions for 643 yards and one touchdown.
Colorado State hardly used a slot receiver last season – McBride basically filled that role – but Stovall isn’t likely to leave the field this season, and Wright (who played about 40 percent of his snaps in the slot) will probably join him on the inside. Stovall is the quicker and smaller of the two while Wright looks and plays more like a standard outside receiver, but to have both in the slot will be a nice wrinkle for the passing attack.
As for Horton, his role on the outside looks just as cemented. Scott, who was the third receiver on the field last season, caught just 12 passes last season and doesn’t really do anything that Horton can’t do. McCullough’s ability in working down the field keeps him safe in the spot opposite Horton. None of this group has shown more as a vertical threat than he has, to this point.
McBride’s departure stings. Even if he’s not much for a traditional tight end, Norvell had a lot of fun in deploying hybrid tight end Cole Tucker last season to the tune of 62 receptions and 677 yards. The four-wide looks can replace some of that, but Norvell does have an affinity for change-of-pace bigger bodies in the slot and McBride would have filled that role perfectly. Backup Gary Williams showed plenty of ability last season, gaining 287 yards and five scores on 21 receptions of his own, but a second-round caliber tight end would have been lethal in this system. Williams has not yet shown that potential.
Nowhere is the portal more important for this bunch than on the offensive front, because starting right tackle Ches Jackson is the only returning offensive lineman with any snaps for Colorado State in 2021 to his name. It wasn’t an especially strong group, but to lose eight rotational offensive linemen – five to transfer – in one offseason is pretty extreme.
This bunch will be a weakness for Colorado State just about regardless of how things work out, but Norvell picked up Dante Bivens from Tulsa, Dontae Keys from FIU and Gray Davis, Jacob Gardner and Trevyn Heil from Nevada to pad out the group. Bivens started at guard in 2019 and 2020, Davis and Keys started every game as guards for their respective teams and Gardner was a two-year starter at tackle. Heil has yet to make any real impact and one of these linemen is going to need to learn how to play center, but it’s certainly a lot better than it could have been without the portal.
The other line isn’t a whole lot better off. Colorado State had a rare group of defensive linemen in 2021 with ends Mohamed Kamara (36 tackles, 9½ TFL, 6½ sacks), Toby McBride (40 tackles, 7 TFL, 3½ sacks) and Scott Patchan (68 tackles, 19½ TFL, 11½ sacks) and tackles Manny Jones (40 tackles, 6 TFL, 2½ sacks) and Devin Phillips (33 tackles, 4 TFL, 2½ sacks). Colorado State’s ability to generate big plays and pressure the quarterback was just about the other thing keeping its defense afloat, and McBride, Patchan and Jones are all departing.
Kamara is a borderline elite pass rusher in his own right and can replace Patchan in that role, but McBride’s starting spot will fall to another transfer – CJ Onyechi of Rutgers. He’s a decent run stuffer, but he never showed a whole lot beyond that in Piscataway. Still, a former P5 starter is a nice commodity in this league and keeps the line bookended with athletes impressive enough to compete with high-level offensive tackles.
Jones rarely left the field, but when he did it was usually for James Mitchell, who slides into a starting spot next to the more natural nose tackle in Phillips. The outlook here is not as positive as it is on the outside. An already weak group of run defenders is taking a step backwards on the interior.
A pair of returning starters in Cam’ron Carter and Tavian Brown at linebacker can help with that, although the former focused his energy on coverage and pass rushing last year and will probably do the same this season. Brown is a plus tackler and run stopper but probably needs more help than he will be afforded.
The pass rush will be good enough to shield the secondary at least a bit, but both outside cornerbacks are on their way out, as is a part-time starter in the slot and the top safety off the bench. Rashad Ajayi, one of those outside corners, was the only noticeably strong defender of the trio, but departing production is departing production. An already struggling pass coverage group is going to find three new starters in the three cornerback spots. That’s never ideal.
Robert Floyd is at least a glimmer of hope. He started on the outside down the stretch and though he’s not overly impressive in coverage, he’s very physical against the run and could grow into a top CB. Nevada transfer AJ King started every game on the outside last season and can take over the other spot.
Henry Blackburn started only five games last season, but he split time in the slot with the departing Thomas Pannunzio before a week nine injury ended his season. He’s a pretty good coverage option but he needs to be able to stay on the field, and he can’t do much of anything as a tackler. Cal transfer Chigozie Anusiem can play a role here in some form, as can JUCO transfer D'Andre Greeley – who bears mentioning because he was comically overpowered at that level and had ten(!!!!!) interceptions last season.
The safety spots are easy. Tywan Francis started every game at strong safety last season and returns, while Jack Howell made six starts and is far too good in coverage to keep off the field. He’s a great fit for the free safety spot next to Francis, who does his best work in the box.
It's an interesting group, all things considered. There will be growing pains, both for Millen specifically as a young quarterback and for the offense writ large as it transitions into a new system – especially behind an entirely patchwork front.
The defense has too much to replace to form any real expectations for, despite pockets of very impressive talent, and should be pretty happy so long as no part of it is outright terrible.
The pass rush can cause some problems, as can a high-ceiling passing offense, but this looks less like a snap-to-title turnaround and more like a snap-to-competing-for-a-bowl season for Norvell. Colorado State won’t be the hapless program it was under Addazio, but the best teams on its schedule – Michigan especially – are still too deep and talented for any serious concerns about an upset.
These are fantastic previews. Great work Patrick!