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Previewing Alabama vs. Colorado State: The Ram defense is experienced, but fragile

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A year after a roller coaster ride of a season that saw an absolute collapse down the stretch, the Rams are hoping for a more consistent effort out of a now-seasoned corps of defenders

Colorado v Colorado State
Jakob Buys and the Ram front seven will have their hands full with Bama’s running game.
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Colorado State defense saw the best of times, and the worst of times, in 2016. On the positive, they recorded the first shutout of an opponent (which was, coincidentally the team Alabama played last week, Fresno State) since the 1997 season. However, the Rams also saw the defense go on a downhill slide in the back half of the season, as CSU allowed 31 points or more in their final four games, including an embarrassing effort against an Idaho offense that tossed up 61 points on the Rams.

Talk about withering down the stretch… Colorado State’s issues were myriad, but they have largely been blamed on youth and inexperience. This year, however, those excuses are not nearly as salient, as those same green players who were young last season have now seen plenty of action, and the hope among the CSU faithful is that the defense, which fell into the bottom 20 teams in many defensive categories last season, will be able to better support a balanced, effective offense in 2017. If that is the case, the Rams may indeed make a run at the Mountain West title this season.

But before they worry about conquering the ghosts of 2016 and taking hold of the MWC throne, they must first get past the potent running attack of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Though plucky outgunned teams routinely journey to Tuscaloosa with hearts full of hope, it is Alabama’s physical, anaconda-like offense that wrings out their wishful thinking like water squeezed from tightly-wound dish rag. Alabama is built upon its running game, as it has for years, and unfortunately for CSU, it is the running game that has given the CSU defense agita as of late.

Though a hopeful Ram defense may convince themselves that their task against the Bama offense is not nearly as monumental as it appears, the fact remains that they’ll have to find a way to see exponential improvement in run defense. Otherwise, that hope won’t do anything but wither and shrivel like a muscadine left on the vine in the Alabama sun. Even then, if by some miraculous development the Ram defense does limit Bama’s potent ground war, they’ll have to keep bigger, faster, stronger receivers in check without a ton of DB depth to spell the starters.

In other words, a Ram defensive victory in the battle against the Alabama offense is unlikely. Though there are no guarantees in football, the smart bet is that Alabama will do as it pleases as the CSU depth wears thin. But Colorado State isn’t Fresno State by any stretch: they have better, more talented defensive athletes, and they are playing with pride as a conference contender. It won’t be in a walk in the park for the Tide…at least not early on. Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

It’s important to note that the Rams may not have elite talent at every position along the defense, but what they do have across the roster is a great deal of experience. Granted, much of that experience involved the defensive roster getting its teeth kicked in last season in terms of the scoreboard, but the starters have plenty of live-fire experience against conference opponents.

While some are reluctant to call the linebacking corps the strength of the defense for the Rams in 2017, one must recognize that the unit has fewer question marks than the other two components of the CSU defense. The Rams run a 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Marty English, with the fourth linebacker being a hybrid player (referred to as a Buck) who is primarily a pass rusher and defensive end role player. In this year’s defense, that player is veteran senior Evan Colorito (6-4, 250 pounds), a physically-imposing ‘backer who accounted for 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season. He’s off to a solid start this year as one of the new leaders of the Ram defense, as he has eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and two quarterback hurries through three games in 2017. Colorito is the primary sack threat, as he lines up on the right side of the Ram defense. Fortunately for Alabama, he’ll likely be going against the Tide’s most talented lineman, left tackle Jonah Williams, but Colorito has the talent to test the sophomore tackle. Behind Colorito at the Buck is true freshman physical phenom Emmanuel Jones (6-4, 245 pounds), a player who despite his youth has been impressive enough in the offseason to earn the second-team Buck spot in the CSU defense.

Junior Tre Thomas (6-2, 215 pounds) is an athletic Sam linebacker, as he has a safety’s frame and speed but a linebacker’s pop at contact. Thomas is quite active, playing sideline to sideline, as thus far in 2017 he has 15 tackles (along with two tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, an interception, and a quarterback hurry.) Thomas needs to continue that pace if the Rams are going to see their defensive position improve, and he will play a large role in the improvement of the run defense, as he has the closing speed to make an impact from anywhere on the field. Behind Thomas is senior Kiel Robinson (6-2, 230 pounds), but in a demonstration of the Rams’ lack of depth, Robinson is also listed as the team’s starting Will.

The best pure linebacker of the bunch is junior Josh Watson (6-2, 240 pounds), and as the Mike linebacker improves, so should the Ram rush defense. While not on the level of Alabama’s inside linebackers in terms of raw ability, Watson is solid and consistent, and he fills well inside against opposing ground games. He has the physical attributes to solidify what was a shaky effort last year against the run. So far in 2017, he’s been a man on a mission, with a team-leading 25 tackles, two tackles for loss, an interception, a pass broken up, and a forced fumble. Alabama will need to account for the junior, as he is a playmaker and catalyst for the Ram defense. Behind Watson is senior Patrick Elsenblast (6-0, 210 pounds), who hasn’t recorded any stats thus far in 2017.

As previously mentioned, the starting Will ‘backer is senior Kiel Robinson (6-2, 230 pounds). He’s off to a good start for the Rams this season, as he already has 14 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Robinson is a versatile player and solid athlete, as he can contribute in numerous roles in the linebacking corps. Robinson is backed up by sophomore Max McDonald (6-1, 220 pounds), who has been active as a reserve, recording five tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.

While the linebackers appear solid enough in the first string, the Rams defense will need better production up front to go to the next level of run defense. This will continue to be a struggle, as of the Rams top six defensive linemen, four are freshmen or sophomores, including one of the three starters. They are a little undersized, and that fact combined with the lack of depth will likely make for a long afternoon against the Alabama front.

At left defensive end is senior Jakob Buys (6-4, 280 pounds), a solid athlete who must improve in his role of setting the edge against the run and helping funnel opponents inside so the linebackers can clean them up. Buys doesn’t blow linemen off the ball with power, but he is fleet of foot and slips through occasionally. Thus far in 2017, Buys has five tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry. Behind Buys is promising sophomore Toby McBride ((6-3, 255 pounds), another athletic speed end who is slippery when he tests the edge in pass rush. McBride rotates in often, as he has four tackles, a sack, and a quarterback hurry so far in 2017.

Next to Buys is sophomore tackle Richard King (6-4, 275 pounds), a player who is smallish for the position by SEC standards. The small interior linemen are not optimal versus the run for a team that plays a 3-4, as the girth is needed inside to clog up running lanes and soak up blocks. King, despite his size and lack of seniority, is the leading tackler among linemen on the two-deep, with eight tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, one pass broken up, one quarterback hurry, and one fumble recovery. King is effective at what he does, as is his back-up, true freshman Ellison Hubbard (6-1, 270 pounds). Hubbard has six tackles and a sack to his credit so far this season.

Anchoring the defense at the nose is senior Darnell Thompson (6-4, 280 pounds). Again, the nose in a 3-4 defense is typically a 300+ pound player, but CSU has a man playing 20 pounds under 300 at that position. Thompson does his best to be a block magnet in the middle, but one must wonder if that will be possible against the Tide’s gargantuan front. Thompson is backed up by sophomore Colton Foster (6-3, 295 pounds), and Foster has done well in relief with five tackles and a quarterback hurry.

If one doesn’t consider the linebacking corps the strength of the Ram defense, the secondary is the next best candidate. The safeties are adept in their roles, and the corners are good enough to give the Ram defense a good chance of limiting air attacks if the men up front can slow down opposing running games.

At the cornerback positions are heady senior Kevin Nutt (5-10, 190 pounds), a veteran who may be the best pure talent in the Ram secondary. From his position on the left side of the defense, Nutt is a play-maker who can be a shut-down corner against MWC receivers, though he gives away some height to the likes of Alabama’s receiving corps. Nutt has been active this season, recording 13 tackles, a pair of interceptions, and a fumble recovery. Behind Nutt is another senior Justin Sweet (5-10, 185 pounds), who rotates in often enough to have accrued nine tackles, a tackle for loss, and a pass broken up this season.

At the right-side corner position is sophomore Anthony Hawkins (5-10, 185 pounds), another undersized corner who plays with vigor and explosiveness. Hawkins has 15 tackles to his credit this season, with an interception and two passes broken up. Behind Hawkins is another sophomore, Robert Awunganyi (6-0, 170 pounds), who is learning the ropes in relief as he prepares to step into a bigger role in the future.

The safeties are among the best in the MWC this season. Senior free safety Jordan Fogal (5-10, 180 pounds) is versatile and contributes in both pass defense and run support. He’s fearless in the middle of the defense, and isn’t afraid to take on bulkier running backs. Fogal has 12 tackles, a tackle for loss, and two quarterback hurries for the Rams in 2017. Fogal is listed as the starter, but he splits a lot of time with another senior, Jake Schlager (5-11, 185 pounds). Schlager is quite small for the position, but he makes up for what he lacks in size with intelligence and football IQ. Schlager has 14 tackles on the season.

At strong safety, sophomore Jamal Hicks (6-1, 185 pounds) has earned the starting spot. Though still on the lighter end of the spectrum for strong safety by Power-5 standards, Hicks is aggressive and relentless in pursuit. He closes well in the running game, and when he gets there, he’s not afraid to bow up and land a blow. Hicks is also a weapon in pass defense, as he’s snagged two interceptions in 2017 to go along with 14 tackles and a forced fumble.

How the Colorado State defense will try to stop the Alabama offense

Despite the fact the strength of the 3-4 scheme is typically run defense, the Rams have struggled due to personnel issues and inconsistency up front. It was apparent last season, when opposing running games averaged 214 yards per game – good for 98th (of 128 teams) nationally in 2016.

The first step for CSU on Saturday will be stopping (or even slowing) the Alabama run. That first step, however, will be liking walking into an incinerator. Though Alabama’s offensive line has been shakier than expected against its first two opponents, that trend will not continue against a Ram front that concedes 30 pounds on average to the players facing off with them across the line of scrimmage. It doesn’t matter how good a job the linebackers do filling against the run if the men up front routinely get blown up by blockers, and Alabama’s massive, powerful line should have little problem winning that battle, even if it unexpectedly becomes a battle of attrition over several quarters.

However, since Colorado State is not likely to win a straight up, mano-a-mano battle in the trenches, English (the defensive coordinator) must use his wits and imagination to help generate pressure and disrupt the Alabama running game behind the line of scrimmage. Most 3-4 defenses are of the two-gap variety, and Colorado State’s rendition is no different. Because the defensive linemen are basically responsible for two gaps, linebackers and safeties can play aggressively, shooting gaps and coming out of nowhere to interrupt even well-designed, well-blocked running plays. It also helps disguise blitzes, as a variety of players can drop into coverages from a given look, thus creating offensive confusion and getting some of the elite athletes on defense (safeties and corners) involved in pass rush and run defense.

This feeds right into English’s philosophy, as he understands the limitations of his defensive linemen and instead of fitting a square peg to a round hole, he leverages those limitations by using defensive backs in well-disguised blitzes from the edge and between the tackles as well. One need look no further than the stats for the safeties and corners to see that they are used in the pass rush and run defense behind the line…half of the top eight defensive backs have sacks or tackles for loss, indicating that they are aggressively playing up.

This use of speed and athleticism can help a team like Colorado State offset the size disadvantage they face when playing bigger, stronger, deeper teams. Alabama’s big backs (aside from Josh Jacobs) really need a solid three steps unmolested to get to speed and do their best jackhammer work on opposing defenses. If a defense can shoot gaps, get hands in, snag shoelaces, or land even glancing blows soon after the quarterback-back exchange by having defensive backs firing in from odd angles, then it will keep the running game out of rhythm. It won’t stop the inevitable for CSU against Alabama, but it may postpone it, even if only slightly.

Like both teams Alabama has played this season (and most defenses last year as well), expect CSU to line up with eight or nine men in the box and force the Tide to the air. Despite the positive encouragement regarding Alabama’s passing game and the improvement Jalen Hurts is striving to make as a passer, many defenses will remain in “prove it” mode before dedicating themselves to pass defense. To stop Alabama is to stop the running game, and teams will sell out to do that until the Tide proves that doing so is a zero-gain proposition.

When Alabama is in passing downs, expect some form of Cover-2 or Cover-3 from CSU, maybe some quarters coverage, maybe a little zone thrown in to complement the DB blitzes English is prone to use. It won’t matter however, as the scheme will succumb to execution by superior athletes if Hurts and the receivers are on the same page, and if the offensive line can keep the quarterback clean. The Rams have only two defensive backs in the two-deep who are more than six feet tall. Against Alabama’s wide receiving corps, that is a recipe for disaster, as the Tide’s big, physical, hard-nosed receivers will tear them up. In the athlete-versus-athlete battle of match-ups, Alabama will win every time. Even when safeties rotate over the top to provide help to the corners, Alabama’s receivers should be able to make plays and keep the chains moving granted Hurts can deliver the ball in stride.

The Result

Everyone knows the result of this match-up already. Alabama is likely going to continue to work out the offensive kinks under a new coordinator while methodically mauling an outgunned opponent. Respect your opponent, of course, but know that this game represents a foregone conclusion on the scoreboard.

What isn’t so much of a guarantee is Alabama’s ability to smoothly execute against a defense that is a little better than the one the Tide faced from Fresno last weekend. Though the Tide won handily over Fresno, there were far too many offensive hiccups to comfort the nerves of the Bama faithful completely. The game against CSU this weekend represents the last dress rehearsal for a Tide offense that must come out clicking against a salty Vanderbilt defense, so the Tide will need to see a seamless offensive performance, in both phases, to go into league play on the best possible stride.

Alabama should be able to run wild by conventional means, but the addition of Hurts’ running ability will be too much for a Colorado State defense that can’t defend a traditional running attack, let alone a dual-threat quarterback with the speed of Hurts. Hurts may once again exceed 100 yards on the ground, as will at least one of the premiere backs. If Jacobs is available, he may have the best day of them all, as his shifty speed and agility will shred outclassed defenders in space.

In other words, Alabama shouldn’t struggle offensively against a CSU team that hasn’t proved that it’s improved greatly from the team that only nine months ago ceded 61 points to the Idaho Vandals. If that team shows up this week in Tuscaloosa, there’s no doubt the result will be a dismal mark on the Ram’s young season.