FORT COLLINS — Before Colorado State football players ran onto the practice turf for the first time Friday to open fall camp, they suited up in a locker room designed to honor the past and frame the future. Painted above each stall are murals of former Rams greats, and most notably, legends of the last CSU team to win a Mountain West championship: Cecil Sapp, Bradlee Van Pelt and Dexter Wynn included.
“It means a lot,” CSU redshirt senior quarterback Nick Stevens said. “Guys are up, you see them every day, who you could tell just by looking at them that they worked hard … and accomplished what we want to accomplish and be a team that contends.”
It has been 15 years since CSU last claimed the conference title in 2002, back when Stevens was about 7 years old, but the potential for a return to glory has never seemed so close. The Rams were picked to finish second in the Mountain Division in the league’s preseason media poll — its highest projection since the conference split into divisions in 2013 — including six first-place votes. Boise State was selected to win the Mountain Division alongside San Diego State in the West Division.
After consecutive 7-6 seasons, third-year coach Mike Bobo has reason to believe the Rams can exceed expectations.
“We all came here, myself and these players, to win a championship and be great. That’s why you compete, to be the best,” Bobo said. “We talked about it when we came back in January before we hit the fourth quarter. We talked about it before spring practice and we talked about it last night. But then that’s it.
“How are we going to win it? Controlling what we can control. Not talking about it.”
Stevens was among the most proficient quarterbacks in the country last season, particularly in November, when he completed 60-of-78 passes for 998 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception. A trio of returning tailbacks — Dalyn Dawkins, Izzy Matthews and Marvin Kinsey — combined for 2,217 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns a year ago. Senior wideout Michael Gallup also finished the 2016 campaign on a tear with at least 100 yards receiving in each of the Rams final five games.
CSU returns eight defensive starters in addition to senior linebacker Deonte Clyburn, who broke out in 2015, but missed all of last season while being treated for blood clots.
“Confidence is definitely at an all-time high,” Stevens said. “I think we have an expectation of winning every time we hit the field, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. Our expectation is to win 14 games this year and take home the Mountain West championship.”
Friday was yet another milestone in reaching that goal. CSU opened fall camp with a roughly two-hour workout in helmets and shorts as players and coaches utilized the new practice fields just west of the nearly completed on-campus stadium. The new location is a short walk to the training room and nutrition center and trades worn grass for state-of-the-art turf.
“You can really tell the difference when we’re out there making cuts,” Gallup said. “You can grasp everything a little bit better.”
CSU faces a time crunch in preparation for its Aug. 26 home opener against Oregon State. A zero-week game in addition to an NCAA rule prohibiting two-a-days means fewer practice opportunities. But the confidence in Fort Collins stems from experience with a combined 41 returning lettermen on the roster.
Each with the same goal: Pay homage to those Rams painted on the walls at Sonny Lubick Field with a league championship.
“There are a lot of people that have gone before us and made this possible,” Bobo said.