Viewed one way, all of the pieces are there for the Rams' ground attack to produce in a big way next fall. Four of the five starters on the offensive line return, and three talented returning backs will be joined by a couple of other promising runners in the fall.
On the other hand, all of those returning players contributed last year in one way or another to the least productive running attack in the 12-year Sonny Lubick era at CSU. The Rams seemingly overnight lost their reputation as a power-running offense and finished 2004 among the worst rushing teams in the country.
"We just didn't get the job done," senior center Albert Bimper said.
Need proof? Prior to last fall, no Lubick-coached team had averaged less than 137 rushing yards per game, and only twice had the Rams averaged less than four yards per carry. Last year, though, CSU hit a stunning low, averaging 111.6 yards per game and an alarming 3.1 yards per carry - .7 yards less than the previous low in 2000.
That decline in rushing, perhaps as much as any other factor, helps explain why the Rams struggled to a 4-7 record - CSU's first sub-.500 finish since 1993. And it also explains while reviving the running game is a priority during spring drills, which continue today.
"We have got to get back to running the ball effectively," CSU offensive coordinator Dan Hammerschmidt said. "We've got to be able to run inside, outside, everywhere. We've got to get back to where people have to use eight-man fronts to stop our running game.
That was the case throughout much of CSU's unprecedented run of success from 1994-2003, when the Rams won six league titles and played in eight bowl games. With backs such as Calvin Branch, Damon Washington, Jaime Blake, Kevin McDougal and Cecil Sapp grinding out rushing yards, opposing defenses had no choice but to overload the line of scrimmage to stop the run. The result was a prolific and efficient play-action passing attack that made the Rams a balanced but explosive offense.
Last year, though, the Rams were forced to throw when the ground game ground to a halt. Quarterbacks Justin Holland and Caleb Hanie posted impressive numbers and combined to complete better than 59 percent of their throws, but interceptions came in bunches, with the Rams tossing an alarming 17 picks.
"We do not want to be a pass-first team that has to throw 40 times a game to win," said Holland, who is back on the practice field this spring after suffering a season-ending broken leg last year. "That's not what made us an upper-echelon team. We need to get back to doing the things that made us successful in the past, and that starts with an effective running game."
There is no shortage of candidates to do the job. Senior Jimmy Green, sophomore Kyle Bell and redshirt freshman Gartrell Johnson will get the bulk of the work this spring, with freshman Alex Square also getting a look. Come August, redshirt freshman Tramell McGill, who should be recovered from a torn ACL, and transfer Nnamdi Oheari, who was a standout runner in high school before being switched to the secondary at UCLA, will join the mix.
Hammerschmidt said he would prefer that one back take charge of the position as opposed to the by-committee approach used the past two years. That formula has produced the best results in recent years.
Bell, who gained 96 yards on 26 carries last fall as a true freshman, would love to be that guy.
"I definitely have more confidence now than last fall. I feel like I know what I'm doing," he said. "Any time a guy gets 25 to 30 carries a game, that has always worked well here. All I know is that we have to start running ball better."
The line, which features returning starters in Bimper, tackles Mike Brisiel and Clint Oldenburg and guard Josh Day, is being challenged to get more physical to create the creases that make CSU's zone running game work. And Hammerschmidt is experimenting this spring with some two-back sets for the first time in the hope of adding versatility to the running game.
"The running game is our No. 1 priority this spring," Hammerschmidt said. "If we're going to be successful, we have got to run the ball effectively. The good thing is that everyone understands that. Now, we just have to get it done."