Ground and pound?
It could very well be the game plan for Colorado State this year.
Of course, Rams head coach Jim McElwain has yet to name a starting quarterback, even opening up the competition further last week, saying it was a three-man race between Garrett Grayson, Conner Smith and Nick Stevens.
With the Rocky Mountain Showdown set to kickoff in 13 days, it could be a sign CSU will try to run the rock more than pass, which really shouldn't be a surprise considering McElwain's Alabama roots and their run-first style.
And while everyone has been talking about the quarterback competition, there's a contentious competition in the backfield as well.
Undoubtedly, the Rams have the talent to rely on the running backs to move the ball. And even though they might not have an amazing number one guy, they're deeper with skilled ball-carriers than at any time in recent memory.
“Kapri (Bibbs) is doing some good things, pushing Donnell (Alexander) and (Chris) Nwoke,” McElwain said of his backs last Wednesday following practice. “Along with that, Davon Riddick has shown spurts and has stayed healthy, which is great. Really, our two young guys, Eric Williams and Bryce Peters, too. I think that's a credit to what they've done, coming in and preparing themselves for college football.”
The second-year coach explained that he's looking to go into games with his three best backs getting a majority of the carries; Nwoke and Alexander will likely be the top two, with Bibbs and Riddick battling for that No. 3 spot.
Nwoke, the senior, doesn't mind the competition, he understands it's only helping everyone improve.
“It makes us better is various kind of ways,” he said of the battle. “Each back has his own strengths to contribute. So with those different strengths is only common that you want to get better.”
The redshirt sophomore, Alexander, agrees, “For example, we rotate with the ones. So if Nwoke goes in and I see something, if he get's a big play, for me it's like, 'Alright, I've got to go in there.' Not even to do better, just to show this is a competition so we all have to get better somewhat. In practice, just going out there and getting better with each rep.”
Of course, one of McElwain's focuses has been to build a “football family” at Colorado State, and everything's indicating he's succeeding in that endeavor. The team recently went to church and enjoyed breakfast together, and even these position battles aren't affecting camaraderie in a negative way. Nwoke and Alexander are quick to help coach-up younger teammates because it will make the entire team better in the end.
“We're a close, tight-knit brotherhood there,” said Nwoke of his running back group. “We're like family, like brothers. We talk to each other about flaws. Me and Donnell have had this offense already for one year already so we kind of know it up and down. When some of these young guys come up to us and ask us, we're going to tell them right away, 'It'll be easier to go from here, to go from an angle.'”
Alexander is looking to lead, too, both vocally and by never taking plays off, even in practice. “I just want to become more of a leader. Be a little bit more vocal,” he explained. “Sometimes I sit back and I won't say as much as I probably should. Lead by example, honestly. Practice hard, that's where it all starts, that practice.”
McElwain is happy to have the experience of Nwoke and Alexander to lead the other backs – it's got to make him especially excited that they're buying into his “never take a play off” philosophy – analyzing their improvement as well.
“The experience is great. But sometimes we get confused with experience and the quality of the experience,” Coach Mac said.” Really pushing yourself to understand situational football. And I think our guys have done much better with that. In other words, 'What am I doing right now? Should I get out of bounds? Should I stick my foot in the ground and go north and south? What's the situation, what do I need to do?' I think they're starting to grasp that better.”
With Nwoke and Alexander, the Rams have a versatile one-two punch; a Rocky Mountain version of “Thunder and Lightening” possibly.
At 6' and 216 pounds, Nwoke is more of the power back, enjoying contact and able to run tough between the tackles. The 5'11” 205-pound Alexander is a bit speedier and he seems more comfortable taking off outside, running-off a big-gainer.
But, don't take away Nwoke's speed – he's busted multiple long runs, including the 72-yard TD scamper versus Boise last year – and don't forget that Alexander can hit the hole inside, as well.
Simply stated, they compliment each other and will keep defenses guessing as to which play McElwain and offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin have drawn up. They can lean on one another, rotating in an out as too keep both fresh, which will be a major asset this season. Nwoke injured an ankle last season and a foot in 2011, and he also mentioned the importance of staying healthy.
“Health is the only way to be productive,” Nwoke said. “That's why our running back corps is beautiful because we're able to rotate, keep guys fresh. If we're able to do that, keep people healthy, I really don't think there's a lot of teams that can stop us as a backfield, as a whole.”
McElwain and Ram fans will be banking on it this season.