Two years ago, when Steve Fairchild took over as Colorado State University's head football coach, everyone who cared about the Rams couldn't have been happier.
The optimism was understandable. Fairchild was an alum, a former CSU quarterback (not great, but very good and very feisty) who later had excelled on head coach Sonny Lubick's staff during some of the Rams' glory years (1993-2000) before moving on to the NFL. There, he added to his impressive résumé during five years as an offensive coordinator at St. Louis, then Buffalo.
Upon his return to Fort Collins, though, Fairchild inherited a program that had backslid in Lubick's final years, falling into the ranks of the Mountain West Conference's annual also-rans and dulling the luster of Lubick's many successes.
But the cupboard wasn't totally bare, and Fairchild quickly rewarded CSU fans in 2008 with a 7-6 season that ended with a satisfying win over arch-rival Wyoming, followed by an exciting victory against Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl.
Last year, unexpectedly, the momentum went flat. CSU opened with a convincing win over Colorado, followed up by beating Weber State and Nevada, then tumbled downhill all the way from 3-0 to 3-9. Some of those losses were close, and more were still competitive, but in reality the Rams simply deteriorated into a terrible second-half team, falling apart in the final two quarters week after week.
It certainly didn't help for development purposes that Fairchild went with senior quarterbacks the past two years. That's not the usual way to build a program, but Fairchild still defends it, saying that in both cases "we felt it gave us the best chance to win."
Now it's 2010, and actually from the outside Colorado State looks more like a program with a first-year head coach. Most of the starters on the pre-fall depth chart are juniors and third-year sophomores, the result of Fairchild having redshirted nearly all of his first recruiting class. The most-likely No. 1 running back, Raymond Carter, is a transfer from UCLA who hasn't played in a game since 2008, though Fairchild insists "we want to have four or five running backs who can play — our task in fall camp is to get them into the right order."
Then there's the quarterback situation, with four candidates on the depth chart. There's junior Klay Kubiak, son of Houston Texans head coach (and former Broncos assistant) Gary Kubiak, but he's No. 3, ahead of sophomore M.J. McPeek, a transfer from Kansas State but actually from Denver.
So, who are the top two quarterbacks? For one thing, neither has taken a snap in a college game. But Fairchild, though he's now a young-looking 52, sounds like a bubbly quarterback coach again talking about his two promising freshmen, and the head coach has mentored some of the best signal-callers in CSU's modern history: Moses Moreno, Matt Newton and Anthoney Hill.
He's high on redshirt freshman Nico Ranieri, who comes from a top-level Florida high school program in Orlando. Ranieri, at 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds, comes into fall practice as the listed starter, and he appears to have a strong arm along with good instincts.
But Ranieri might not be No. 1 for the season opener Sept. 4 in Denver against CU. That's because he's battling against Pete Thomas, who could turn into one of CSU's greats. Thomas is a pure freshman from the San Diego area, though he did graduate a semester early, which allowed him to start attending CSU this past spring. He's a strapping 6-5 and 218, his passing stats are superior, and he was ranked by one source as the No. 6 pro-style quarterback recruit in the nation. He's fast, he's a straight-A student, and he chose Colorado State over Arizona State, Boston College, Maryland, Harvard and Northwestern.
Don't be surprised if Fairchild winds up using both Thomas and Ranieri in the early season, because they were so close during spring ball.
Most likely, the Rams aren't planning to shock the world in 2010. Beyond this year, that might be a different story.