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McElwain Looks To Be Ram Tough

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First-year coach says he’s not concerned with past struggles in the program

This is the eighth in series previewing the Mountain West Conference football teams.

A football coaching graveyard? No, Colorado State University isn’t quite that.

Still, before and after Sonny Lubick, the CSU job has been at least within whistling distance of the cemetery.

Just don’t try to tell Jim McElwain that.

“Why not?” said McElwain, most recently the offensive coordinator at national champion Alabama, when asked at last month’s Mountain West Conference media session why he’d taken the Colorado State job.

“This (CSU) is a super place. This is a place that has history.

“Sonny Lubick, when you look at what he did there. … He had that stretch as a top-25 program.”

Yes, Lubick did have that stretch.

Before and after, evidence abounds that this is one tough assignment.

Since 1965, when college football game went two-platoon, Colorado State has had 18 winning seasons. Of those, 10 were achieved by Lubick during his 15 years on the job (1993-2007).

Lubick’s predecessors and his immediate successor, Steve Fairchild, managed just eight winning campaigns in 32 tries.

Fairchild was fired after the 2011 season, his third losing campaign in a row.

Now, McElwain takes his shot.

Rams junior running back Chris Nwoke rushed for 1,130 yards last year — 232 of those coming in one game against San Diego State — despite not becoming a starter until the seventh game of the season.

He talks as if he’d run through a brick wall for McElwain.

“Ever since (McElwain) got on campus, it’s been his path and his drive to make us better,” Nwoke said. “… Make us champions on and off the field as players and people.

“He’s helping us become great.”

Great teams don’t finish eighth, which is where CSU is predicted to finish in this year’s Mountain West Conference race.

Still, it’s not as if McElwain didn’t inherit any talent.

The Rams landed four players — Nwoke, center Weston Richburg, linebacker Shaquil Barrett, punter Pete Kontodiakos — on the Mountain West preseason all-conference team.

McElwain was asked to reconcile the four all-league individual selections with that eighth-place team prediction.

“Those are things I don’t look at and never will look at,” he said. “… Yeah, there is a little bit of a conflict right there. I see it, and yet at the same time, I don’t know what to tell you other than those four guys better hold up their end of the bargain and bring the rest of (their teammates) with them.”

The Rams might have had more all-conference picks, had not defensive end Nordly Capi and linebacker Mike Orakpo been among players dismissed for off-the-field misbehavior.

“Through negativity,” Nwoke said, “You stay positive in all things in life, even though it hurts.

“They were family, they were our brothers. (But) we have to keep our eye on the goal and comfort each other.”

McElwain, who coached some pretty good running backs at Alabama — Trent Richardson, Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram — can take comfort in Nwoke’s presence.

“The thing I really like about Chris is his toughness, number one,” McElwain said. “He’s a guy that runs behind his pads, runs with good pad level, a physical runner who runs with a purpose.”

Pete Thomas, Fairchild’s starting quarterback the past two years, transferred out. Sophomore Garrett Grayson is the likely starter.

With Barrett’s help, first-year defensive coordinator Marty English will try to bolster a defense that gave up 30 or more points seven times last season.

McElwain, meanwhile, is intent on capturing his inner Sonny Lubick — or maybe even his inner Nick Saban.

“It’s the process,” he said, “understanding you don’t win on a Saturday. You win because of what you’ve done up to that point on that Saturday.”
— This article appeared on page D3 of the Albuquerque Journal

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