COLORADO SPRINGS — Colorado State quarterback Nick Stevens was dumbfounded earlier this summer when his coach told him the news.
“I think I’m going to announce to the media that I’m going to bench you right now in the summer, and then name you the starter before the first game,” CSU coach Mike Bobo told him.
Relax. He was only joking.
But given the Rams’ track record at quarterback during the past two seasons since the departure of Garrett Grayson, who set nearly every passing record CSU has before being drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft, it’s no surprise that Stevens would have concern he needs to prove himself — again.
He has twice won the starting job in the preseason, but never outright. As a sophomore in 2015, he passed for 2,679 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 60.8 percent of his attempts, but his leash remained short, at times being benched in big games in favor of freshman Coleman Key.
Last season, he won the battle again -– this time a three-way competition against Georgia transfer Faton Bauta and true freshman Collin Hill -– but struggled so much in the opener against the University of Colorado, he found himself playing third fiddle three games into the season. It wasn’t until Bauta proved ineffective and Hill went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament that Stevens was given another chance. And it was that opportunity that’s made him arguably the most intriguing college football player in Colorado to watch heading into the 2017 season.
“I watch every game … I thought Nick played really well at the end of the year (in 2015), and then last year, at the beginning of the year, he wasn’t playing a lot, then he started playing well again,” CU coach Mike MacIntyre said. “I think Nick Stevens is a great quarterback.”
But this season, there is no debate in Fort Collins about who will start under center. It’s Stevens. With 4,751 career passing yards and 41 touchdowns through the air, he’ll look to lead the Rams to their fifth consecutive bowl game while turning heads against three Power 5 opponents (Oregon State, CU and Alabama) along the way. And while he’s the most established quarterback from the state’s major college football teams heading into 2017, there’s plenty of talent across the board.
In Boulder, sophomore Steven Montez takes over for the graduated Sefo Liufau and proved he could dazzle as a redshirt freshman. In Liufau’s absence last season, Montez started three games (2-1), including a record-setting performance in a win at Oregon when he became the first Buffs player in history to throw for more than 300 yards while rushing for more than 100 yards in the same game.
In limited playing time last year, Arion Worthman, who’s expected to start for Air Force this fall, completed 23-of-39 pass attempts for 546 yards and four touchdowns, including a 215-yard game in a 41-38 win at San Jose State. He added 674 yards and six scores on the ground, averaging 16.25 yards per carry.
And at NCAA FCS Northern Colorado, coach Earnest Collins thinks Jacob Knipp, a graduate of Ralston Valley High School, can lead the Bears to their third consecutive winning season. Knipp broke the school’s freshman passing records for yards (1,969), touchdowns (13) and completions (157) in 2015, but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury three snaps into last season.
But with the bar Stevens set last year, posting the best passer efficiency mark in the country after Oct. 22, dethroning him as the top college quarterback in Colorado will be a tall task. Bobo knows it, but he’s just happy to head into the season without a quarterback competition on his hands.
“He knows what I want now. He’s taking control,” Bobo said. “Talking to the strength coach yesterday, I just feel like Nick’s a different person with his demeanor and he’s not afraid to take the bull by the horns.”
Footnotes. CSU’s backfield in its season and on-campus stadium opener Aug. 26 against Oregon State is looking better than anticipated. Bobo said Wednesday that he originally expected sophomore running back Marvin Kinsey to return from his torn ACL in time for Mountain West play, but now thinks he’ll be ready to go against the Beavers.
Kinsey rushed for 546 yards and seven touchdowns on 93 carries as a freshman before tearing his ACL before the Rams’ appearance in the Potato Bowl.