CSU Rams football eyes huge Year 2 leap under coach Jay Norvell

From 3-9 to the Fiesta Bowl in a single season?

It may sound like lunacy to those outside Fort Collins, but not to Jay Norvell.

The second-year Rams boss believes that leap wouldn’t be a miracle as he attempts to make the Rams, who haven’t been bowling since 2017, relevant again.

“We expect to win,” the second-year Rams head coach told The Post. “Is that seven games, is that eight games, is that nine games? I don’t know. I just know this: We’re better at every position, we’re a full inch taller at every position. I can’t say that at any program that I’ve ever been in. Physically, our profile is more of what (my staff) looks for.

“And I also know this: The winner of our (Mountain West) conference has a heck of a chance to play in the Fiesta Bowl. And that’s pretty good motivation for anybody.”

Norvell has a blueprint he’s following. After going 3-9 in his first year at Nevada in 2017, he went 8-5 the next year, beginning a string of four straight bowl appearances before he was hired away by CSU.

He wants CSU’s identity to be rooted in four-year players recruited out of high school who will stick it out in FoCo through the transfer madness. But for this fall, Norvell didn’t hesitate to dip into the portal himself, looking for experienced plug-and-play recruits. The end result is a revamped roster featuring key transfers plus returning players hardened by last year’s failures.

Norvell believes he upgraded the offensive line, which yielded a national-worst 59 sacks for 399 yards last year. That front now features four experienced transfer starters flanking senior center Jacob Gardner, the lone returner, as they look to give sophomore quarterback Clay Millen more time to find his mojo after being battered in 2022. CSU ranked third-to-last in FBS at 13.2 points per game last year.

“We’re a totally different team than we were last year, and we’re poised to make a huge jump, starting with the offense,” Millen said. “Personally, I need to make a big jump for this team to help us win games. I feel a lot more comfortable in the pocket and with that (role) than I did last year.”

CSU returns star receiver Tory Horton, who spurned transfer opportunities to see out his college career with Norvell, and the Rams added tight end Dallin Holker via transfer from BYU. Norvell expects Holker to give Millen a threat down the middle of the field that the team lacked last year. Norvell stocked up on transfers in the backfield, too, adding Kobe Johnson (North Dakota State) and KJ Edwards (Victor Valley Community College).

“There’s a lot more chemistry within this team this year,” Horton said. “This is a train that’s moving forward, no backsteps. We can be a scary offense if we stick together.”

All that is why Millen will be disappointed if the Rams aren’t a bowl team in 2023. Nickel back Ayden Hector took that sentiment a step further, saying the Rams “could go undefeated if we reach our potential.”

CSU opens the season against Washington State on Saturday at Canvas Stadium, a 5 p.m. kick. The Rams then play CU, Middle Tennessee State and Utah Tech, setting them up for the potential of early-season momentum that would stand in stark contrast to last fall, when CSU opened with a 51-7 demolition at the hands of Michigan in The Big House.

“We have to start fast this season, and there’s a sense of urgency to do that,” Norvell said. “But we’re a football team that’s being built for a 12-game fight, because I expect to play a lot of close games this year. And like I told the players, when we win games, it ain’t going to be because it’s a fluke. It’ll be because we’re better than the other team. And there’s not a team on our schedule we don’t match up well against.”

On defense, the Rams are headlined by graduate student defensive end Mohamed Kamara, aka “Mo,” as well as junior safety Jack Howell. With Kamara anchoring the Rams’ pass rush, Hector believes he, Howell and free safety Henry Blackmon “should be among the best secondaries in the country.” Kamara paced CSU with 8.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in ’22.

“We’re coming out against Washington State, and every day, with the confidence we’re going to be one of the top defenses in the country,” Hector said. “Year 2, we’re at the level where everyone has mastered (Freddie Banks’) defense.”

Making immediate success all the more important in Norvell’s second autumn is CSU’s ongoing audition in the ever-changing football landscape. Should the Rams rip off a season few outside FoCo see coming, that could raise their profile for the next cycle of conference realignment, especially considering they already boast a gleaming (if rarely full) stadium.

But should the Rams do as they’ve done the last five years, they won’t come close to a seat at the table for prime time college football anytime in the near future. The Rams have been ranked only once since 2003, when they were No. 21 in the AP poll in 2014. They don’t have a major spotlight on them as Coach Prime and the soon-to-be Big 12 Buffs do in Boulder. They need a catalyst to raise the program’s profile, and fast.

Norvell knows starting to win this year is the only thing that can do that.

“We’re going to have opportunities to be a part of a (future) conference that’s competitive with anybody,” Norvell said. “Whether that’s teams coming to the (Mountain West) to join us, whether we merge with somebody else, I think we’re going to be in that mix if we take care of business as I see us doing (over the next couple years).”

CSU Rams 2023 Schedule

Saturday, Sept. 2 — vs. Washington State, 5 p.m., Canvas Stadium

Saturday, Sept. 16 — at Colorado, 8 p.m., Folsom Field

Saturday, Sept. 23 — at Middle Tennessee State, 5 p.m., Floyd Stadium

Saturday, Sept. 30 — vs. Utah Tech, 5 p.m., Canvas Stadium

Saturday, Oct. 7 — at Utah State, 6 p.m., Maverik Stadium

Saturday, Oct. 14 — vs. Boise State, TBA, Canvas Stadium

Saturday, Oct. 21 — at UNLV, 5 p.m., Allegiant Stadium

Saturday, Oct. 28 — vs. Air Force, 5 p.m., Canvas Stadium

Friday, Nov. 3 — at Wyoming, 6 p.m., War Memorial Stadium

Saturday, Nov. 11 — vs. San Diego State, 5 p.m., Canvas Stadium

Saturday, Nov. 18 — vs. Nevada, 1 p.m., Canvas Stadium

Saturday, Nov. 25 — at Hawaii, 10 p.m., Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex

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