Words we can use to describe the 2022 Colorado State Rams? Abject failure, rebuilding, and horrendous all fit the bill. Jay Norvell’s first year in Fort Collins was a legitimate disaster. Roster turnover and installation of an entirely different system should have resulted in us pumping our brakes more than we did. However, the past is in the rearview mirror, and we’re wheels up for 2023.

Jay Norvell: From Nevada to Colorado State

I legitimately feel as though Steve Addazio, the head coach before Jay Norvell, deserves a good chunk of blame, if not all. Under Addazio, the recruiting classes ranked (per 247Sports) 90th, 102nd, and 87th. Understanding that Colorado State is a Group of Five team, they have more resources than the average school. They flexed their muscle by hiring Jay Norvell from Nevada, hired within the Mountain West Conference. Having bottom 40 recruiting classes every season should not have been acceptable, and given the quick firing of Addazio, I think the administration caught on quickly.

The difference between Nevada and Colorado State is articulately laid out here. Colorado State brings in $50M in revenue per season in their athletics department, and compared to Nevada, it’s almost double their $27M. Why Jay Norvell took this job is obvious, especially considering the promised assistant pool. While it was only $2.23M in Nevada, it’s $3M in Colorado State, giving Norvell and Co. substantially flexibility.

So yes, Norvell was smart to take this in-conference job with an upgraded facility, spending, and athletic infrastructure. However, the prior regime left a recruiting mess for him to clean up, and the transition from Addazio’s “do nothing on offense” approach to the Air Raid is not an offseason process.

2022 Colorado State

Sugarcoating is not what we do here, so I’ll hammer the performance of the Rams and rightfully so. Their 2022 season deserves it. Ranking 130th in EPA/Play, 127th in Points/Opportunity, and 130th in success rate tells the story of an offense that struggled far more than its personnel should dictate, but as we’ve seen, implementing a new system takes time. 

Jay Norvell brought as many transfers in as he could, led by quarterback Clay Millen, but it ultimately still required time and major adjustments as the offense sputtered. Norvell brought over eight key contributors, with more throughout the roster. Despite their familiarity, it didn’t translate in year one.

The biggest issue was the offensive line and its inability to do…anything. Ranking 97th in average line yards is the best this unit did. Struggling against the pass, they ranked dead last (131st) in passing down sack rate, averaging an incredible(ly bad) 19.5% passing down sack percentage, meaning one in every five passing down plays resulted in sacks. It’s impossible to produce competent offense when the offensive line is struggling to that degree game over game. The 59 sacks allowed led the FBS in the category.

Leveraging Campus2Canton’s Coach Tool to show the dropoff from Norvell’s Nevada offense and his first year at Colorado State.

With the line struggles, the offense lagged far behind, ranking 126th in EPA/play on offense. Prior to Norvell’s first season at Colorado State, he had been among the top 20 in EPA/play. Norvell’s 2022 season with Colorado State was BY FAR his worst as a head coach since taking over the Wolfpack program in 2017. It was almost impressively bad.

Overall, the Rams’ offense deserves skepticism after their 3-9 season under first-year head coach Jay Norvell.

Why 2023 Can Be Different

As much as the first half of this piece was essentially a dunk fest on Colorado State, I refuse to believe they will be that bad in 2023. The offense wasn’t even close to what Norvell and Matt Mumme envisioned long-term for this program. For example, the 44% neutral game script pass rate was substantially lower than any season Norvell had with the Wolfpack.

Again, using the Campus2Canton Coach Tool, to show the difference in Norvell’s first year compared to his history at Nevada.

Norvell’s 44% neutral game script pass rate with the Rams was 20% lower than his average from the 2020 and 2021 seasons with the Wolfpack. With a Mumme disciple (son) on staff, it can be surmised that this was a product of necessity and not of desired intent. When your historical neutral game script pass rate has been above 50% every year, but once, it’s logical that the last season was an anomaly. 

Millen holds the key to the turnaround as he was the successor under Carson Strong and followed Norvell to Colorado State. His 2022 was marred by horrendous offensive line play and inconsistency. A perfect fit in this offense by skillset, the first year of the Millen experience can be chalked up to transition, and I think that is exploitable in fantasy leagues. Among all qualified quarterbacks, Millen ranked first in deep passing adjusted accuracy (63.6%) with an absurd 48.6% Big Time Throw Rate (first). The issue is we didn’t get to see this as he only attempted 33 deep passes, 14.1% of his total attempts, due to offensive line play.

On aggregate, Millen only attempted 23.4 passes per game in 2022, again, lower than expected for a Norvell quarterback. At Nevada, Norvell never had a quarterback average under 37.4 pass attempts per game and averaged 39.2 attempts. With 15+ pass attempts, Millen can achieve the CFF ceiling we’ve prescribed since entering college and being labeled the Carson Strong replacement. In his last five years prior to Colorado State, his quarterbacks have averaged: 43.5, 39.4, 37.4, 36.9, and 37.4 attempts per year.

There are reasons to be excited about this offensive line in comparison to last season. The offensive line coach made it a priority in the portal, and the offense added three high-end FCS transfers in Sayveon Henderson (Lane College), Drew Moss (Lamar), and Oliver Jervis (Monmouth). This group brings experience and size. All 300lbs, they also have multiple years of starting experience each. This allows leader Jacob Gardner to return to center, and Keegan Hamilton to be a depth guard option. I think there’s reason to be excited about Norvell’s optimism and the state of the offensive line in 2023.

Final Verdict

I threw a lot of data at y’all and dragged the 2022 Colorado State program. However, there are a few takeaways from the Norvell / Mumme approach that I feel comfortable making assumptions about.

First, 2022 was not ideal in any capacity. The offense did not throw nearly enough for the traditional Air Raid approach, and I would be surprised if they were ever below a 50% neutral game script pass rate again. The 44% was 15-20% lower than what Norvell and his system entail. The personnel was not there to impact the offense the way desired.

Second, offensive line play was disgusting, and something prisoners should watch in Guantanamo. This unit should make substantial strides this year with adjustments to the system wanted to be run and experienced. Despite losing two starters, left tackle Jacob Gardner returns alongside center Keegan Hamilton. Two of the most important positions return experience and, more importantly: comfort. 

Finally, a transition with an entirely new and different offense is difficult. Going from Steve Addazio to Jay Norvell and Matt Mumme is one of the most dramatic shifts an offense can take. Despite a poor 2022 season, there’s a lot to be excited about in 2023, with an improved offensive line, a more aggressive passing offense, and the personnel to fit it all.

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