CSU-Pueblo was on the all-to-familiar road to the NCAA Division II championship last season. The ThunderWolves once again ran the table in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and headed to the playoffs hungry for a title. The end-of-the-season result was no different.
Grand Valley State left ThunderWolf fans less than grateful after a 34-30 loss at home on November 30, 2013 for another early exit in the playoffs.
Their postseason appearance may have satisfied some fans, but it was another frustrating end to the season for ThunderWolves’ players and staff. But there was no time to sulk. The Pack needed recruits to fill graduating seniors’ spots for the upcoming year.
Coach John Wristen utilized the offseason for anything but a vacation as he and his staff nabbed 32 recruits to repair the few issues CSU-Pueblo faced last year.
The ThunderWolves relinquished just a shade less than 20 points per game, however, the defense gave up 500 or more yards in nine of the 12 games last season.
Key stops and well-placed takeaways helped keep the points down against the ThunderWolves at 19.8 points per game.
The defense had plenty of talent, but it needed a boost. It definitely received it.
Isaiah Palacio, Deyon Sizer, Marcus Culhane , a 2-star recruit from Arvada, along with a slew of other talent round out the defensive class for the ThunderWolves. An improvement on defense could have propelled CSU-Pueblo deeper into the playoffs. This class of 2014 can provide a spark along with key returnees. Senior Darius Allen shines bright as the beacon on defense.
Allen has succeeded at all levels, and adding an NCAA Division II title to his resume boosts compliments his accomplishments. The former South Central League Defensive Line MVP won the Gene Upshaw award, given to the top linemen in Division II, and earned RMAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year honors for his efforts. Allen’s stats more than satiate his credentials for the awards he has collected.
In 2013, Allen literally led the Pack on defense. The former East Eagle led his team and the nation in sacks with 15.5. Cornerback Stephen Dickens pulled down five interceptions and had various more break ups. The combination of Allen and Dickens provide leadership on and off the field that the ThunderWolves need for the 2014 season.
A bolstered defensive line and more depth in the backfield this season should allow the Pack should see a decrease in yards allowed.
RMAC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Chris Bonner, Preseason All RMAC Offense receiver Paul Browning, the Pack are more than capable of sustaining their high-octane offense.
The ground game as well as the aerial assault combined for more than 500 yards per game last season, the most since the school reinstated the football program, according to Gothunderwolves.com.
The offense provided monster stats in 2013 for Wristen and should the team continue its year-after-year growth, acquisitions during Wristen’s “downtime” should provide another boost on offense this season.
And there is no better time to prove it than during the second game of the season.
Offseason tweaks and modifications to the defense will be tested Sept. 13 at No. 14 Football Championship Subdivision Sam Houston State. Facing this Division I FCS school is arguably one of the most important games in ThunderWolves football history.
Last year, in Jerry’s World a.k.a. Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX, CSU-Pueblo defeated Angelo State 45-24 at the Lone Star Conference Football Festival. The Rams were a competitive opponent, but Angelo State is in a different league. Literally.
The Bearkats went 9-4 against FCS opponents in 2013 and averaged more than 265 yards per game on the ground. Running back Timothy Flanders led the Bearkats with 1,430 yards rushing last season and averaged 102 per game. The ThunderWolves defense held opponents to just under 115 yards per game, good enough for 21st in the nation. Something’s got to give and hopefully it isn’t through the quarterback’s arm.
CSU-Pueblo’s overall defense ranked 87th allowing opponents to tally 4,701 yards in 12 games last season. With the various offseason tweaks and tinkers, those issues can be resolved before it becomes an problematic this season. The offseason recruiting ventures from Wristen and his staff provide the opportunity for young players to get their feet wet early as well as make a case for playing time against a highly touted opponent.
Coach Wristen proved his team could make something into nothing when he took the reins of the program in 2008. The ThunderWolves quickly became a powerhouse and a dangerous regular-season squad. Hopefully, their work to bolster the defense pays dividends and carries the Pack into December.
Wouldn’t that be a merry Christmas for Pueblo?