EZ Mortgages

Preseason

// Jun 13 - 2009

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Fall Practice – 2009 – What to Watch for ….

Let me tell you about a Buff team I know of. The quarterback situation was muddled, with two relatively mediocre signal callers splitting time behind center. Fortunately, they had a pair of quality running backs to hand off to, and an offensive line with NFL-caliber talent. When the Buffs passed, they had an All-Conference tight end to throw to, along with just enough speed and talent at wide receiver to keep the defenses honest.

The 2009 Buffs? Certainly, the description fits. Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen are battling it out to see who will be the starter, with the possibility that both will play. Whoever starts, there will be quality backs (Scott and Stewart) lining up behind a quality line. An All-American candidate lines up at tight end (Riar Geer), with a possession receiver (McKnight) and some speed (Simas, Simmons) at wide out.

Thing is, the above description also fits the 2001 Colorado Buffaloes. Yes, the Buffs in the Big 12 title season went 10-3 – but they were also coming off a 3-8 season in 2000. Check out the position battles the 2009 Buffs will be going through during fall camp, but also take a look at the surprising similarities between the 2009 Buffs and their counterparts from 2001.

I’m just sayin’ ….

Read The Entire Article…

CU and the 3-4 Defense – What to Expect this Fall

The Buffs will be playing more of the 3-4 defense this fall. No, there wasn’t a change of coaches (though Bob Foster was added to help out with the outside linebackers). Nor was there necessarily even a change of philosophy. Rather, the Buffs are changing defenses in accordance with the dictates of their personnel. A dearth of talent on the defensive line, coupled with a number of talented linebackers, mandated a shift to more 3-4 alignments. Below is a look at the 3-4, position-by-position, along with a look at the CU depth chart, and how each starter will be utilized this fall …

To read More about the Buffs and their new defense, click here …

 

Preseason picks – Why preseason magazines still matter

News flash: Buffs are being picked to finish outside the top 25, and 4th in the Big 12 North.Okay, so that’s not really news. The preseason predictions are nothing if not, well, predictable. So, are there any reasons to still pick Athlon’s, Lindy’s, Phil Steele’s and The Sporting News preseason magazines? You bet. Here’s why

More on preseason magazines and their continuing relevance…

Fall Camp Notes

Captains named

Senior linebackers Marcus Burton and Jeff Smart, along with senior tight end Riar Geer, were named this weekend as captains for the 2009 season. All three are fifth-year seniors, three-year starters, and projected starters at their positions this fall. “The leadership throughout this team is really outstanding,” said Dan Hawkins, “so it says something special for these three to be selected by their peers to be at the top of that list.” Even though the captains are selected by the players, it is worthy of note that these are the same three players who traveled with Dan Hawkins to the Big 12 media days in Dallas last month.

Pluses and minuses / Grading the first half of Fall Practice

Plus – the play of the quarterbacks. Both junior Cody Hawkins and sophomore Tyler Hansen have been receiving high marks from the coaching staff. Whoever is named the starter (and it says here it will be Cody), there is a prepared and reliable backup on the roster.

Minus – The play of the quarterbacks. It is no secret that the Buffs are hampered on offense by the lack of a star at the quarterback position. Issues with the young offensive line and the dearth of talent at wide receiver aside, it is hard to find a Big 12 preseason guide which would place either Cody Hawkins or Tyler Hansen in the top ten in the conference. For the Buffs to be successful, Cody has to be better than the opposing quarterback, not just better than Tyler.

Plus – The relative lack of injuries. By this time last fall, three starters were already gone for the season. The Buffs would go on to lose 121 games in 2008 by first line players. So far, there has been very little negative to report with respect to injuries.

Minus – The one major injury happened to an important player. While only a true freshman, defensive lineman Nick Kasa was not only being counted on to be a starter in 2009, but a major force in the Buffs’ gerrymandered defensive line. Kasa is out with a partially torn MCL, and may be lost for the season. However, on Friday it was reported that surgery may not be required. “We’d like not to do it (surgery),” said Dan Hawkins. “I think that they (the medical staff) feels it’s progressing nicely.”

Plus – The play of the running backs. Colorado has four quality backs to choose from, with junior Demetrius Sumler and sophomores Darrell Scott, Rodney Stewart, and Brian Lockridge. Each brings something different to the field, and each is expected to have their opportunities to make plays. “At times, we’ll go with the hot hand,” said running backs coach Darian Hagan, “but we always try to play all of our guys … By themselves sometimes, all four of them out there at the same time if need be.”

Minus – The play of the wide receivers. The good news is that Scotty McKnight is back, and he had led the team in receptions the past two seasons. The bad news is that Scotty is the only receiver on the team who has caught a pass in a college game. Josh Smith left the program; Markques Simas is suspended for the first two games; and Andre Simmons may never wear a Colorado uniform (UPDATE: Yes he will – see above!!). It’s hard to take when a true freshman wide receiver (Will Jefferson), who was not even signed to play for the Buffs until a week before fall camp, has been the most note-worthy receiver in practice. Either the Buffs are sand-bagging, or this is a unit which will allow the opposition to put nine defenders in the box to stop the Buffs’ rushing attack.

Plus – The offensive line is talented – and beginning to gel. It all starts with the offensive line. Regardless of the offense, everything stays in neutral without the guys upfront. Fortunately for Buff fans, this season Colorado has the best collection of offensive line talent in the Hawkins’ era. Four of the five starters can be penciled in – Right tackle: red-shirt freshman Bryce Givens; Right guard: sophomore Ryan Miller; Center: sophomore Mike Iltis; Left Tackle: junior Nate Solder. The only position really open is that of right guard, which is a battle between two sophomores, Ethan Adkins and Blake Behrens. Even that battle may become moot if Maxwell Tuioti-Mariner, who is foregoing his Mormon mission to try and work his way back from knee surgery, is able to play come October. The only issue with this group is experience. We have become familiar with the names, but the fact remains that there will be very little game experience (Miller was hurt in game four last season; Solder is a converted tight end; Iltis and Givens have never played in a game) on the field September 6th.

Minus – The defensive line remains the Buffs’ Achilles’ heel. It was bad enough when the Buffs were forced to count upon true freshmen to come in and play against Big 12 competition. It’s even worse now, as the top two defensive line recruits, Nick Kasa and Edward Nuckols, are unavailable. Nuckols did not qualify, and Kasa’s status for 2009 remains “iffy” at best. There have been reports that the other two defensive line recruits from this spring, Forrest West and Nate Bonsu, have performed well (West sacked Tyler Hansen on three straight plays during 11-on-11 work last week).  “They’re competing,” said defensive line coach Romeo Bandison of West and Bonsu. “Right now, we’re not saying, ‘oh, those guys are going to red-shirt’. They’re competing, they’re hanging in there.” For his part, junior Marquez Herrod is using the negative stories as motivation. “Everybody on the line agrees; it looks like everyone (outside) wants us to fail,” said Herrod. “I want to come out every day and prove somebody wrong. And that’s what I think our whole mentality is this year as a D-line – show people what we can do.”

Plus – The linebackers and secondary appear to be deep – and talented. If there was a unit which Colorado fans were confident about coming into 2009, it was the linebacker corps. Losing Brad Jones to the NFL is costly, but all of the other major players are back, including the top two tacklers from 2008, Jeff Smart (118 tackles) and Shaun Mohler (97 tackles). Linebackers’ coach Brian Cabral is excited by the names on his depth chart. “I’ve always played a lot of guys, I’ve always rotated a lot of players,” said Cabral. “I just never had the opportunity the last several years.”

The same sentiment holds true for the secondary. Yes, the Buffs were the best in the Big 12 last season in stopping the pass, but that only meant that Colorado was the best amongst the worst, coming in at 72nd nationally. There are a number of good cornerbacks on the roster, including Cha’pelle Brown, Jimmy Smith, and Jalil Brown. The safeties, sophomores Anthony Perkins and Patrick Mahnke, received valuable playing time at the end of 2008 when starters D.J. Dykes and Ryan Walters went down with injuries.

Minus – Special teams have yet to prove they are special. Josh Smith, the reluctant record-setter as a return man in 2008, is gone. In his place is sophomore Jason Espinoza, who had as many collarbone breaks last season (two) as punt returns (two, for minus-one yard). “I’m confident,” said the player known as “Espy”. “I just need to go in there and pick up where I left off.”

Hoping not to pick up where they left off are place-kicker Aric Goodman and punter Matt DiLallo. Both had forgettable seasons in 2008, with Goodman connecting on only 5-of-14 field goal attempts (the longest being from 37 yards), while Matt DiLallo’s 34.0 net average on his punts had him sitting on the bench at the end of the season. Kent Riddle, Colorado’s special teams coach, thinks the off-year will help Goodman, who is trying a two-step approach this season, be a better kicker. “When you’re at the bottom, if you’re a fighter, you’re going to climb back up,” said Riddle. “He’s a good kicker; he’s going to be fine. He just had a bad year and things kind of snowballed.”

Plus – Players who did not play in 2008, but will contribute in 2009:

Ray Polk, who is playing well at safety after converting from running back (“He’s coming along awesome right now,” said fellow safety Anthony Perkins. “He will be a force.”);

Brian Lockridge, who red-shirted last season with a sports hernia, is pickup up where he left off in 2007 (a team-best 5.6 yards per carry) – “He’s one of the most explosive players on our team,” said quarterback Cody Hawkins;

Ben Burney, a senior cornerback who sat out all of 2008 after undergoing five surgeries;

Bryce Givens, the best prep offensive lineman in the state of Colorado in 2007, sat out last season as a red-shirt, but looks to be a starter this fall;

Will Jefferson, the last signee of the 2009 recruiting class, has impressed and surprised, joining Terdema Ussery and Jarrod Darden as true freshmen receivers who may play this fall; and

Max Tuioti-Mariner. MTM may still sit out this season, recovering from his third knee surgery, but his announcement that he would be foregoing his Mormon mission so that he could be a part of the 2009 Colorado Buff team speaks volumes.

Checking out the competition

With there little news out of Boulder today (no serious injuries in the scrimmage – yea!; no new word on Simmons or Moten – sigh!), I thought I would give you some news from some of the Buffs’ 2009 opponents:

Nebraska: Running back Quentin Castille has been dismissed from the team. Castille, who was third on the team in rushing (and the only returning back other than Roy Helu to have more than a dozen carries in 2008), was booted for violating undisclosed team rules. UPDATE: Castille was important to the Cornhuskers. How important? Well, Jeff Beiermann of the Omaha World-Herald reported, “If Roy Helu, Jr. was No. 1 at running back, then Castille was 1A … the Huskers’ margin for error is thinner than it was yesterday.” And Tim Griffin, ESPN blogger for the Big 12, went so far as to say that his pick to win the Big 12 North switched from Nebraska to Kansas – due to the loss of Castille. Yeah, Castille was important.

Colorado State: Eugene Daniels, a 6′3″, 240-pound sophomore from Fort Hood, Texas, was taken to the hospital Thursday after experiencing heat-related symptoms. The move was precautionary, and Daniels was released from the hospital Friday … CSU head coach Steve Fairchild insists that he isn’t sandbagging in his comments to the press about poor quarterback play. “I expect better play than what we’re getting,” said Fairchild, “I’m not going to sugarcoat it for those guys”. Here’s guessing Buff fans won’t buy the Lou Holtz poor-mouthing until they see a four-interception effort on September 6th with their own eyes … UPDATE: Quarterback candidate Jon Eastman broke a finger in his non-throwing hand Thursday (he’s expected back next week), prompting Steve Fairchild to insert wide receiver T.J. Borcky at quarterback. Borcky played with the quarterbacks last fall before switching to wide receiver. “I’m rusty with some (of the playbook),” said Borcky. “Whatever coach decides, I’ll go in wherever he puts me.” Stay tuned …

Wyoming: Unilike Colorado and Colorado State, the Wyoming Cowboys, under first-year head coach Dave Christensen, have apparently found their starting quarterback. Robert Benjamin, a junior college transfer, has apparently beaten out the incumbent senior quarterback, Karsten Sween. Benjamin, despite not making it to campus until late July due to academic concerns (anyone else guessing he still wouldn’t be qualified if he had signed on at CU?), did well at Wyoming’s first scrimmage, completing 12-of-17 passes for 178 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for 62 yards and another score. Wyoming opens its season on September 5th against Weber State, then taking on Texas at home before coming to Boulder September 19th …

West Virginia: In 2008, the Mountaineer offensive line was prominently displayed in the preseason magazines,with four returning senior starters. Well, as had to be the case, West Virginia’s offensive lne is in rebuilding mode in 2009. “They’re young, and they’re making mistakes, but they are giving great effort,” said head coach Bill Stewart. This fall, several players are trying out several positions, as the Mountaineers look for a good combination. “We are young, especially  on the inside,” said left tackle Don Barclay. “We’ve had some rough days in camp, but we’ve had some really good days, too.”

Missouri: With several offensive stars now plying their trade in the NFL, the Tigers’ offense has yet to gel in 2009. “I just think we should be farther ahead than we are right now,” said head coach Gary Pinkel. Of the second scrimmage of the fall, conducted Thursday, Pinkel indicated that he “thought it was kind of sloppy. The (first string) offense was lethargic out there, made a lot of mistakes.” Projected starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert was 14-of-21 foe 121 yards and one touchdown in the controlled scrimmage.

Texas: Sophomore tight end Ian Harris will miss all of 2009 with a recurring neck injury. Harris is the fourth tight end the Longhorns have lost for the season with injury, including former starter Blaine Irby. Texas is down to junior Greg Smith and freshman Barrett Matthews at the tight end position for 2009.

Kansas State: Red-shirt freshman quarterback Joseph Kassanavoid was arrested Thursday night on domestic battery charges (along with Ashleigh Brooke Mitchell). Details are not yet known, and I am more than willing to give Mr. Kassanavoid the benefit of the doub until the facts are established. What caught my eye, though, was the immediate statement by KSU SID Kenny Lannou that Kassanavoid was still a member of the Wildcats team, and that the matter would be handled internally. Any Buff fans out there who believe a CU player arrested for domestic battery would have their case handled the same way? Me, neither.

 

 

What to watch for – Fall Practice – Offense

Can the 2009 Buffs replicate what the 2001 Buffs were able to accomplish – turning a losing season into a championship the following year?

Let’s check out the position battles of fall camp, as well as how this Buff team matches up with the 2001 squad:

Quarterback

You’re kidding, right? Okay, for those of you who just got back from being voted off the island somewhere, we’ll recap. Junior Cody Hawkins and sophomore Tyler Hansen will duel it out this August in the most-watched battle for a starting position. The consensus: Hawkins has the experience, has the better grasp of the playbook, and has more leadership qualities. Hansen brings to the table more height, more speed, and greater potential.

New offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau states, of course, that Cody’s last name will not have an influence on which quarterback starts. “We’re going to play the best guy,” said Kiesau. “Proof of that is last year when Cody struggles and we insert a freshman.” Kiesau will not even rule out utilizing incoming freshman Clark Evans. “I never like to pigeon-hole guys and say he’s going to come in and red-shirt,” said Kiesau. “I want them to come in and compete.”

Kiesau hasn’t ruled out using a two-quarterback system, but believes “one guy will emerge … I think the easiest way to coach is to have competition … So, if you’ve got one guy who’s making a lot of mistakes, those other guys are going to know he’s not ready to play … the quarterbacks will know; they’ll be able to gauge.”

The real issue for the Buffs and their fans: neither Hawkins nor Hansen strikes fear in the opposition. The entire offense needs to improve if the quarterback is to be successful, and with healthy running backs, an influx of talent at wide receiver, and the development of a deep offensive line will go a long way towards making the starting quarterback look good.

(First look back at the lineup of the 2001 Big 12 champion Buffs, and how the 2009 Buffs match-up. Do you remember the name of the quarterback who led the Buffs to the 2001 Big 12 title?)

Bottom line: Barring injury, I would look for Cody Hawkins to again emerge as the starting quarterback against Colorado State in the opener.

(Answer to the question above: It was Bobby Pesavento, not exactly a household name at quarterback in CU annals. Pesavento started six games for the Buffs in 2001, including five of the last six, spelling true freshman Craig Ochs, who started seven of the first eight games. Two quarterbacks traded off in the Buffs championship season – it could happen again.)

Running Backs

Everyone is excited about Darrell Scott and Rodney Stewart, both hampered by injuries in 2009, having break out seasons in 2009. ESPN’s Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin predicts “Darrell Scott will emerge as the most-improved player on the team, and a threat to rush for 1,000 yards.” Stewart, for his part, was on pace to rush for 1,000 yards as a true freshman before being lost for the season in game nine against Texas A&M.

While much of the ink in August will be spent on Scott and Stewart, keep an eye out for stories on junior Demetrius Sumler and sophomore Brian Lockridge. Sumler, the elder statesman of the running back corps, led the team in rushing touchdowns in 2008. Lockridge, meanwhile, has been splitting his time, working out with the running backs and the wide receivers, and could become a dual threat in the slot.

Neill Woelk of the Daily Camera pointed out in a recent column that only once in the past 21 years have the Buffs had a running back rush for over 800 yards and fail to go to a bowl game. Eric Kiesau is excited about his running game. “That’s the one thing I feel good about,” said Kiesau. “We kind of got back the downhill run game in spring ball.”

Bottom line: There will be a number of stories about Scott and Stewart, but look for both to be utilized early and often this fall.

(To continue our 2001 analogy: Chris Brown and Bobby Purify shared the ball very well in the title run: Brown had 946 yards rushing on the season; Purify had 916. A dual threat could serve the Buffs well this fall as well).

Wide Receivers

A cause of concern just a few days ago, the outlook for the 2009 Colorado receiving corps took a major step forward this week. Junior college transfer Andre Simmons and incoming freshman Will Jefferson were both cleared to join the Buffs this fall. This news will certainly lend a friendlier bent to the stories coming out of camp than there might have been otherwise.

The depth chart shows sophomore Markques Simas and junior Scotty McKnight as the starters. McKnight has quietly led the team in receptions the past two seasons, while Simas has generated more headlines than McKnight – without ever taking the field. Simas has been ineligible to play for the Buffs the past two seasons, but is ready to take on the competition after burning it up as a scout team member. Both will need to have an excellent camp before Buff fans are going to consider the wide receiver issues resolved.

The Buffs can now add Andre Simmons to the mix, who is supposed to contribute immediately, giving Colorado another great storyline to follow. Of course, this is not even taking into account sophomore Jason Espinoza (he of the two – two! – broken collarbones last fall), and senior Kevin Moyd, a converted running back.  Finally, there are incoming freshmen Jarrod Darden, Terdema Ussery, and now Will Jefferson. Last February, it looked as if Darden and Ussery would be pressed into early service as true freshmen, but now the Buffs may have the luxury of red-shirting one or more of the three new Buff wide-outs.

Bottom line: Andre Simmons getting the grades to be qualified was feel good story of the first weekend of fall practice. Whether Simmons, who has not had the opportunity to participate in summer drills with his teammates (but does have the advantage of two years of junior college competition), can get onto the playing field in September, will be a fun story to track. Hopefully, McKnight and Simas will be installed as the starters after game three (Simas will be sitting out the first two games of the season for violating team rules), giving Buff fans the opportunity to debate which of the incoming players will best compliment the improved Colorado passing game.

(2001 re-visited: With limited talent behind center – Pesavento; Ochs – the Colorado passing game was not the focus of the offense. A tight end led the team in receptions, with possession receiver Derek McCoy the only true wide receiver in the top four in catches on the season. Lesson:

Colorado doesn’t need to be Texas Tech through the air to be successful. McKnight can be the possession receiver, with Simas and Simmons stretching the field to keep the safeties honest).

Tight Ends

On a roster almost devoid of seniors, the 2009 Buffs have not one, not two, not three, but four senior tight ends. Riar Geer will be mentioned most often this August, as the senior was named to the John Mackey Award watch list. If there are any stories about the other tight ends, it will be about the running game, and utilizing a two tight end set. Fortunately, the Buffs have the experience to make that offense work. Patrick Devenny, Luke Walters and Devin Shanahan are the other three seniors, though sophomore Ryan Deehan may be seeing plenty of playing time.

Bottom line: When a team does not have a dominant talent at quarterback, the running game becomes the focus. In order to keep defenses from stacking the box, however, an offense must have a few speed burners at wide out, and an excellent possession receiver at tight end. The Buffs have one in Riar Geer.

(2001 comparison: Of course, the team’s leading receiver in the Big 12 title season was Daniel Graham, who would go on to win the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end. Graham led the team with 51 receptions for 753 yards and six touchdowns, numbers Geer and Buff fans would love to see in 2009).

Offensive line

Depth and talent – two words which have not been associated with the Colorado offensive line until recently. Now, new offensive line coach Denver Johnson has a great deal of both to work with as the Buffs head into the 2009 season.

Several positions appear to be set. Junior Nate Solder, the converted tight end, is entrenched at left tackle. Sophomore Ryan Miller, back from injury, will be the right guard. The center position will be manned by sophomore Mike Iltis, who took an intriguing story line of spring practice (“Who will replace longtime starter Daniel Sanders at center?”) and made it a non-issue, taking over the spot at the first practice and not letting go.

The right tackle and left guard positions are not fully resolved. Red-shirt freshman Bryce Givens should fill in the starting spot at right tackle, but will be challenged by sophomore Matt Bahr. At left guard, sophomore Ethan Adkins emerged from spring practice at the top of the depth chart, but Shawn Daniels and Blake Behrens may have something to say about whether that remains a true statement.

Bottom line: If you are looking for storylines to follow this fall, look for reports of cohesiveness and unity. It’s great to have a number of young and talented offensive linemen, but the Buffs can only field five at a time. Denver Johnson needs to find his five starters, and give them plenty of repetitions together.

A second storyline to track is the health of Mike Iltis. While there are no reports of his being injured, the one area where the Colorado offensive line is paper thin is at center. Junior Keenan Stevens, who offered no resistance to Iltis taking the starting job, is the only backup. Incoming freshman Shaun Simon was suppose to compete for playing time this fall, but did not qualify academically. Simon will grey-shirt this fall, and enroll in January as a true freshman.

(2001 comparison: The Colorado offense rushed for 2,742 yards on the season (compared to 1,494 for the Buffs in 2008). Success was made possible by five starting offensive lineman, each of whom was in for at least 800 of the Buffs’ 886 offensive plays. Four of the five, guard Andre Gurode (2nd round), tackle Victor Rogers (7th), tackle Justin Bates (7th), and center Wayne Lucier (7th) would go to be NFL draft picks. The other starter from the 2001 offensive line, guard Marwan Hage, returned to his native Canada and played in the CFL.)

What to Watch for – Fall Practice – Defense

Defensive Line

Can we skip this one?

You know the headlines: “Buffs thin at defensive line”; “Colorado to switch to 3-4 defense to mask lack of talent on the D-Line”. Well, the problem is that these headlines are true. If the Buffs are to struggle in 2009, one of the first places everyone will look (after the quarterback) will be the defensive line.

Gone are three starters from last season, along with a true freshman the Buffs were counting on to contribute immediately, Edward Nuckols, who failed to qualify (Nuckols, like offensive lineman Shaun Simon, is slated to grey-shirt, and had indicated he will enroll at CU in January).

Okay, so what do the Buffs have left? At defensive end, there are sophomores Conrad Obi and Lagrone Shields, along with junior Marquez Herrod. This group will be supplemented by incoming freshman Nick Kasa. If you don’t want to have to spend the night before the Colorado State game rubbing your lucky rabbit’s foot, hope that there are plenty of stories this August about the dominating play of a quickly maturing Nick Kasa.

At the tackle position, there are a number of names, but none are on any Big 12 preseason all-conference lists.  Senior Taj Kaynor, along with sophomores Eugene Goree, and Curtis Cunningham, have the most game experience.  Red-shirt freshman Will Pericak will also vie for playing time. Linebacker Jeff Smart, who led the Buffs in tackles in 2008, remains optimistic. “I think the group is young and inexperienced, but I think they proved this spring that they can definitely play and do some good things,” said Smart. “I was very pleasantly surprised this spring.”

Bottom line: If there are glowing reports this fall about how the defensive line has “stepped up”, count your blessings. I’m afraid, though, that unless Nick Kasa can be a dominant player as a true freshman, this group will continue to be the Achilles’ heel of the Colorado defense.

(2001 comparison: There is a precedent for the Buffs being successful with a freshman on the defensive line. In 2001, Brandon Dabdoub was a first team All-Big 12 freshman, and was named to a second team freshman All-American team (Sporting News). Of course, the 2001 team also had a first-team All-Big 12 performer in defensive tackle Justin Bannan, a feat not likely to be repeated in 2009).

Linebackers

While the defensive line is the weak link of the Colorado football team, they are backed up by the strongest unit, the linebackers. “We should be one of the strengths in our defense,” said linebackers coach Brian Cabral. “We have to understand the problem (of a weak offense line) … So my theme going in with my linebackers is ‘Make them right’, regardless of what they do. We’re going to play off them and we’re going to make the defense right. The onus is on us to adjust, and, at times, cover up mistakes of a young offensive line.”

The linebackers are led by seniors Jeff Smart and Shaun Mohler, who were #1 and #2 in tackles last fall. Another senior, Marcus Burton, will see significant playing time in the middle, along with junior Michael Sipili. Unlike Smart and Mohler, though, Burton and Sipili do not have as much playing experience. Still, Brian Cabral is not concerned. “Those guys have both been through a lot,” said Cabral of Burton and Sipili. “They’re a more complete person as well as a complete player. I’m fully expecting and every sign is pointing toward Marcus having his best year and Mike having his best year. I like that tandem.”

While there will be any number of stories about the starting talent at linebacker, I’ll be looking for stories about the younger players on the roster. Red-shirt freshmen Jon Major and Doug Rippy had great springs, and may see significant playing time in 2009. I will also be interested to see stories of how the Buffs’ touted incoming freshmen, Liloa Nobriga and Derrick Webb, are adjusting to life in Boulder.

Bottom line: The linebackers are not a concern for the Buffs’ coaches, and can hold their own against the great offenses of the Big 12. The issue for the fall is whether this unit can not only do their jobs, but also cover up the mistakes of the inexperienced defensive line.

(2001 comparison: This is one area in which the 2009 Buffs are actually stronger than their Big 12 title counterparts. Drew Wahlroos, Joey Johnson, and Sean Tufts were in the top ten on the team in tackles in 2001, but none were considered dominant players that season.)

Defensive Backs

We’re back to the glass half full / half empty argument. Glass half full? The Buffs led the Big 12 in pass defense in 2008. Glass half empty? That was good enough for 72nd in the nation. Even in the pass-happy Big 12, 72nd does not rate as exceptional.

Gone are both of the Buffs’ starting safeties, D.J. Dykes and Ryan Walters. They will replaced by sophomores Anthony Perkins and Patrick Mahnke, who had a baptism by fire late last season, starting the last two games when Dykes and Walters were injured. The issue here isn’t whether Perkins and Mahnke can play, but whether they can stay healthy. Sophomore Travis Sandersfeld, who was in the defensive backfield for all of nine plays last fall, is the primary backup for both safety positions. Vince Ewing and Ray Polk, the former running back, may be the future at the position, but if they see significant playing time this fall, the Buffs are in trouble.

At the cornerback position, there is a wealth of talent. Despite being sidelined this spring with Giardia, an infection of the small intestine which caused him to lose 10 pounds, senior cornerback Cha’pelle Brown is back to lead the unit. Junior cornerback Jimmy Smith, according to ESPN’s Tim Griffin, “will emerge as one of the best defensive backs in the league” this fall. There are plenty of other corners who will be seeing playing time, including senior Ben Burney, junior Jalil Brown, and sophomores Jalil Brown, Jonathan Hawkins, and Anthony Wright.

Still, just like the linebackers, the fall camp stories need to be about forming a cohesive starting unit. Feel good stories about the return of the injured Burney, the grey-shirt Paul Vigo, and the former running back Ray Polk will be good reads, but there needs to be a solid starting lineup in place come September 6th. “We have some depth, but it can be a little misleading at some spots,” said defensive backs coach Ron Brown. “Everybody’s whose watched us play knows (corner) Jimmy Smith has a world of talent, but when you think about it, he has only three starts under his belt. That’s it – three.”

Bottom line: The starting safeties are in place with Anthony Perkins and Patrick Mahnke, while Cha’pelle Brown and Jimmy Smith seem to have the edge at pulling starting duty at cornerback. However, with as many nickel and even dime sets that defenses are required to employ in the Big 12, having a multitude of talented defensive backs is certainly a bonus.

(Comparison to 2001: Two defensive backs led the Big 12 title winners in tackles in 2001, safety Michael Lewis and cornerback Donald Strickland. While the 2009 Buffs have two hard-hitting safeties, and a plethora of play-making corners, it will likely be up to the Buffs’ linebackers to lead the team in tackles in 2009).

Special Teams

There will be a decided lack of oxygen at Folsom Field the first time senior place-kicker Aric Goodman lines up for a field goal attempt against Colorado State. Everyone will be holding their breath to see if the junior place-kicker can shake off his 5-for-14 nightmare of a 2008 season. While one kick does not – and should not – define a kicker’s value, there will be more than the usual pressure when Goodman makes his first attempt (hopefully, the Buffs will be up 28-7 at the time).

While subject to less scrutiny, the Buffs’ other incumbent kicker, senior punter Matt DiLallo, is under just as much pressure to perform as Goodman. DiLallo has played all three seasons, but each year has done worse than the year before. Late in 2008, he was replaced by senior Tom Suazo.The storyline for the kickers will center around incoming freshman sensation Zach Grossnickle, who may compete for both the punting and kicking duties (though he will be limited early on – he reported to fall camp with a cast on his left wrist as a result of an ultimate Frisbee incident in May. Also, don’t count out Jameson Davis. The sophomore who handled kickoff duties, played injured in 2008, but should be able to compete for a job in 2009. (And there is always the possibility that one Darrell Scott could take a turn or two punting).

As for the return job, the loss of Josh Smith will hurt, at least initially. For someone who didn’t like returning kicks, Smith was certainly good at it, setting several school records. The depth chart shows Rodney Stewart and Darrell Scott returning kickoffs, with Jason Espinoza and Stewart one-and-two on punt returns. Look for that to change this fall, as Scott and Stewart focus more on the running game. Incoming junior college transfer Andre Simmons was given the #1 jersey, the same one abandoned by Josh Smith.Coincidence? …

(In 2001, senior Jeremy Flores ably handled the kicking duties. Flores went 18-for-24 on the season, including a game-winning 43-yarder to seal the Big 12 title for the Buffs against Texas. The punting duties were shared by Flores and junior Mark Mariscal, with Mariscal’s 40.5 average significantly better than the 34.0 average put up by DiLallo in 2008. The return game was ably manned by Roman Hollowell, who finished his CU career ranked 5th in kickoff returns and 4th in punt returns. Hopefully, the Buffs will find a replacement for Josh Smith who will someday challenge Hollowell’s numbers.)

Summary:

Much of what was in place for the Buffs in 2001 is in place for the Buffs in 2009. Colorado was coming off a 3-8 season in 2000, yet strung together a 10-win season with a combination on offense of: 1) decent, but not spectacular, quarterback play; 2) two outstanding running backs, sharing the load and the glory; 3) an offensive line with future NFL picks; 4) an All-League tight end; and 5) possession receivers with just enough speed and savvy to keep the opposition from focusing solely on the running game. The defense had holes, and a number of role players not destined to play in the NFL, but good enough to shut down the offenses it faced.

The 2001 Colorado Buffaloes came from nowhere (3-8 in 2000) to take the Big 12 title, rising as far as #3 in the country. Dan Hawkins, with his team coming off a 5-7 season, set a goal of ten wins for this fall.

Why not?

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The 3-4 Defense – Necessity the Mother of Realignment …..

Kansas, the trendy pick to the win the Big 12 North, has a problem with their defensive roster … no linebackers. While the Jayhawks did pick up a late junior college transfer in late June, the intelligentsia in Lawrence is looking at playing some 4-2-5 sets this fall in order to reduce the impact of this weakness.

The problem for the Boulder brain trust is not a lack of linebackers, but rather a lack of depth – and experienced talent – on the defensive line. As a result, the Buffs will be playing more 3-4 alignments this fall. How this approach differs from the standard 4-3, as well as a look at how the CU personnel fit into this scheme, is discussed below.

NOSE TACKLE

2008 CU Roster: Last season, the Buffs had two longtime starters at the defensive tackle position. Seniors George Hypolite and Brandon Nicholas had 68 career starts between them. With that much experience on the field, it is not surprising that the reserves did not see much playing time, as backups Taj Kaynor and Eugene Goree were on the playing field for just over 100 snaps combined in 2008. In switching to the 3-4, the Buffs are faced with the dilemma of replacing only defensive tackle, rather than two.

The job of the nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme is to plug up the opposition’s offense. He should be the strongest person on the defense, as his job is to tie up at least two offensive linemen on every single play. If the nose tackle fails, the inside linebackers are fair game for the center and guards, and the opposing offense will be successful.

2009 CU Roster: The final spring depth chart still lists the 4-3 base, with senior Taj Kaynor listed at defensive tackle and sophomore Eugene Goree at nose tackle. If size correlates to strength, Goree, at 295 pounds, wins out over Kaynor, who tips the scales at 265.

While these two players have the most snaps in a Buff uniform, they will not be without competition. Sophomore Curtis Cunningham had the most overall snaps last season (145) of the returning tackles, but Cunningham was injured this spring, missing out on important reps.  If these three cannot handle the load, incoming freshmen Nate Bonsu and Edward Nuckols may be called upon to assist.  (Also in the mix: sophomore Lagrone Shields; junior Eric Lawson; red-shirt freshman – and converted tight end – Will Pericak).

Nose guard is a real area of concern if the Buffs are going to play more 3-4 alignments. Fact of the matter is, the Buffs do not have a prototypical nose guard on the roster, and forcing Goree, Kaynor, Cunningham or Nuckols into that role may be too much to ask. Keep an eye out for stories about the interior defensive line as fall practice unfolds.

DEFENSIVE ENDS

2008 CU Roster: The Buffs’ defensive line played with three seniors starters last season. In addition to tackles Nicholas and Hypolite, mentioned above, Maurice Lucas start every game at left defensive end. At the other end position, sophomore Marquez Herrod saw the most playing time (though due to the personnel of the opposing offenses, defensive back Jalil Brown earned the majority of starts at “Defensive end” in 2008). As a sophomore, Herrod played in 11 games, but registered only 14 total tackles.

In a 4-3 set, the defensive ends jobs are simple – on running plays, contain the running backs and keep them from getting outside; on pass plays, the job is even more clear: GET TO THE QUARTERBACK. Last season, Marquez Herrod did record four sacks in his limited playing time, but the Buffs’ sack production overall was mediocre (26 total in 2008, ranked 54th in the nation).

In the 3-4, the defensive ends are not being counted on for the sacks, leaving the glory work for the linebackers. The ends must occupy blockers so that blitzing linebackers and safeties have a clear path to the ball carrier and quarterback.

2009 CU Roster: Junior Marquez Herrod has the most experience at the defensive end position. After that … there isn’t much. The Buffs do have a number of options at defensive end, but none are presently keeping Big 12 offensive coordinators up at night. Junior Eric Lawson, as well as sophomores Conrad Obi and Lagrone Shields, saw playing time last season, but none distinguished themselves. Incoming freshman Nick Kasa is being touted as a player who could see the field early and often, but that would be a great deal to ask of a player who was playing prep football nine miles down the turnpike last fall. It says here that Kasa will become a well known name in CU annals in due course, but 2009 may require a steep learning curve if the Buffs are to go bowling.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

2008 CU Roster:  Brad Jones, a seventh round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers, is the only player lost from a talented set of linebackers, so the Buffs are set at the inside linebacker positions. Jeff Smart led the team in tackles last season (with 118), followed by Shaun Mohler (97). Both will back for their senior seasons in 2009.

When the Buffs played in a 4-3 scheme, Jeff Smart was the Mike, or middle linebacker. Smart led the team in tackles because the defense is designed for the Mike backer to run free and make tackles from sideline to sideline. Senior tackles Brandon Nicholas and George Hypolite had the job of taking up space, freeing up Smart to make plays.

The adjustment in the 3-4 is that the inside linebackers, without the protection of two defensive tackles, are going to have to re-work their approach. They will be asked step up into the line, hit somebody, and not only stop the opposition in their spot, but hold their ground, get off the blocker, and make a play.

2009 CU Roster:  This should be the area of least concern for the Buffs as they prepare for the fall. Smart and Mohler are both back, and behind them there are talented and experienced players ready to step up in senior Marcus Burton and junior Michael Sipili. Red-shirt freshman Jon Major has yet to see the playing field as a Buff, but he had an impressive spring, and will also be in the mix this fall.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

2008 CU Roster: Brad Jones was the Buffs’ strong-side linebacker in 2008, and will need to be replaced. Junior B.J. Beatty is the only strong-side linebacker returning who had significant playing time in 2008.

The strong-side linebacker in the 4-3 is expected to take on blockers at the point of attack on run plays, and cover the tight end on passing downs. With the 3-4 Buff fans will be seeing this fall, there will be two outside linebackers, and the position will blend the old responsibilities with new ones. The outside linebackers will be asked to blitz more than in the past, taking over the responsibility of getting to the quarterback from the rush ends in the 4-3.

2009 CU Roster: Several players in the linebacker corps could see playing time on both the inside and outside linebacker positions. In addition to the aforementioned Marcus Burton, Michael Sipili, and B.J. Beatty, linebackers coach Brian Cabral can call on sophomores Josh Hartigan and Tyler Ahles, as well as red-shirt freshmen Jon Major and Doug Rippy. Incoming true freshmen Liloa Nobriga and Derrick Webb, while talented, may be forced to red-shirt this season due to the Buffs’ more than adequate depth.

CORNERBACKS

2008 CU Roster: With the proliferation of the spread offense in the Big 12, the Buffs played a number of defensive backs last season. Having five defensive backs on the field was not uncommon, and six were often employed. Senior Gardner McKay and junior Chapelle Brown received the most starts at corner, but Jalil Brown, Jimmy Smith, and Anthony Wright were familiar names to many Buff fans.

It would be understandable to assume that there would be little change in responsibilities for a cornerback between the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, but such is not the case. In a 4-3 scheme, the corners are often asked to play press, man-to-man coverage. If the cornerbacks were effective, safeties and linebackers were free to concentrate on stopping the rushing game.

While press coverage will still be utilized in the 3-4 defense, more often the cornerbacks will be asked to start play five yards off the line of scrimmage. Man or zone can be played from there, with timing and awareness becoming even more important.

2009 CU Roster: Even with the loss of Gardner McKay, the Buffs have not two, but three returning cornerbacks who have significant starting experience. Cha’pelle Brown will be a senior this fall; Jalil Brown a junior. They will be joined by senior Benjamin Burney, who sat out all of 2008 with a myriad of injuries, but who returns having the experience of starting every game of the 2007 season at right cornerback. Also available at corner are junior Jimmy Smith, sophomores Anthony Wright and Jonathan Hawkins, along with red-shirt freshmen Stephen Hicks.

FREE SAFETY

2008 CU Roster: Ryan Walters patrolled the defensive backfield for three seasons, posting double-digit starts in each of his final three years as a Buff. Walters was third on the team in tackles in 2008, despite missing much of the final two games of the year. Patrick Mahnke picked up valuable playing time as a freshman in Walters’ late-season absence.

The free safety, in a 4-3 defense, lives up to his title. Most of the time the free safety stays back as the last line of defense, and is free to jump coverages as necessary. Run support from the free safety acts as a backup to the linebackers. In the 3-4, however, the free safety has more responsibilities, taking over from the middle linebacker as the quarterback of the defense. While the job description remains largely the same (last line of defense on pass plays; run support), the free safety must make all the defensive calls and keep the defense on the same page as the opposition shifts around its personnel prior to the snap.

2009 CU Roster: Sophomore Patrick Mahnke will be the new sheriff in town, and he received praise for his work against Oklahoma State and Nebraska at the end of the 2008 season. Mahnke will have other young players backing him up, as junior Bret Smith is the only upperclassman on the roster at safety. Also in a position to play free safety are sophomore Travis Sandersfield and freshman Vince Ewing.

STRONG SAFETY

2008 CU Roster: Daniel (D.J.) Dykes, like fellow senior Ryan Walters, was a fixture at safety in 2008 – at least until the final two games. With Dykes out with injuries, freshman Anthony Perkins earned two starts at strong safety to end the season. In the 4-3 alignment, the strong safety is often the eighth man in the box, creeping up to play as an extra linebacker. The strong safety usually covers the tight end in pass coverage, and has to be adept at making open field tackles against running backs. In the 3-4, the strong safety is asked to be a play-maker (think Troy Polamalu for the Pittsburgh Steelers). The strong safety often will blitz the quarterback, and must be able to cover up the mistakes made by anyone in the front seven.

2009 CU Roster: Given the tough task of filling the role of strong safety this fall will be sophomore Anthony Perkins. In 2008, Perkins saw action in 11 games, including the two starts against Oklahoma State and Nebraska. Seeking playing time behind Perkins, in addition to Sandersfield and

Ewing, mentioned above, will be two intriguing players who starred on the other side of the field of play in high school. One is red-shirt freshman Ray Polk, who was a highly recruited running back prospect, but switched over to safety this spring. The other is true freshman Parker Orms. Like Polk, Orms was an All-State performer at the running back position in high school, but will be asked to stop running backs when wearing the black-and-gold for Colorado..Summary: The move by Colorado from a base 4-3 defense to a base 3-4 defense will be a subtle one. In this era of specialized players and high octane spread offenses, the fact is that the Buffs will often play with five, and sometimes even six, defensive backs. Still, stopping an opponents’ running game remains the primary focus for any defensive scheme. Even potent passing attacks can be curtailed if the offense can be made one-dimensional. The Buffs are hurting on the defensive line, both in terms of talent and experience. The shift to the 3-4, though barely noticeable from the stands, will allow CU to put its best players on the field, and shift some of the responsibilities from the linemen to the linebackers, where the Buffs are deep and talented. Born of necessity, the move is a logical choice if Colorado is to be successful in 2009.

 

Preseason magazines – Why they still are relevant

I used to look forward to the first week of June. Not because it was safe, even in Montana, to finally put away the snow shovel. Not for the chance to get in some golf. Not even for the chance to spend time outside after a long, wet spring.  Nope. What made the first week of June special each year was that was the week when the college football preseason college football magazines starting hitting the newsstands. Athlon, Lindy’s, The Sporting News, Phil Steele’s – all were collected; all were treated with reverence. Before the internet, preseason magazines were mandatory reading for college football fanatics, especially those of us living hundreds of miles away from their local teams, shut off from local newspaper coverage.For many of us, it was a long, long, time between the end of the previous season and the start of the next. During the pre-internet days, the periodic editions of The Buffalo Sporting News did help, especially with its coverage of the signing class and spring practice. Still, barring scandal or other similar news out of Boulder, I was left in the dark for the first five months of each calendar year.In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the wait for the preseason magazines was even more excruciating. Colorado was a fixture in the national rankings, and comparing and contrasting how the prognosticators foresaw the Buffs’ season unfolding made for a great fix during the summer months leading up to the first kickoff.Now, however, there is information saturation. Want up-to-the-minute stories about your team? It’s only a click away. Preseason picks? I can get twenty of them in an instant.

Which begs the question: Are preseason magazines still relevant?

The internet has changed everything. Not only can I get the same information on the internet which is put forth in the preseason magazines, I have access to better information (one example: The Sporting News is still listing Mark Helfrich as the Buffs’ offensive coordinator, even though Helfrich left for Oregon right after spring practice). The magazines usually recite statistics from last season, and will perhaps contain a blurb or two from spring practice. But there is little news or true insight. In fact, it would be my contention that preseason magazines provide less information than they used to. Satiated with internet access, the magazines have contented themselves with reporting information already out there.If you look back at some of the old magazines, there were often quotes from the coaches in the write-ups. Granted, they were usually mundane: “We graduated three of our offensive linemen, but the players behind them have been practicing hard, and they are looking forward to demonstrating they’re ready to contribute”, but at least the quotes showed that the magazine writers had at least taken the time to contact the coach.

So, do I still buy the magazines?You bet.

But not for the write-ups on Colorado. You and I can do better. Take the offerings this spring. The Buffs are almost universally picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 North. Who can argue? Are the Buffs better than two-time defending North champions Missouri? Than 9-4 Nebraska? Than everyone’s trendy pick to win the division, Kansas? No. At least not until Dan Hawkins can show that he can beat these teams (CU is 1-8 against the Cornhuskers, Tigers, and Jayhawks under Hawkins).

The Buffs’ place in the Big 12 North is predictable, as is the language used to describe CU to the rest of the college football world:

Lindy’s – “The strength of the team is not in its quarterback and wide receivers, but in its offensive line, running backs, and tight ends”; and “The defense showed a lot of 3-4 looks in spring ball. The Buffs are two deep at each of the four linebacker positions.” Yup.

The Sporting News – “The 2008 campaign was difficult because of injuries. The Buffaloes finished the year without their leading rusher, two starters in the secondary, and with a rebuilt offensive line”; and “The Buffaloes will play a 3-4 scheme at times on defense to take advantage of their strength in the back seven.” Got it.

Athlon – “Regardless of the (offensive) scheme, the Buffaloes need better quarterback play.”; and “It’s tough to get a read on Colorado in 2009 because there are so many ifs.” Duh. Feel enlightened? So, any reason to invest in these magazines at your local Barnes and Noble?Yes, but not to read up on Colorado. Rather, the value from plunking down the $7.99/magazine is for the news concerning the teams we do not know as much about, especially the non-conference opponents. Where do CSU, Toledo, Wyoming, and West Virginia fit into the national prognosticators’ rankings? How many returning starters do they have?Let’s take a look at how three of the most popular magazines rate the Buffs, as well as the Buffs’ non-conference opponents:Colorado: Sporting News (4th in the North; Texas Bowl); Athlon (4th; 49th overall); Lindy’s (4th, 60th overall) Colorado State: Sporting News (5th in Mountain West; no bowl): Athlon (5th in MWC, 70th overall); Lindy’s (7th in MWC, 87th overall)

Toledo: Sporting News (5th in MAC-West; no bowl); Athlon (4th in MAC-West; 100th overall); Lindy’s (5th in MAC-West; 107th overall)  

Wyoming: Sporting News (9th in Mountain West; no bowl); Athlon (9th in MWC; 105th overall); Lindy’s (8th in MWC; 98th overall)

West Virginia: Sporting News (2nd in Big East; Gator Bowl); Athlon (2nd in Big East; 29th overall); Lindy’s (1st in Big East; 20th overall)

So, is this instructive? If the rankings hold, the Buffs will finish the non-conference portion of the 2009 season with a 3-1 record. Okay, this is not really news.The preseason magazines, though, do allow us to take an even deeper look at the opposition. For one thing, it would be tough to find a team facing less experience on the opposing sideline than CU. The combined years of head coaching experience of the four teams CU will be playing in 2009? Two. Total. Steve Fairchild at CSU and Bill Stewart at West Virginia are entering their second seasons, while Toledo and Wyoming both have new head coaches (Tim Beckman and Dave Christensen, respectively). The good news? Dan Hawkins is 2-0 against this foursome. The bad news? With four relatively new coaching staffs, the CU coaching staff will have some guess work to do as they game plan for the early part of the 2009 season.

The other fun part of gathering up the preseason magazines is to take a look at how the CU opponents’ opponents line up. For example:  Why do CU fans have an interest in Purdue and Auburn? It’s not as if the Boilermakers and Tigers are on the Buffs’ radar. Colorado has only one game played with the twosome (a Gator Bowl loss to Auburn in 1972), and neither team is on the Buffs’ future schedules.Still, the Boilermakers and Tigers are of interest to the Buff Nation. Before facing CU, Toledo opens its 2009 season with a game in West Lafayette, Indiana. Last season, Purdue finished with a 4-8 record, so the game between Purdue and Toledo should give CU fans a good idea of just how good the Rockets are going to be in 2009. Similarly, West Virginia travels to the Plains to face Auburn the game before playing the Buffs in Morgantown. Under new head coach Gene Chizik, the Tigers are looking to improve on a 5-7 season. How the Mountaineers fare on the road against Auburn will be a good indicator of how strong an opponent West Virginia, which opens with East Carolina and Liberty, will be on October 1st.Bottom line.

While hard-core fans will learn very little about their own team when skimming through the preseason magazines, there is gold to be mined in reading these publications. (Though, I have to admit – It will be a lot more fun when we get to argue over CU’s national rankings again).

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