Colorado quarterback battle merits front page coverage on ESPN
While many Buff fans have ceded the starting quarterback position to Connor Wood, Colorado head coach Jon Embree is not prepared to make such a concession.
In a front page article on ESPN.com, the quarterback battle between Connor Wood and the now injured Nick Hirschman is, according to the head coach, is destined to carry over until the fall.
Wrote Kevin Gemmell … In Connor Wood’s mind, he’s not Colorado’s starting quarterback. Not even close. He’s No. 1 on the depth chart, but that doesn’t mean much. That and $2.50 will get him a cup of coffee.
Nothing has changed in coach Jon Embree’s mind, either. There will be a quarterback competition to see who will lead the Buffaloes offense. It’s just going to start a couple months later than originally planned.
With the news earlier this week that last season’s backup quarterback, Nick Hirschman, had suffered another broken bone in his other foot, the highly anticipated Wood-Hirschman showdown has been postponed. But the position is still in play.
“It will have to get done in camp,” said Embree. “But there will be a competition.”
Embree couldn’t have been more blunt if he’d hired a skywriter to stream the message over the Rockies. And Wood gets the message.
“I think the competition between Nick and I would have been great for us and great for the team,” said Wood, who transferred from Texas in the fall. “This might change the dynamics of spring practice in terms of the number of reps I’m getting. But this doesn’t change my outlook.”
Embree spoke on Monday about this spring being all about finding a quarterback. That Hirschman and Wood would split equal time with the first-team offense. That they would split reps and throw to the No. 1 receivers and work behind the No. 1 offensive line.
Then on Wednesday, news broke that Hirschman would be out for spring ball. And Wednesday night Embree remained undeterred.
“It’s still our top priority,” he said. “Nothing changes.”
“I expect a lot from myself,” said Wood. “My expectations are high and it’s been that way for a long time. Even with the competition at Texas, we had some great quarterbacks there and there was good competition. What I learned was just to focus on me and how could I make the team better and doing the best that I can. I have that same approach going into [tomorrow].”
He’s not sure what to expect from Wood in light of Hirschman’s injury. Competition is good under any circumstance. And the lack of competition can either make a guy relax — or push him harder.
“It’s both good and bad,” he said. “There are times when it’s good for some guys and bad for some others. It just depends on the guy. We’re still learning about Connor. We don’t know if it will be good or bad for him. The same for Nick. Now that he knows he has to do it in training camp instead of spring, does it put more pressure on him? How does all of this affect him? It’s one of those things we won’t know until it plays out.”
And until it does, Wood is determined to make the most of his opportunity. After running the scout team last year, he’s ready to sink his teeth into Colorado’s playbook and then show what he knows on the field.
“I think if you don’t know the playbook inside and out, you have already lost the battle going on the field,” he said. “You have to see it in real time, the movement and the speed of the game. There is no movement on the playbook. But you’ve got to know it. There are two important parts that aren’t mutually exclusive. They have to come together to be a successful quarterback.”
Wood is no stranger to quarterback competitions. He went through one at Texas and that eventually led to his transfer — a move he said he is completely at peace with. Now, he wants to make a big splash at his new school. And tomorrow he takes an important first step.
“I’m feeling great about what we’re going to do in terms of the install and what we want to get done,” he said. “The West Coast offense is a pretty big offense. There is a lot to learn and I still have a lot to learn this spring and summer and fall. I have a long way to go, but I feel like I’ve made strides over the last five-six weeks.
“One of my big goals is just to make the right decisions. It doesn’t always mean taking the long, deep ball. It could be taking the check-down ball and being patient. That all comes with decision-making. That comes with poise. I want to keep that poise in spring. Obviously, I’ll get more reps with Nick being gone. I just want to make good decisions and take the offense with a process-focused mentality, meaning that this isn’t the end road. I’ve still got a long way to go. Let’s take it step by step.”
Pre-Spring Depth Chart
The Colorado Pre-Spring Depth Chart has been released.
For the offense, sophomore Tyler McCulloch is given the top spot at wide receiver opposite Paul Richardson, while at running back, sophomore Tony Jones is listed first, with junior Josh Ford listed ahead of sophomores D.D. Goodson and Justin Gorman.
Along the offensive line, senior Ryan Dannewitz, who started the last nine games of the 2011 season at right tackle, has moved to become the starter at right guard. In place of Dannewitz, Jack Harris is first in line at right tackle. On the left side, former center Daniel Munyer has moved over to left guard, replacing former senior Ethan Adkins.
At fullback, former tight end Alex Wood is listed atop the depth chart, ahead of true freshman Clay Norgard and walk-on red-shirt freshman Nick Plimpton.
On the defensive side of the ball, sophomore Juda Parker has been inserted into the line alongside returning starter Will Pericak. Also listed as starters along the defensive line are senior Eric Richter and junior Chidera Uzo-Diribe (junior Nate Bonsu, expected to be a starter, will miss all of spring practices with a shoulder injury).
The linebackers appear to be set, with sophomore Brady Daigh joining returning starters Jon Major and Derrick Webb (at least until Douglas Rippy returns this fall).
In the secondary, two spots were known to be filled, with cornerback Greg Henderson and free safety Ray Polk returning. Replacing Anthony Perkins at strong safety – at least as spring practices open – is junior Parker Orms, while at the other cornerback position will be manned this spring by sophomore Josh Moten, who is listed just ahead of red-shirt freshman Sherrard Harrington.
Of course, the above depth chart does not take into account injured starters, like linebacker Douglas Rippy, who is likely to usurp the middle linebacking position from Brady Daigh this fall. Nor does the list include incoming freshman, like cornerbacks Yuri Wright and Kenneth Crawley, who will look to duplicate Greg Henderson’s freshman feats from a year ago.
Still, there is plenty here to review, and the list will lead to much discussion over the coming weeks ….
According to cubuffs.com, here are the position issues to watch this spring …
DEFENSIVE BACK: Greg Henderson started at right corner last fall as a true freshman, but Embree wants Henderson to continue to improve despite breaking into the starting lineup almost from Day 1. Embree also wants to see the “competition in general . . . for a lot of those guys, their opportunity is now; when the freshmen come in, we have to give them their look. It’s not ‘go through spring and you get to start all over’ . . . we’re going to plug (freshmen) in with the second units and maybe a couple with the first just to see how they react.” That amounts to a lot of plugging: Nine corners/safeties were signed in Embree’s second recruiting class, which translates into an important spring for DBs like sophomores Josh Moten and D.D Goodson; and junior Terrel Smith. Redshirt freshman Sherrard Harrington (knee) is expected to return, but junior Jered Bell (knee) is out. Juniors Parker Orms and Paul Vigo will audition at safety alongside senior Ray Polk, who had an impressive off-season.
LINEBACKER: Embree is anxious to see whether junior inside ‘backer Derrick Webb “can solidify himself” during spring drills, particularly because Webb’s “arrow was going up” at the end of the 2011 season. Also drawing scrutiny will be 2011 freshmen Woodson Greer III, Brady Daigh and K.T. Tu’umalo, whom Embree said had gained weight during the off-season and winter conditioning work. “He can stop modeling for Baby Gap now and move to the big boy section,” Embree joked. “I like his ability; we played him all over the place (last fall). In the Pac-12, you need that linebacker/safety-type kid. I like his skill set.” Jon Major is set for what should be a stellar senior year, while senior Doug Rippy will sit out spring ball while continuing rehab (knee). Sophomore Kyle Washington, a former DB, will get a look at weak linebacker.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END: Embree wants to see “who steps up as the No. 2 and 3 guys” behind Paul Richardson. Tyler McCullough saw extensive duty as a freshman last season, and sophomore-to-be Keenan Canty appeared to be working his way up in the season’s final month. Redshirt freshman Nelson Spruce will get ample scrutiny. Three freshmen receivers were signed in February. At tight end, a position depleted by graduation, Nick Kasa looks to have made a successful transition from defense and was impressive in winter conditioning work. But his spring performance will have a bearing on how much he sees the field as a senior when four freshman tight ends arrive this summer. That also goes for sophomore Kyle Slavin and junior Scott Fernandez.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Position coach Steve Marshall must replace both starting guards (Ryan Miller, Ethan Adkins) and one of the most promising prospects (Paulay Asiata) has left the team. Still, there are capable replacements in junior Gus Handler and sophomores Kaiwi Crabb and Daniel Munyer – one of whom will stay at center – and spring experimentation among several other players could produce another top inside performer. Sophomore Alex Lewis’ development last season at left tackle offers some options with junior David Bakhtiari, and junior Jack Harris, who had earned the starting right tackle spot until he suffered a foot/ankle injury, has recovered. Also, Marshall hopes for more progress from impressive physical specimen Stephane Nembot at right tackle. CU signed only two O-linemen in February, but center Alex Kelley is coming off a grayshirt (delayed enrollment).
DEFENSIVE LINE: The personal development and technique improvement of Will Pericak (senior), Chidera Uzo-Diribe (junior) and Juda Parker (sophomore) are on Embree’s check list. The spring DL numbers are at about 10, including four walk-ons. CU signed a school-record nine defensive linemen in the 2012 recruiting class, and as Embree noted, “A lot of guys will be playing for us who aren’t here yet.” But, he added, improvement in individual drills will be important this spring “because we’re not going to expose them too much in team work.” Tackle Nate Bonsu (shoulder) will miss spring work.
RUNNING BACK/FULLBACK: Getting a heads up on who might replace rushing leader Rodney Stewart is a spring priority. The top current candidates are sophomore Tony Jones and junior Josh Ford, who both saw duty last fall when Stewart was injured. Malcolm Creer, injured in his freshman season, is still in rehabilitation (knee). Help at running back arrives this summer, with a handful of incoming freshmen. One freshman fullback – Clay Norgard – was a January enrollee and will participate in spring work.
KICKING/RETURN GAME: Junior Justin Castor, who handled most of the kickoffs last fall, will compete with junior Zach Grossnickle. Embree said Grossnickle, who backed up punter Darragh O’Neill, had expressed an interest in kicking off and would be given a look. Placekicker Will Oliver, who also can kick off, is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Identifying a punt returner also will be a spring emphasis, Embree said.
Here is a breakdown of each position battle, along with Pressing Questions which will be need to be answered this Spring …
Spring Roster: Brent Burnette (Sr.); Nick Hirschman (So.); Connor Wood (So.); Stevie Dorman (R-Fr.); John Schrock (R-Fr.)
Incoming this fall: Shane Dillon
What’s at Stake – The Buffs’ 2012 record, the future of the program, and life as we know it.
Okay, perhaps it’s not that dramatic, but it’s not a stretch to say that the Colorado football program this fall will only go as far as the new quarterback will take it. Gone is three-year starter Tyler Hansen, who leaves in his wake virtually no experience at the position. The only other quarterback on the roster who took snaps from center last season was Nick Hirschman. The red-shirt freshman saw action in five games, but his only real opportunity for significant action came in a start against Arizona State. Hirschman went 8-for-18 for 71 yards against the Sun Devils, but threw two poor passes which should have been intercepted. The CU coaches then yanked the shaky Hirschman in favor of Hansen, even though the senior had suffered a concussion the previous week, and had practiced little the week of the game.
Still, Hirschman might have been the favorite to take over the starting position this spring, but in January Hirschman underwent foot surgery, and his status for spring practice remains uncertain. If Hirschman is not a full go, the Buffs will have Burnette, Wood, Dorman and Schrock competing for reps this spring.
Brent Burnette has playing experience against 1-A competition, if you count playing as a backup for Middle Tennessee … in 2009. Burnette had a chance last spring and summer to impress the coaches and his teammates that he was ready to step in as Hansen’s primary backup, but lost out to Hirschman, a red-shirt freshman.
Stevie Joe Dorman was not slated to be a major factor last fall, with a red-shirt his destiny coming out of Texas as a true freshman. Still, Dorman slid down the depth chart as the fall went on, and will have to take great strides this spring in order to put himself back into the conversation as a viable backup.
John Schrock, an invited walk-on from Kansas City, did make a good impression last season. Staring out well behind Burnette, Hirschman and Dorman in terms of time with the new system, Schrock nonetheless continued to impress and improve throughout the fall. While it remains doubtful Schrock will see playing time in 2012, his stock as an option for the backup position continues to rise.
Which leaves us with Connor Wood. A transfer from Texas, Wood is being counted upon to take the reins of the Colorado offense and make it a competitive force in the Pac-12. A member of the recruiting Class of 2010, Wood, a 6’4, 210-pound prospect from Houston, was considered a four-star player when he signed with the Longhorns. Rivals rated Wood as the No. 3 pro-style prospect from the Class, and the No. 113 overall prospect in the country. Scout, meanwhile, tabbed Wood as the No. 9 quarterback nationally, and had this to say about Wood: “An excellent overall athlete, Wood has the ability to throw it a mile or take off and run. Has experience in a spread option and is comfortable running the option out of the spread offense. His size and armstrength help tremendously with his accuracy as he doesn’t have to muscle up on throws to get them downfield.”
Texas did not have a set quarterback for the future when Wood arrived, and, despite issues at the position the past two seasons, did not see Wood as the answer. Rather than carry a clipboard in Austin, Wood transferred to Colorado last August, and will be playing as a sophomore this season.
Pressing Questions –
1) With Nick Hirschman out for spring practices (or, at best, limited as to his participation), can Connor Wood assert himself as the starting quarterback, or will Buff fans spend the spring and early summer hoping that Shane Dillon will be the answer?; and
2) Who amongst the group of Burnette, Dorman and Schrock will identify themselves as a viable backup, in case either Wood or Dillon (or both) fail to materialize as the CU Quarterback of the Future?
Spring Roster: Josh Ford (Jr.); Malcolm Creer (So.); D.D. Goodson (So.); Tony Jones (So.); Nick Plimpton (FB)(R-Fr.); Clay Norgard (FB)(Fr.)
Incoming this Fall: Donta Abron; Terrence Crowder; Devien Payne; Christian Powell (FB)
What’s at Stake: In 2011, Rodney Stewart became the first player in Colorado history to lead the team in rushing in all of his four years at CU.
Let’s try that one again … Before Rodney Stewart, no one who ever wore black-and-gold had ever led the team in rushing for consecutive years. Granted, before freshmen became eligilble in the early 1970’s, such a feat would not have been possible, but Stewart did break a tie he had held with the likes of Bobby Anderson, Charlie Davis, Lamont Warren, Herchell Troutman and Hugh Charles – all who led the team in rushing three years … um … running.
Though small in stature, Stewart leaves some big shoes to fill.
The player returning who had the most carries last season is sophomore Tony Jones. Filling in when Stewart was injured in the middle of the season, Jones had 297 yards on 78 carries, scoring two touchdowns. Jones was also fourth on the team in receptions, with 27 catches for 168 yards and two more scores. While Jones had most of his carries while Stewart was inactive, Jones also had a strong finish, subbing for Stewart in the second half in the season finale against Utah. Playing with attitude, Jones had 12 carries for 72 yards, not including a 16-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter which was called back due to a holding penalty.
So, is Jones, who is about the same size as Stewart (5’7″, 175-pounds) the answer?
Well, if it isn’t Jones, it might be Josh Ford. Ford is a little bigger than Jones (5’9″, 195-pounds), but isn’t a bruiser. Last season, Ford had only 22 carries all season, going for 128 yards and one touchdown.
It appears that Jones and Ford will be the featured backs this spring because, well, there ain’t nobody else.
Malcolm Creer suffered a knee sprain against Arizona State last fall, and underwent surgery in November. While Creer will be back for the fall, he is definitely out for spring practices.
And D.D. Goodson? Well, the Buffs haven’t quite figured out what to do with him. Listed as an “athlete” on the official CU roster, Goodson saw action as a defensive back in four games in 2011, posting eight tackles in 98 plays. With a lack of running backs – to go with a wealth of incoming defensive backs – the Buffs might have Goodson work with the running backs this spring.
The lack of running backs is matched by the lack of fullbacks on the roster. Red-shirt freshman Nick Plimpton, an invited walk-on, is the only fullback who returns from last season. Enter true freshman Clay Norgard, a member of the recruiting Class of 2012, who enrolled early and will be available for spring practices.
Come August, the running back corps will not be so depleted, with three freshmen running backs added to the roster, to go with another fullback. Donta Abron, Davien Payne, and Terrence Crowder will join the team as tailbacks, with Christian Powell joining Norgard at fullback. (Injury Update: Crowder was injured five plays into his senior season, and underwent surgery last September. His rehabilitation is going so well that he expects to run track this spring, and be 100% ready for drills this August).
Pressing Questions –
1) Will Tony Jones be able to build upon his strong finish to his freshman campaign, staking out a claim for the No. 1 tailback position come September?;
2) Will Clay Norgard be able to adjust from high school football to the college game quickly enough for Colorado to have confidence to install the pro-style offense head coach Jon Embree and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy wish to run?
Spring Roster: Dustin Ebner (Sr.); Paul Richardson (Jr.); Jarrod Darden (Jr.); DaVaughn Thornton (Jr.); Tommy Papillion (Jr.); Alex Turbow (Jr.); Keenan Canty (So.); Tyler McCulloch (So.); Gabe Castillo (So.); Nelson Spruce (R-Fr.)
Incoming this fall: Gerald Thomas; Jeffrey Thomas; Peyton Williams
What’s at Stake: Paul Richardson can be good – at times very good. The junior wide receiver blew away a school record against Cal, collecting 11 passes for 284 yards, besting the old mark by 62 yards.
Paul Richardson can also be a non-factor. Other than the Cal game, Richardson had only one other game with more than five catches. While it is true that Richardson missed three full games and parts of two others due to injury, it is also true that Richardson finished the season with only 45 receptions and five touchdowns. And this was with Toney Clemons collecting 43 catches and eight touchdowns to take some of the heat off of the Buffs’ only real deep threat.
So, for Richardson to be effective in 2012, he not only needs one or more of his fellow wideouts to fill Clemons’ shoes … Richardson needs them to be better than Clemons.
The only other returning wide receivers with as many as ten catches for all of 2011 are sophomores Keenan Canty (14 catches, 161 yards) and Tyler McCulloch (ten catches, 96 yards, onr touchdown). Neither player had a single game with as many as 50 yards receiving.
There is one other returning scholarship player at wide receiver who has caught a pass (senior Dustin Ebner and junior Jarrod Darden were shut out last season) … DaVaughn Thornton. Recruited as a tight end, Thornton was not able to make a name for himself at that position. Thornton played a little at both wide receiver and tight end in 2011, collecting six catches for 69 yards. Thornton will move full time to wide receiver this spring.
Red-shirt freshman Nelson Spruce will be able to show what he has to offer as well this spring. While there is hope that the 6’2″, 195-pound wideout from Westlake Village (the same hometown as 2012 recruit Justin Solis) will have an impact this year, it has to be remembered that Spruce, like Tyler McCulloch, was a true freshman last year. The Buffs tore off the red-shirt of McCulloch, with modest results, and left the red-shirt on Spruce.
1) Will Paul Richardson be able to assert himself as a dominant, All-Pac-12 wide receiver? Will he be able to find a connection with the new Colorado quarterback, whoever that turns out to be?;
2) Will DaVaughn Thornton be able to complete his move to wide receiver, and assert himself as a large (6’4″, 220-pounds), fast wideout which creates matchup problems for Pac-12 cornerbacks?;
3) Will any of the young wide receivers currently on the roster make a name for themselves, or will the Buff Nation have to wait until fall to find a wide receiver to compliment Paul Richardson?
Spring Roster: Nick Kasa (Sr.); Alex Wood (Jr.); Scott Fernandez (Jr.); Kyle Slavin (So.); Cordary Allen (So.)
Incoming this fall: Vinent Hobbs; Austin Ray; Sean Irwin
What’s at Stake: When Colorado head coach Jon Embree and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy promised to install a pro-style offense. For the offense to be successful, the Buffs need a pair of tight ends who can not only block for the running game, but be able to keep linebackers and safeties honest by hauling in catches over the middle.
Last season, it is safe to say, the tight end position did not fulfill its role. Senior Ryan Deehan had 24 catches for 322 yards and one touchdown, while sophomore DaVaughn Thornton was generally ineffective, switch to wide receiver during the season. Former defensive end Nick Kasa took over for Thornton, catching his first pass in the season finale against Utah.
This spring, while Colorado waits for three tight ends to join the team for fall drills, there is little for CU coaching staff to work with. Kasa, who was a four-star defensive end lured away from Florida several years ago, will have his first full spring at tight end. Kyle Slavin impressed coaches and fans last spring, but then didn’t catch a single pass all season. The remaining scholarship tight end suiting up this spring is Cordary Allen, who was recruited as a running back.
1) Can Nick Kasa, who failed to meet expectations as a four-star defensive lineman, transform himself into a Pac-12 quality tight end in just one off-season?; and
2) Will Cordary Allen and Kyle Slavin take advantage of the opportunity provided by the lack of depth at the position this spring, or will Colorado coaches be forced to wait until fall drills to find their starting tight ends?
Spring Roster: Ryan Dannewitz (Sr.); David Bakhtiari (Jr.); Gus Handler (Jr.); Jack Harris (Jr.); Daniel Munyer (So.); Kawai Crabb (So.); Alex Lewis (So.); Marc Mustoe (R-Fr.); Stephane Nembot (R-Fr.); Brad Conter (R-Fr.); Alex Kelley (Fr.)
Incoming this fall: Gerrad Kough; Jeromy Irwin; Ed Caldwell
What’s at Stake: Colorado loses two starters along the offensive line – Ethan Adkins and Ryan Miller – and six offensive linemen altogether. The Buffs do have talent returning along the line, but much of it is young and unproven. Junior David Bahktiari returns at left tackle, and will be the cornerstone of the CU line in 2012. Senior Ryan Dannewitz returns at right tackle, and junior Gus Handler, who had more snaps than any other returning player (774) will be back at center.
This leaves the two guard positions to fill. One player Buff fans had anticipated being a likely candidate to fill one of those slots, Paulay Asiata, has left the team. Junior Jack Harris, a prized recruit from several years back, will need to step up after being injured for most of the 2011 season. Former defensive lineman Stephane Nembot is an intriguing possibility for the Buffs, but is still learning how to play on the offensive side of the ball. Of the remaining players, one fresh face who could make an immediate impact is Alex Kelley. A holdover from the Class of 2011, Kelley gray-shirted this past fall, and enrolled at CU in January. Kelley still has five years to play four, but now he has an extra year of weight training to utilize to his advantage.
1) Will the three returning starters – Bakhtiari, Dannewitz and Hander – solidify their positions, and give Buff fans confidence that the offensive line can carry a unit breaking in a new quarterback and a new running back?;
2) Can any of the other returning contributors from last season – Daniel Munyer, Kaiwi Crabb, Alex Lewis – step up and make their presence known as potential starters for this fall?;
3) Can Jack Harris return from an ankle injury suffered last September, and become a dominant force?; and
4) Will the move of Stephane Nembot, a star defensive line recruit from last season, to the offensive side of the ball, prove to be a wise move?
Spring Roster: Defensive tackle – Will Pericak (Sr.); Eric Richter (Sr.); Nate Bonsu (Jr.); Kirk Poston (So.); Defensive end – Chidera Uzo-Diribe (Jr.); Juda Parker (So.); Andre Nichols (So.); Kyle Koch (R-Fr.); Casey Walker (R-Fr.); John Tuso (R-Fr.)
Incoming this Fall: Defensive tackle – Justin Solis; Tyler Henington; Josh Tupou; Kory Rasmussen; Defensive end – De’Jon Wilson; Kisima Jagne; John Stuart; Samson Dafovalu; Derek McCartney (grayshirt, will join Buffs in January)
What’s at Stake: For the defensive line this spring, what is at stake is actually very little. It’s a perfect storm for defensive line coaches Mike Tuiasosopo and Kanavis McGhee – a large senior class leading to a large recruiting class, but with none of the new defensive line recruits in Boulder for spring practices. As a result, the defensive line this spring will bear little resemblance to the defensive line which will line up against Colorado State on September 2nd.
The nine defensive line recruits reprensent the highest number of players ever signed in one class at CU, and those nine will have some work to do when they get to campus this this fall. “It’s a great need for our team,” Tuiasosopo told BuffaloSportsNews.net. “When I first got here last year, and I looked at (the defensive line roster), I was like, ‘Holy Schmolie’. What a major hole.”
How thin is the current roster? Colorado has six – six! – defensive linemen on scholarship on the roster this spring, and one of them, Nate Bonsu, is out for the spring after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery.
This is not to say that the defensive line is devoid of talent. Will Pericak returns for his senior season having started 37 consecutive games, best on the team. Last fall, Pericak was fourth on the team in tackles, with 64, and led the team in quarterback pressures, with eight. Also back is junior Chidera Uzo-Diribe, who has seven career starts in his 25 games as a Buff. After that, though, the pickings are slim. Sophomore Juda Parker, who also plays linebacker in the Buffs’ hybrid defense, was in for all of 109 plays last season; senior Eric Richter, seven plays; sophomore Kirk Poston, six plays. All three were behind Nick Kasa in terms of plays and tackles last season – and Kasa switched over to tight end in November.
Come August, a great deal of attention will be paid to the Colorado defensive line. “Coming in, like I’ve said to every one of those guys (in the recruiting class), you’ve got to come in here and compete for a job,” said Tuiasosopo. “One or more of you may end up being our starters. So you have to think about coming in here and competing for a job.”
In the meantime, though, look for Colorado to run a modified spring practice, as there are simply not enough bodies along the defensive line to run a normal practice. Just like last spring, there is a very good likelihood that the Spring Game will be nothing more than a Spring Scrimmage.
1) Will there be enough warm bodies in spring practice for the defensive line to compete in any sort of meaningful way?;
2) Will any of the walk-on players – Andre Nichols; Kyle Koch; Josh Tuso – take advantage of the personnel vacuum to earn a spot in the fall rotation?
Spring Roster: Doug Rippy (Sr.); Vince Ewing (Sr.); Jon Major (Sr.); Derrick Webb (Jr.); Lowell Williams (So.); Brady Daigh (So.); Woodson Greer (So.); Jermane Clark (R-Fr.)
Incoming this Fall: None … though that is a bit deceiving. Colorado did not have a linebacker recruit in the Class of 2012, but did have nine defensive linemen and nine defensive backs in the Class. Some of the quicker defensive ends will end up playing in the “Jack” outside linebacker position for the Buffs, while some of the larger safety prospects will also be utilized at nickel back and linebacker.
What’s at Stake: If Colorado is going to improve upon the dreadful defensive numbers posted in 2012 (89th in the nation in rush defense; 97th in pass defense; 102nd in total defense; 109th in scoring defense), it will have to be the linebackers who lead the way. The defensive line is periously thin, and the secondary, while replenished with highly-rated talent, remains young. Heading into the fall, there is no unit on the team which is deeper and more experienced than the linebacker corps.
Senior Jon Major, the only returning captain from 2011, led the team in tackles last fall, with 85 (including three sacks and four other tackles for loss). Fellow senior Douglas Rippy, despite playing in only seven games, was fifth on the team in tackles (62), and also recorded three sacks. Derrick Webb also started seven games last fall, though that number would have been higher had Colorado not faced so many spread offenses (CU had a nickel back on the field for the first play from scrimmage eight times in 2011). Major, Rippy, and Webb look to be in line to receive the majority of snaps in 2012.
But that does not mean that spring practices will be devoid of drama. Douglas Rippy, who suffered torn ligaments in his knee against Washington, underwent surgery on November 15th, and will be out for the spring. Rippy’s absence will help give other Buff linebackers the opportunity to demonstrate that they deserve playing time this fall. Senior Vince Ewing has spent the majority of his CU career at safety, but will use his senior campaign to show his talents at linebacker (while also trying to overcome chronic knee problems which have plagued his career). Brady Daigh (82 plays) and Woodson Greer (40 plays) did not see much action in their freshmen campaigns, but they are the Buffs’ future at linebacker, so this spring would be a good time to show that they deserve more playing time as sophomores. Lowell Williams, also a sophomore this year, only saw action on special teams last year, while red-shirt freshman Jermane Clark will be looking to see the field for the first time in 2012.
Overall, the linebackers are very strong in the starting lineup, but there is not much depth or experience behind Major, Rippy, and Webb. Unless the CU coaching staff is counting upon an impact freshman recruit from the Class of 2013, this spring will be a good opportunity to see which players will contribute this fall … and start in 2013.
1) With the fall starters all but set, can Colorado keep Jon Major and Derrick Webb healthy … while Douglas Rippy continues to mend?;
2) Are sophomores Brady Daigh, Woodson Greer, and Lowell Williams future starters – and stars – for CU linebackers coach Brian Cabral?; and
3) Will the non-starters show enough to render the coaching staff confident of the Buffs’ depth at linebacker, or will there be more position changes, with defensive ends and/or safeties given more time at the linebacker positions?
Spring Roster: Ray Polk (Sr.); Paul Vigo (Jr.); Parker Orms (Jr.), Terrel Smith (Jr.); Greg Henderson (So.); Jered Bell (So.); Josh Moten (So.); Kyle Washington (So.); Will Harlos (So.); K.T. Tuumalo (So.); Harrison Hunter (So.); Justin Gorman (So.); Sherrard Harrington (R-Fr.); River Thompson (R-Fr.); Brandon Brisco (R-Fr.); Richard Yates (R-Fr.)
Incoming this Fall: Yuri Wright, Kenneth Crawley, Marques Mosley, Jeffrey Hall, John Walker
What’s at Stake: While there is certainly the temptation not to look back (CU 97th in the nation in pass defense last fall), and the temptation to look forward (two four-star cornerback recruits – Yuri Wright and Kenneth Crawley – coming to Boulder this summer), the reality is that the defensive backfield provides one of the most open and interesting battlegrounds of the spring.
Two starters appear to be set.
Senior safety Ray Polk (forever married to his fellow running back recruits of five years ago – the hyped Darrell Scott and the unheralded Rodney Stewart) returns. Polk only missed two starts last fall, and has 26 career starts to his credit. Polk was second on the team in tackles in 2011, with 80, and is one of four returning Buffs who actually had an interception during the Buffs’ 3-10 campaign. There is no reason to watch this spring to see if Polk has learned the position. It’s just a matter of keeping him healthy, and having him take charge of the still very young CU secondary.
The other returning starter is sophomore Greg Henderson. Thrown to the wolves as a true freshman last fall, Henderson responded. A starter from game one, Henderson led the team in pass break-ups, with nine, and was seventh in the team in tackles, with 58. For his efforts, Henderson was chosen by the coaches to receive the Lee Willard Award, given to the team’s outstanding freshman performer.
The rest of the secondary? Up for grabs. One once during the 2011 season did the Buffs trot out the same defensive backs for the first play of the game as they did the game before (CSU followed by Ohio State). In addition to Henderson, three other defensive backs – Kyle Washington, Josh Moten, and D.D. Goodson (now plying his trade at tailback – not only were on the field as true freshmen, but earned their first starts. Washington, along with juniors Terrel Smith and Paul Vigo, have the most experience at safety, and will likely get the most looks this spring as the coaches try to find a replacement for Anthony Perkins and a solid backup for Ray Polk.
Other than Greg Henderson, keeping track of CU’s cornerbacks – as well as the nickel backs – required not only a keen eye last fall, but a program. Six different players started at left cornerback, while five earned the start at nickel back. Much of the problem can be attributed to injuries (Colorado endured its second-worst injury season on record in 2011, and the defensive backfield was especially hard hit), but to be fair, there was a lack of depth and talent in the defensive backfield as well. When you have a just-coverted wide receiver (Jason Espinoza) starting at nickel back, with a true freshman the following week earning his first career start against the impossible to defend Oregon passing game (as D.D. Goodson did), you know you have problems.
When spring camp opens, there will still be a few defensive backs who are walking wounded. Sophomore Jered Bell was out all of last season with a torn ACL (suffered in August), and is still not a “full go” for the spring, while red-shirt freshman Sherrard Harrington, who sat out the 2011 season with a stress fracture to his hip, is now a “probable” for spring.
1) Can the defensive backfield keep all of its members healthy (which would be a huge step in the right direction)?;
2) Which player will step up as the heir apparent to Anthony Perkins at strong safety?;
3) Can Jered Bell and Sherrard Harrington, who missed out on the debacle of 2011, make an immediate impact this spring?; and
4) Will starters at left cornerback and nickel back emerge, or will the Buff Nation have to wait for Yuri Wright and Kenneth Crawley this August to have their faith in the secondary reinstated?
Spring Roster: Kickers – Justin Castor (Jr.); Will Oliver (So.) … Punters – Zach Grossnickle (Jr.); Darragh O’Neill (So.); D. J. Wilhelm (So.) … Long Snappers – Ryan Iverson (Jr.); Keegan LaMar (R-Fr.); Clayton Jones (R-Fr.) … Kick Returners – Josh Ford (Jr.); Malcolm Creer (Jr.); Kyle Washington (Jr.); Keenan Canty (So.); Tony Jones (So.); Justin Gorman (So.)
Incoming Roster: None
What’s at Stake: At stake? The difference between a ten loss season and a bowl bid …
Okay, it may be an exaggeration to say that better special teams play will give the Buffs three more wins this fall – but it’s not a huge exaggeration.
Be prepared to wince. Last season, Colorado was 105th in the nation (out of 120 teams) in punt returns, 115th in kickoff returns, 104th in kick coverage, and 66th in punt coverage. Remember the tag line from head coach Jon Embree’s first recruiting class, that it was all about improving overall speed? Remember how last spring, no kick returners or punt returners were identified (the Buffs virtually ignored punt and kickoff returns), as CU was going to hold open auditions with the 2011 recruits, in hopes of finding a new star to return kicks?
As it turned out, last season Colorado, in 13 games … had 13 punt returns. One more time – the Buffs averaged exactly one punt return per game in 2011, for a whopping total of 56 yards (opponents, meanwhile, had 30 punt returns for 250 yards). Colorado, as you might expect from a 3-10 team, had a lot more opportunities to return kickoffs than their opponents, but averaged over four yards per return less than the opposition. While it was hoped that one or more of the new freshmen would become a fixture returning kicks, but, at the end of the season, irreplaceable senior running back Rodney Stewart led the team in both punt returns and kickoff returns.
A sign could be posted outside the Dal Ward Center this March – Help Wanted: Kickoff and punt returners / Inquire Within.
The above listed players all had at least five returns last season, and all but Malcolm Creer (out after knee surgery in November) will be available this spring. Perhaps a kick returner will emerge from that list, or perhaps a red-shirt freshman (Sherrard Harrington? Nelson Spruce?) will be asked to show what they can do.
It is true that the overall speed of the team has improved over the last two recruiting classes. It is also true that Colorado is losing ground – and games – due to poor special teams play.
It’s time for the new speed to start making a difference on the field.
As to the kicking game, there should be little drama. Sophomore kicker Will Oliver and sophomore punter Darragh O’Neill return, having been thrown into the fire as freshmen. While neither was a dominating force, they did perform well. O’Neill was second in the nation amongst freshmen punters, while Oliver set a CU freshman scoring record (passing the mark set by Mason Crosby).
There will be competition this spring, as both kicker Justin Castor and punter Zach Grossnickle, both now juniors, also return. But these are the same two players who had their opportunities to beat out Oliver and O’Neill last season, and failed to do so. It would be an upset if the starting jobs at either position changed hands.
1) Can the Buffs find someone – anyone – who can become a kick returner that other teams fear?;
2) Will the Buff Nation have more to hope for from punt returns this fall than a successful fair catch?;
3) Will the overall improvement in team speed become evident in kickoff and punt return coverage?; and
4) Are the kicker and punter positions set, or will there be renewed competition for those starting jobs?