Spring Grades – Offense
Spring practices are completed for the University of Colorado.
How did the Buffs fare in their second set of spring practices under Mike MacIntyre?
Let’s take a look …
If goal number one for the spring for the quarterbacks was not to get anyone hurt … mission accomplished.
Colorado entered spring practices with only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, sophomores Sefo Liufau and Jordan Gehrke. The lack of depth was such a concern that the unit supplemented by equipment manager (and former high school quarterback) Trent Sessions. The loss of either Liufau or Gehrke to injury would not have only hampered spring practices, but would have relegated the Spring Game to yet another controlled (read: boring) scrimmage.
So at least the Buff quarterbacks made it through spring in one piece.
The two questions I posed at the opening of spring camp for the quarterbacks were:
1) Can Sefo Liufau continue to improve; and 2) Can Jordan Gehrke compete for the starting job?
It appears that the answer to both questions is “yes”.
Liufau received high marks throughout the spring for improving on his mechanics. Liufau, said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brian Lindgren, “is not as gifted athletically (as Jordan Gehrke), but Sefo is a sharp guy who anticipates things really well. We’re trying to get him to be able to do some of that stuff when things break down – but that’s hard to teach.”
Liufau’s most noticeable spring improvement, noted Lindgren, likely is in the running component of CU’s pistol offense in “carrying out fakes and being a threat as a runner in some situations. He’s doing a better job there and in just identifying packages and seeing what the defense is giving him. That’s allowed him to anticipate some things in the pass game.”
“Basically, I’m just more comfortable in the offense,” said Liufau, who completed 149-of-251 passes last season for 1,779 yards and 12 touchdowns (eight interceptions). “I’ve made a lot of improvement from when I was last on the field in November. I think it’s been a very good spring.”
While Liufau has been remained atop the depth chart as the No. 1 quarterback, Gehrke did provide healthy competition this spring.
“Jordan’s an athletic guy,” said Lindgren. “When things break down he’s done a nice job of making plays with his feet or keeping his options and finding somebody downfield. I’ve been really pleased with how he’s picked up the offense … I think he’s definitely pushing Sefo on a daily basis.”
In the spring game, Gehrke’s black team got the better of Liufau’s gold team, 21-17. Gehrke completed only 5-of-11 passes, but did have a 67-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Bobo.
Liufau, meanwhile, had better numbers in the spring game – 19-of-31 for 238 yards and two touchdowns – but also had made several mistakes which Buff fans will not want to see repeated this fall:
1) An ill-advised interception. When pressured, Liufau did not throw the ball away, instead throwing a balloon which was intercepted by Ahkello Witherspoon;
2) In the two-minute drill right before halftime, Liufau again made a mental error, taking a sack after taking the team into field goal range. Three plays after the sack, Diego Gonzalez missed a 47-yard field goal attempt; and
3) In the two-minute drill at the end of the game, Liufau threw four straight incompletions after driving the ball into black territory. On third-and-ten and fourth-and-ten, despite having almost a minute of clock remaining and the ball at the black 33-yard line, Liufau went for the touchdown instead of the first down. Both passes were batted down. Ball turned over on downs … gold team loses.
It’s hard to read too much into a Spring Game, a game in which the quarterbacks (including Trent Sessions) performed well overall. Liufau looked better on deeper throws, and Gehrke looked like a more-than-able replacement should Liufau be injured.
Still, there are the nagging doubts about those three drives …
Spring Grade …. B+
The first question I asked about the running backs heading into spring was whether Josh Ford would be allowed to return to the team. Unfortunately, the answer came back negative, as Ford was denied his application for a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.
The next question was whether the primary running back coming out of the spring would be Christian Powell, who led the team in rushing last season (147 rushes for 562 yards), or Michael Adkins, who came on late last year to finish just behind Powell (103 rushes for 535 yards).
As it turned out, neither running back shone, as both were hampered for much of the spring with minor injuries (with “minor” being defined as “injuries which will not keep them from playing this fall”, as opposed to “injuries I would be willing to put up with myself”).
With Powell and Adkins limited, the door was opened for a number of other backs to make their presence known.
And did they?
Well, yes and no.
In all, six backs had between 11 and 16 rushes during the first three scrimmages, with indistinguishable results. The numbers:
Malcolm Creer: 13 rushes for 65 yards … Tony Jones: 16 rushes for 62 yards … Phillip Lindsay: 16 rushes for 62 yards … Michael Adkins: 12 rushes for 57 yards … Terrence Crowder: 12 rushes for 49 yards … Donta Abron: 11 rushes for 38 yards.
See any breakthrough performances there?
One back Buff fans were hoping to have a break out spring was red-shirt freshman Phillip Lindsay, one Buff not yet exposed to battle on the field of play as a Buff.
“He’s doing exactly what I thought he’d do,” MacIntyre said of Lindsay. “He’s a really good running back, he’s really good on special teams, he competes. He is tough, really tough. He’s kind of a Tasmanian Devil, he just keeps going. I love him. He gives us another fast, quick guy like Michael.”
Lindsay, a 5-8, 170-pounder from Denver South, said his speed hasn’t suffered after a high school knee injury that apparently wasn’t a concern during scout team duty last fall. “It’s good . . . I’ve forgotten about it,” he said. “I actually put (his brace) on the wrong knee a couple of weeks ago. It doesn’t hurt anymore.”
Overall, the CU rushing game produced 433 yards in 105 carries this spring in its three scrimmages, a paltry 4.1 average (and that is before 15 sacks are taken into consideration. If sacks are counted, the number dips to an awful 3.44 … down near the 3.11 average posted by the 1-11 team of 2012).
The Spring Game saw an uptick in rushing average for the backfield, with the totals for both teams coming in at 4.52 yards per carry (50 for 226 yards). Still, the running game only saw one “explosion” play (going for over 20 yards), a 25-yarder by Tony Jones.
If Colorado is to have an offense which is able to control the ball and the clock (read: keep the ball away from the high-octane offenses of the Pac-12), the running game will have to continue to improve.
Still, there is hope for the future. Colorado has a number of good backs … but still desperately needs a great one.
Spring Grade … B-.
No one was expecting the next Paul Richardson to emerge from Spring Practices, 2014.
But the Buff Nation was looking for at least some reason to believe that there is enough talent on the outside edges of the offensive formation to keep opposing defenses honest.
“We’re going to have to do it collectively,” wide receivers coach Troy Walters said this spring. “I think the guys know that everyone has to contribute in some way. If we get two or three guys to do what ‘P-Rich’ did then we’ll be in good shape. Then, we need Nelson Spruce to continue what he did last year – particularly at the end of the year when he had a few monster games.”
First, as to Nelson Spruce.
In my eyes, Spruce had an excellent spring. Spruce entered the spring as the Buffs’ No. 1 receiver by default, the only returning receiver with more than 22 catches last season (55 for 650 yards) . Through his efforts, though, Spruce emerged from the spring as the Buffs’ No. 1 receiver, period. In three spring scrimmages, Spruce collected a team-high nine catches for 123 yards, and led the gold team in the Spring Game with eight catches for 110 yards. Spruce showed last season that he could be a possession receiver, catching the third down passes to keep chains moving. He showed that again this spring, along with an ability to go for deeper passes as well (a 51-yarder in a scrimmage; a 31-yarder in the Spring Game).
Spruce may not be the next P-Rich, but he is looking more and more like the next Scotty McKnight, which is just what the Buffs need.
Now, as to that outside threat, the speed burner who can stretch defenses …
Welcome to center stage, Bryce Bobo.
The red-shirt freshman was the sensation of the Spring Game, collecting five catches for 132 yards and a touchdown, including a 67-yard touchdown. Bobo showed moves, speed, and good hands.
Lee Walker, like Bobo seeing action before the Buff faithful for the first time, had a good spring as well. Walker, who enrolled in January, had six catches for 71 yards in the scrimmages, with three catches for 41 yards (and an 18-yard touchdown) in the Spring Game.
In terms of knowing the offense, Walker is in catch-up mode. “It’s been tough on him,” said coach Walters. “We’ve thrown a lot at him, he’s trying to get adjusted to school, a new environment, how we practice and do things . . . but he’s learning. He’s a great kid and a tremendous worker who wants to be good”.
“I’m definitely getting acclimated now,” Walker said. “Coach is telling me don’t let the depth chart pressure you, just get used to things so when fall comes I can be on it.”
… And all this before four-star recruit Shay Fields hits Boulder this spring.
If one unit over-achieved expectations this spring, it would be this one.
Grade: … A-
Tight Ends / H-Backs / Fullbacks
While the rest of the college football world has been moving to smaller, quicker offenses, there is something to be said for a strong running game, complete with a fullback, blocking tight ends and H-Backs.
The ‘21’ or ‘22’ personnel (package including fullbacks and/or H-back) is part of who we are,” running backs/tight ends coach Klayton Adams said this spring. “We’re never going to be a fully spread team. It’s part of our philosophy that we have to use that position. I think the other part of it is, when you look at personnel groupings, it’s a question of how do we get our best 11 players on the field as much as we can?
“When you’ve got a couple of good fullbacks – which I think we do – you’re going to put those guys on the field more often. Some of it has to do with who we’re playing, some of it has to do with who you have. I think we have a couple of guys who can be pretty good at that spot.”
One of the fullbacks Adams is referencing is the Buffs’ leading rusher from 2013, Christian Powell (147 carries for 562 yards). Powell is 6’0″, 230-pounds, and may be the bruising interior runner that the Buffs are looking for to offset some of their quicker – but smaller – tailbacks.
“He’s a pretty sharp and polished guy,” said Adams of Powell, who missed most of spring practices. “I know what he can do there. He still needs to work at it, but at all three of those positions – tailback, fullback and tight end – we’ve got the greatest motivator in all of sports – competition. There’s a lot of good players that are vying for time. We’re probably one of the only programs in America that’s got five guys back there (at fullback/H-back).”
The others: George Frazier, a 6’2″, 250-pound red-shirt freshman (the only other scholarship fullback/H-back – also listed as a linebacker); juniors Jordan Murphy and Clay Jones and sophomore Jesse Hiss. Frazier missed most of the spring as well due to injury, while Murphy scored on a one-yard touchdown for the black team in the spring game, picking up six yards on a fourth-and-one with his only other carry. Murphy also had a reception in the game, going for four yards.
The tight ends, like the fullbacks/H-backs, did not see much action this spring. In three spring scrimmages, Sean Irwin had two catches, going for 10 yards and one touchdown, while Connor Center had one catch for four yards. In the spring game, Chris Hill (for 24 yards on a third-and-11) and Sean Irwin (for ten yards) had the only receptions amongst the tight ends.
“I feel pretty good about that spot (the tight ends),” said Adams. “But I still say you need three or four guys there to make it through an entire season. That position – like your entire offense – has got to be a toolbox. You’ve got to have a hammer, somebody who’s going to stretch the field and somebody who can do a little of both.”
Two new recruits, Dylan Keeney and Hayden Jones, will join the team this fall, adding depth and additional talent to the roster.
For now, however, all Buff fans have to go on are the stats from Year One of the Mike MacIntyre era (nine catches each for Kyle Slavin and the now departed Scott Fernandez), and the stats from this spring.
There may be a great deal more production out of the tight end/fullback/H-back positions this fall, but, at least for now, this area is still a work in progress.
Spring Grade … C+
I don’t know how to say this graciously ….
The offensive line scares the crap out of me.
Not gracious enough?
Well, it’s hard to be overly optimistic about the Buffs’ chances this fall against Pac-12 competition until or unless the offensive line starts to show improvement.
True enough, it’s hard to gauge how much better the players are when they are competing against their own teammates, but bear in mind that the CU defensive line played this spring without two potential starters – Justin Solis and Samson Kafovalu – and still there was no dominating performance from the offense in the running game. And did you see Stephane Nembot complete whiff on an inside move by Tyler Henington in the spring game, leading to an uncontested sack?
Okay, let’s back up a bit.
Last season, Colorado was blessed with a very unusual occurrence – all five starting offensive linemen started all 12 games. Every game last fall Jack Harris lineup at left tackle; Kaiwi Crabb was the left guard; Gus Handler played center; Daniel Munyer lined up at right guard; and Stephane Nembot was the right tackle. Keeping all five healthy all season was certainly a blessing … as there was little or no depth behind those five ready to take the field.
Harris and Handler have graduated, leaving the Buffs with three returning starters, including two fifth-year seniors in Crabb and Munyer.
Sounds good … but is it?
Sophomore Alex Kelley has moved in atop the depth chart at center, and appears to be doing well. Munyer, at 6’2″, 295-pounds is undersized (if anyone weighing almost 300 pounds could ever be called “undersized”), but has good technique. Crabb is probably the Buffs’ best lineman, and can play anywhere along the line (though playing guard, Crabb is listed in the “pencil” depth chart as the primary backup at left tackle).
So, the interior of the line appears to be in good shape with Crabb, Kelley and Munyer.
The scary positions are the tackles.
Marc Mustoe and Stephane Nembot, both juniors, are not dominating their positions, and the tackle positions are one of the most important on the team.
Some help might be on the way.
Sophomore Jeromy Irwin missed all last season with a foot injury, and also missed the spring. If Irwin can make it back full strength this fall, it would be a big help.
Also coming this fall is junior college transfer Sully Wiefels. The old saying is that coaches don’t bring in junior college players to sit on the bench, so the coaching staff may well be looking for Wiefels to contribute immediately.
The one positive that Colorado has that it didn’t have last season is viable depth. Colorado was able to red-shirt four offensive line recruits from Mike MacIntyre’s first recruiting class – Jonathan Huckins, Colin Sutton, Sam Kronshage and Gerrad Kough – and now are all available to contribute.
Perhaps the offensive line did not have a good spring (2.9 yards per carry rushing; 15 sacks allowed in three scrimmages) because the CU defense has improved markedly from last season … let’s go with that.
Or it could be that the Buffs need an insertion of Irwin and Wiefels into the lineup in order to be able to compete for a bowl bid this fall.
Spring Grade … D+