Preseason – 2003

In 2002, the Colorado Buffaloes rallied from a 1-2 start to the season to claim a second consecutive Big 12 North Division title.

In 2003, the Buffs would have to make a comeback of another sort. The offense would sport a completely new look, and would be depending upon the CU defense to steady the Buffs’ ship through a tough preseason schedule.

On offense, only three starters returned. Gone were All-American running back Chris Brown, four-fifths of the starting offensive line, and two of Brown’s backfield mates, fullback Brandon Drumm and quarterback Robert Hodge. If Colorado was to become the first-ever Big 12 team to win three consecutive division titles, new stars would have to emerge.

In the backfield, the returning quarterbacks possessed a total of ten snaps in actual game experience. Sophomore Joel Klatt looked to be the front-runner, with fellow sophomore Erik Greenberg battling with red-shirt freshman James Cox for the backup position.

Whoever took the snaps would have senior Bobby Purify to carry the ball and be the focus of the running game. Purify amassed 739 yards while spelling Chris Brown in 2002, and had put up 916 yards in 2001. Sophomore Lawrence Vickers, with all of seven career carries to his credit, was slotted in at fullback.

The offensive line was a concern, however, as only senior guard Marwan Hage returned.

With the Buffs’ ability to run the ball more at issue than at any time in recent memory, Colorado would turn to a number of returning players at the wide-out position to help produce points. Seniors Derek McCoy, John Donahoe and D.J. Hackett returned, along with senior tight end Quinn Sypniewski.

Said new wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore about his charges: “The thing that impressed me about some of the kids is, a year ago, they weren’t called upon to do much, but yet, they still surrendered the ‘I’ for the ‘We’. This year, they are going to have to be more involved.”

On defense, the Buffs entered the second year of a 4-2-5 alignment. Five seniors returned to anchor a squad which had finished 60th in the nation in total defense, but had surrendered only 22.6 points/game (39th nationally), the best ranking in four years under head coach Gary Barnett. Seniors included defensive end Gabe Nyenhuis, defensive tackle Marques Harris, linebacker Sean Tufts, free safety Medford Moorer, and cornerback Phil Jackson.

“I think the defense comes in with the highest degree of consistency,” said Gary Barnett, “and therefore is going to have to carry the burden of this football team early. I also think that defensively, scheme-wise, we’ll take a step forward. Last year, in the infant stages of us being in that scheme (the 4-2-5), we were pretty simple, and we learned a lot this past year.”

Special teams would also see a significant turnover.

Ray Guy Award-winner Mark Mariscal would be replaced by sophomore punter John Torp. The position of placekicker was an open race between junior J.T. Eberly, sophomore Justin Zaitz, and freshman Mason Crosby. Returning the opponents’ kicks would be sophomore Jeremy Bloom, who returned to the Buffs after a successful ski season. Bloom’s freshman campaign in 2002 had witnessed a 16.8 yard average return (good for fifth in the nation).

It is almost cliche to look at the Buffs’ preseason schedule each year and declare it to be one of the toughest in the nation.

In 2003, once again it appeared that the Buffs’ road to conference play would be difficult. All four non-conference opponents went bowling in 2002 (including two New Year’s Day bowls), compiling an overall record of 37-17.

Up first would be Colorado State in Denver. The Rams had taken three of the past four games against the Buffs, the best run for the Rams in the series since the 1930’s. Next, the Buffs would play UCLA, a contest which carried with it the added attraction of playing against first year head coach Karl Dorrell, a CU assistant coach (1992-‘93; ‘95-‘97). As if the Buffs needed any additional incentive to do well against the Bruins, during the off-season Dorrell enlisted former CU players and assistant coaches Eric Bieniemy and Jon Embree to work on his side of Folsom Field in September. Next up would be a home game against defending Pac-10 Champion Washington State, before heading to Tallahassee for a first-ever meeting with perennial powerhouse, Florida State.

Nationally, the large turnover in personnel in Boulder did not leave the pundits with a favorable impression of the Buffs’ chances in 2003. Most rankings dropped Colorado, which had finished 2002 with a No. 20 ranking, out of their Top 25. Few experts, apparently, expected the Buffs to three-peat as division champions.

The pollsters were impressed, conversely, with one Big 12 team, though, as Oklahoma was tabbed as the preseason No. 1 . Also ranked from the Big 12 were Texas, in at No. 5, Kansas State (No. 7), and Oklahoma State (No. 24).

Conspicuous by its absence was Nebraska. The Cornhuskers had finished 7-7 in 2002, the first non-winning campaign for Nebraska since 1961. The 2003 season marked the first time the Cornhuskers started a season unranked since the 1960’s. Still, despite entering the 2003 season on a three game losing streak, Nebraska was just outside of the polls, at No. 27, while Colorado was a few notches lower, ranked No. 32.

In addition to facing two teams ranked in top ten once they reached conference play, Colorado would play two ranked non-conference opponents. Florida State checked in at No. 13 in the preseason poll, with Colorado State in at No. 23. The Rams were led by quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt, a player Buff fans loved to hate. Van Pelt led CSU to a 10-4 record in 2002, and with it the Rams’ third Mountain West Conference title in four years. If Gary Barnett was to post a win in a season opener for the first time in his five years as the Colorado head coach, it would have to come on a neutral site against a successful team with an experienced senior quarterback at the helm.

The Buffs would counter with an inexperienced quarterback and an offense with many question marks.

Enter the national stage, Joel Klatt.


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