March 19th – First scrimmage – What we learned from 163 plays

Quarterback battle still undecided

“To me, it’s dead even right now”, said junior Tyler Hansen after Thursday’s scrimmage. “So we’ve got to compete and make plays. I’ve got to do better. I can’t have an okay day anymore. I’ve got to have a great day.” As far as the first scrimmage was concerned, senior Cody Hawkins put up the better numbers. Hawkins went 25-of-44 for 194 yards and four touchdowns, while Hansen connected on 16-of-29 passes for 136 yards and a score. Each quarterback was intercepted once.

Offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau said the competition “was really good – the best it’s every been … Before (the scrimmage), I thought we were progressing well. But we still have two weeks – thank goodness.” Kiesau indicated that he is keeping a close eye on the progression of his two top quarterbacks. charting every detail of every repetition this spring.

As for the Colorado head coach, Dan Hawkins, there was no indication that naming of a starter is imminent, or even a priority. “You could split them with a hair,” said Hawkins.

[Freshmen quarterbacks Seth Labato and Nick Hirschman were in for several series. Between the two of them, they completed nine-of-16 passes for 28 yards.]

Running game still stuck in neutral

With only two scholarship running backs available for spring practice, and with the Buffs coming off of an awful season running the ball (less than 88 yards per game; 113th in the nation), expectations were relatively low for the running game this spring.

Those expectations were met on Thursday

Colorado’s two top running backs, Rodney Stewart and Brian Lockridge, had only four carries apiece during the scrimmage.

“We’ve got to be smart,” said Eric Kiesau, noting the lack of running back depth, coupled with graduation losses at tight end and fullback. “I’ve made some changes to the offense to help that, and it might mean doing some other things to counter running the ball”. Quarterback Tyler Hansen explained what the “other things” has meant this spring. “Last spring and fall we were kind of a more pounding (offense). We had the personnel for that,” said Hansen. “But now we don’t have (depth and experience at tight end and fullback), we have more speed – more skill guys, more receivers. So now we’re kind of playing to that, and kind of using our short passing game as kind of that running game … I think we’re going to use Toney Clemons and Markques Simas as our outside running game, and use some zone read stuff as our running game.”

Wide Receivers working in shifts – McKnight injured

If the running game isn’t working, then the Buffs will have to rely more and more on the passing game. For now, there is plenty of depth at the position, which is helpful, as the Buffs lost Scotty McKnight to injury during the scrimmage. McKnight had three receptions for 31 yards in the scrimmage – including a 14-yard touchdown reception – before breaking his fibula after going out of bounds and hitting a railing after a play. The official word from cubuffs.com is that McKnight suffered a lower leg / ankle injury, but it is being widely reported elsewhere that it is a broken fibula, and McKnight will be out for the rest of the spring. McKnight is no stranger to broken bones, having suffered a broken ankle during spring practice, 2007. McKnight was able to recover from that injury to lead the team with 43 receptions that fall.

Even with the loss of McKnight, the Buffs have enough depth at wide receiver to run players in shifts.

“The ‘ones’ were going ten (plays), the ‘twos’ eight … so within those 18 ‘reps’, I was saying, ‘whoever is moving the team, you’re going to stay in there,’ ” said offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau of his wide receivers. “If you go three-and-out, it’s not a bad thing, but let’s give the other guys a chance to let them roll through.”

The receivers on Thursday were chided for a number of dropped balls, but since the passing game was an emphasis at the first scrimmage, several Buff wide receivers put up decent numbers. Six different receivers caught at least four passes, led by Will Jefferson, who had six catches for 81 yards and a toucdown. Toney Clemons and Clark Evans each caught five passes.

Sophomore Will Jefferson has been one of the wideouts receiving the most praise. A late 2009 signee (the week before fall camp), Jefferson saw action in 11 games last year, but only posted six catches for 45 yards. A year in the system, Jefferson believes, has helped him significantly. “I never lifted weights in high school, so having the chance to go through winter conditioning has really helped me to get stronger, and I feel a lot more comfortable out there this spring,” said Jefferson. “I also played mainly tailback and safety in high school … so having last season as a receiver under my belt has helped me a lot, too.”

The Colorado passing game is also getting assistance from an unlikely source – the tight ends. With Riar Geer and Patrick Devenny graduated, it appeared that there would be a drop off at the tight end position in 2010, with only junior Ryan Deehan with much experience amongst the returning tight ends. Two red-shirt freshmen, though, are having an impact. Converted quarterback Clark Evans has been impressive – “very athletic”, according to Dan Hawkins, as has DeVaughn Thornton. “(Clark) and ‘Vaughnie’ are doing a nice job there,” said Hawkins after the scrimmage.

Offensive line still a work in progress

It’s not as difficult for the defense to make plays when the offense is one dimensional. Colorado’s offense, whether by happenstance (no running back depth), or by design, is veering in the direction of a more wide open, passing attack. With few running plays coming their way, the defense focused on the pass, and the offensive line wasn’t all that proficient at protecting the passer, giving up six sacks (three for both Hansen and Hawkins).

Defense “a little more confident”

It is a college football axiom that the defense will be more successful in the spring than offense.

At Colorado, that is holding true to form.

The defensive line is holding its own, with a group of players returning who have starting experience. Marquez Herrod, Will Pericak, J. Forrest Webb, Nick Kasa and Curtis Cunningham will form the nucleus, with coaches hoping Eugene Goree and Conrad Obi will force their way onto the playing field. Experience is key, said Buff linebacker Jon Major, “especially on the D-Line. That kind of helps everyone; it kind of sets the tone up front and helps us play fast.”

The defensive line helped contribute to the six sacks recorded in the first scrimmage, and the line did not allow any long runs. Again, however, this success is relative, as the Colorado offense is emphasizing the passing game this spring, with little attempt to produce a dominating rushing attack. Still, success is success. “I think we played pretty well (on Thursday), especially on the run,” said Major. “(The offense) made only a few big plays … One of our goals is to keep it under 3.3 (yards) per carry, and I think we reached that.”

The linebackers were supposed to be a question mark this spring, with the depature of the three top tacklers from the unit. However, Brian Cabral seems to be able to field a quality unit each year, and 2010 will not likely be the exception. Sophomore Jon Major, senior Michael Sipili, and senior B.J. Beatty are your likely starters come September 4th, but good things – and playing time – are expected from junior Tyler Ahles and sophomore Doug Rippy as well.

The defensive secondary is the strength of the team, and the cornerback tandem of Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown may be amongst the best in the Big 12 conference. “This year, it’s all about business,” said Smith. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s still fun, but we came in this spring with an emphasis on turnovers (three on Thursday) and being aggressive, and that’s what we’re doing. We still have a couple of pieces to put together, but so far, the defense is doing good.”

One of those “pieces” Smith is referring to may be red-shirt freshman Parker Orms, who had a great first scrimmage. Orms, who looks to fill the shoes of Cha’pelle Brown at nickel back, had a team high 11 tackles, including three tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, and three third down stops. “He’s a baller,” said Jimmy Smith about Orms. “We always knew he was speedy. But his instincts are really surprising. He tackles, he’s aggressive … he’s just a baller.” Dan Hawkins also called Orms “a baller”, saying Orms “has a great awareness to him.”

Behind Orms on the honor roll for the Colorado defense at the first scrimmage was safety Vince Ewing, who posted ten tackles. Linebackers Sipili (nine tackles), Major (seven tackles), and Beatty (five tackles, including two sacks), also had good days. Jimmy Smith had an interception which he returned 47 yards, while Major had one he returned 41 yards for a touchdown.

Special Teams still not “Special”

It’s been a poorly kept secret this spring that the kickers have not been faring well. Senior kicker Aric Goodman has been inconsistent, while red-shirt freshman Zach Grossnickle has yet to proven he is the answer.

Then came the scrimmage.

Zach Grossnickle made all four of his field goal attempts Thursday, connecting from 32, 24, 38, and 32 yards out. The difference? Location. Location. Location.

For whatever reason, Grossnickle performs better in Folsom Field, site of the first scrimmage, than he does on the practice fields. “I don’t know what it is about this field, but I kick better here than on the practice field,” said Grossnickle. “I don’t know why; I have no idea. I just feel comfortable kicking up here (at Folsom Field)”.

Grossnickle’s comfort zone extended to the punting game as well. Grossnickle’s nine punts netted a 37.2 yard average, but his hang time, an emphasis this spring, has been improving. “I’m just trying to match my hang time with my distance, so when my punt goes 40 yards, I want to get like 4.2 seconds,” said Grossnickle. “I had a couple that weren’t so great … but I hit some fives (seconds of hang time), so I was happy about that.”

It will also be of comfort to some Buff fans that Dan Hawkins has not ruled out utilizing Grossnickle at both punter and kicker. “You’ve got to go with the best guy,” said Hawkins,” and if it’s one guy, you do it.”

Punt and kickoff returns continue to be by committee, with Rodney Stewart and Toney Clemons amongst the notables working as punt returners.

The Buffs will be off all of next week for spring break, resuming practices on March 29th.

3 Replies to “Scrimmage Notes and Quotes”

  1. Interesting quote:
    “I had a couple that weren’t so great … but I hit some fives (seconds of hang time), so I was happy about that,” said Grossnickle.

    If we have a redshirt freshman who can hit 5 seconds hangtime punting in his first week of spring practice, things are looking up.

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