I’m not yet ready for “cautiously optimistic”

When a hospital releases information about a newsworthy patient, there are different categories of condition which are commonly utilized. When we hear a patient is “critical”, we know what that means. We understand what “stable” means. “Intensive care” is not a good place to be; the “recovery room” is.

Then there is “guarded”.

“Guarded” is what the hospital says when they are not sure which way things will go, but they are keeping a very close eye on the patient’s vitals. If a patient is in “guarded condition”, the patient could quickly recover … or matters could rapidly deteriorate.

Welcome to Colorado football, 2010.

Over the next month or so, Buff fans will hear coaches and players talk about how well things are progressing at the Dal Ward Center. We will hear about the “new focus” of the players and coaches. There will be talk of a  “new energy” / A “new sense of urgency” / A “new commitment to winning” from the Colorado football program. The same words will be spun by coaches and players at every program across the nation.

Are you buying?

Not to be too negative, but right now (and I emphasize “right now”)  it’s hard to see 2010 as anything other than the end of a five year sentence. There may be daylight at the end of the tunnel (a new head coach? an invitation to the Pac-12?), but there is another lousy season to live through before the shackles of the Hawkins’ era can be broken. 

Last Thanksgiving, the Buff Nation was up for parole, only to be denied release at the last moment. One more long, frustrating year to freedom.

Believe me when I say that I hope I am wrong. I hope that the Buffs piece together a winning season, a bowl bid, and a season-ending victory in a warm weather city.

Toward that end, we will focus this spring on whether the Buffs are getting closer to achieving those goals. To give you reason to enjoy spring practice, here are some areas to focus in on this spring:

1) Can Colorado develop a passing game to put fear into defensive coordinators in the Big 12? There are no lack of candidates for playing time at the wide receiver position. Senior Scotty McKnight has quietly established himself as one of the most productive wide receivers in CU history. Many eyes this spring will focus on Michigan transfer Toney Clemons, who could become the game-breaker the Buffs have longed for the past few seasons. Clemons, for his part, is up for the challenge. “I want to develop a type of aura, and swagger, understanding that we have to win,” said Clemons. “There is no more ifs … I want the younger guys to understand that we have to create an identity, not find one, and put Colorado back on the map.”

Markques Simas was supposed to be a part of restoring the Colorado passing game to prominence, but a DUI arrest in early February has led to an indefinite suspension. Both CU athletic director Mike Bohn and Buff head coach Dan Hawkins gave interviews indicating that Simas can return to the team at some point, but what conditions Simas must meet, and whether progress is being made towards meeting those conditions is being made, remains unknown.

If not Simas, who will join McKnight and Clemons in making the Colorado passing game a powerful force? There are plenty of candidates. Will Jefferson made a splash last August as a true freshman who had signed just days before camp opened, but wound up with only six catches on the season. Is Jason Espinoza an answer? Kendrick Celestine? Andre Simmons? Jarrod Darden? Will Terdema Ussery be back? Will there be another tight end step up to add depth behind Ryan Deehan?

2) Who will throw the ball to all of these receivers? As practices are open to the public, much will be made of how many completions and interceptions are throw by Tyler Hansen and Cody Hawkins. There will be dissection of how much playing time each gets with the “ones”, as well as review of the numbers from each practice (To his credit, when asked his goals for the spring, Tyler Hansen said to make it through the drills and scrimmages without an interception). With head coach Dan Hawkins, though, already stating that it is unlikely that a starter will be named by the end of spring practice, this issue should not be allowed to take up too much of your time.

3) Can Colorado put together an effective rushing attack? This is actually a two-part question. The first goes to the lack of depth at running back; the second goes to the abundance of depth at offensive line. Colorado, with the defections of Darell Scott and Demetrius Sumler, finds itself lacking at the running back position. Help is on the way this fall, with four running backs signed in February, but there is little to work with right now. Rodney Stewart will be the feature back in 2010, but it would be good to read stories about Brian Lockridge and/or Corey Nabors thrilling coaches and teammates with their play.

For me, one of the most intriguing storylines of the spring involves the offensive line. Dan Hawkins indicated one of his goals for the spring involved development of a rushing attack, and that goal begins and ends with a cohesive offensive line. Nate Solder is already highly respected in the Big 12, being named to the first-team offense last season by the coaches. Ryan Miller should join Solder amongst the elite this fall, as should Bryce Givens, Maxwell Tuioti-Mariner, Mike Iltis, Blake Behrens, Keenan Stevens and Ethan Adkins. This is not to mention newcomers Jack Harris, Eric Richter, and Gus Handler, or the returning-from-suspension Sione Tau.

In a sense, it’s a nice problem to have – the Buffs have a host of good offensive linemen to choose from. The problem for offensive line coach Denver Johnson, though, is that the NCAA will only allow 11 Buffs on the field at once, so five from the above list will have to rise above the others. Spring practice is the time for that to happen.

If Colorado is going to post a winning record in 2010 – formulating a cohesive and dominant offensive line has to happen.

4) Can the defensive line actually become a strength of the defense? It was only 12 months ago that the Colorado defensive line was seen as the area of greatest concern. Defensive line coach Romeo Bandison was left to cry out, “We will not be the weak link!”, after three senior starters left after the 2008 season. While the defensive line was far from great in 2009, it did hold its own. Now, with all of the starters from 2009 back, plus the return of Nick Kasa, plus a full year of training and body building for the other true freshmen from last fall, Nate Bonsu and Forrest West, the defensive line might actually gel into a unit for which other schools will have to adjust their game plan. (Note: Bonsu will be out for spring practice after undergoing knee surgery, but is expected back for the fall).

5) Who will step up at linebacker? Four seniors are gone from this unit, taking with them their 201 tackles from last fall. As a red-shirt freshmen, Jon Major and Doug Rippy were slowed by injuries, but showed signs that they may be the next great tandem at linebacker under Brian Cabral. In the meantime, seniors Michael Sipili and B.J. Beatty will have to assume the reigns as leaders of the defense. In the pre-spring depth chart, there are only Beatty, Tyler Ahles, and red-shirt freshman Liloa Nobriga listed at outside linebacker, with Douglas Rippy moving to the inside to compete with Major, Sipili, and red-shirt freshman Derrick Webb. This unit needs to find its identity quickly if the Buffs are to stay competitive in Big 12 conference play in 2010.

6) Can Buff fans start bragging about – and relying on – their shut-down corners? Jimmy Smith decided to come back for his senior year, with fellow senior Jalil Brown starting the final ten games last fall. The success of this duo will be a huge indicator for the Colorado defense this fall. For Colorado to win games in 2010, the Buffs’ defense must come up with stops and create turnovers to protect a mediocre offense. In the pass-happy Big 12, a successful defense begins and ends with the cornerbacks. If the corners can take the opposition’s best receivers on one-on-one, the safeties can be used to shut down the opponent’s running game. Conversely, if the safeties are forced into coverage, the opponent’s running game – along with possession passes to tight ends and running backs – can be successful. Colorado needs Smith and Brown (2nd-team All-Big 12 and honorable mention, All Big 12, respectively, in 2009) to become a storyline of their own this fall.

7) Can anyone return a punt more than three yards? Colorado ranked 117th out of 120 teams in punt return yardage last year, averaging 3.3 yards/return. Jason Espinoza’s 15-yard effort against Toledo (no, I don’t remember it, either), was the longest punt return for the season. The Colorado offense is just not good enough to consistently generate 80-yard drives, so the punt return team must – repeat, must – improve. True, Colorado was 21st in kickoff returns, but the last time I checked, it’s better overall to be receiving the ball via the punt, rather than by kickoff. In all, ten players were listed amongst as kickoff/punt returners in the spring depth chart. It’s time for two or three to make names for themselves this spring.

So, there you have it. If there are positive answers to some of the above questions this spring, it could truthfully be said that the Colorado football program is moving forward. The optimism of the spring might actually translate into victories in the fall.

And we, the proud members of the Buff Nation, can move our reports back from “guarded” back to “cautiously optimistic.”

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