Mid-term papers turned in – time for the grades

Expectations for the Colorado Buffaloes for the 2010 season are, well, minimal. Most preseason magazines, coming out in May and June, will have the Buffs pegged to finish fifth or sixth in the Big 12 North. A 6-6 finish and a minor bowl will be considered the realistic goals for a team coming off a 3-9 season, and four straight losing campaigns.

With that in mind, the below grades for each unit on the team is not with respect to similar athletes on the rosters Colorado’ Big 12 rivals, but rather with respect to what we knew about those units heading into the spring, and how well those players and their coaches did in improving their standing.

Quarterbacks – Spring Grade: D+/C-

There was one goal, and one goal only, for Colorado fans when it came to the quarterback race this spring: Name junior Tyler Hansen as the starter, and let’s move on. Instead, out of the first scrimmage, we heard terms like “dead even”, and, from head coach Dan Hawkins, there was this quote:”You could split them with a hair”. Offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau announced early during the spring that the competition would go on into the fall, and that he felt that was a good thing.

Then there was “The Chart”.

This spring, the Colorado coaching staff charted every pass, every completion, touchdown passes, interceptions … everything. “You’ve got statistics in front of you that say, ‘Hey, this guy’s doing better than you’, on this day, but tomorrow I’m going to come out here and I’m going to do a lot better,” Tyler Hansen said. “It definitely adds a lot more competition to it … You’re definitely going into practice saying, ‘Every play matters’. You’ve got to be 100 percent focused on every play, because every rep goes into your official score.”

As I noted at the time of its revelation, the cynic in me sees “The Chart” as just another path to justify giving Cody Hawkins the start against Colorado State. Career interception record be damned. Overall won/loss record be damned. Cody is better because “The Chart” says so.

I am the first to admit that I defended Dan Hawkins in August, 2008, and August, 2009, when he announced that his son would be the opening day starter. Perhaps I was being too logicial. I could not, for the life of me, understand how a coach would be willing to risk millions of dollars – not to mention his career – by allowing nepotism to blind him from playing the better player.

Now, I’m not so sure. 

The standard of choosing between Tyler Hansen and Cody Hawkins should not be “The Chart”. It should not be whether or not one player “edges ahead” of the other. Cody has had his chances. For the Buffs to move forward, for Colorado to be seen as having any chance at a winning season, Tyler Hansen has to be named the starter. Period. Give Hansen the opportunity to take the reigns, take charge of the team. Only an injury should preclude Hansen from taking the first snap against Colorado State in September.

I do like Cody. I believe he is a leader, and, his refusal to speak with the media this spring notwithstanding, a team player. He is a student of the game, and has game experience. Cody is everything you could hope for … in a backup quarterback.

The failure of Dan Hawkins and Eric Kiesau to read the situation, both from a team morale standpoint and a fan standpoint, is one of the most disappointing of this spring’s drills. The need for Colorado to break from the Cody Hawkins era is clear. Putting Tyler Hansen at the top of the post-spring depth chart is a start, but then you get deflated when you read Dan Hawkins’ post-spring game quotes. “It’s great for competition and great for our guys to keep battling – all of that … I don’t know why, unless you had a guy who won ten games, you would say, ‘Yeah, that’s our guy’ “.

No, Dan Hawkins doesn’t know why. But the Buff fans do …

One positive coming out of this spring, as far as the quarterbacks are concerned, was the play of true freshman Nick Hirschman. Enrolling in January, Hirschman eschewed the spring semester of his senior year in high school to come to Boulder to participate in spring drills. One sign that Hirschman has made significant progress – his competition for third-string quarterback, red-shirt freshman walk on Seth Lobato, spent time experimenting at wide receiver. At the spring game, Hirschman was given the opportunity to take one pass, and he made the most of it, completing an 83-yard touchdown to Andre Simmons. Hirschman’s quarterback rating for the game was a gaudy 1127.20.

Now that’s a positive stat …

Running backs – Spring Grade: C-/C

Colorado fans knew that the running game would not be featured this spring. Gone were 2008 recruits Darrell Scott and Ray Polk (moved to safety), along with senior-to-be Demetrius Sumler, who decided he would rather transfer than receive ample playing time this fall playing for the Buffs. All that Colorado had in camp was oft-injured Rodney Stewart, seldom used senior Corey Nabors, junior Brian Lockridge (he of 12 carries in 2009), and walk-on red-shirt freshman Quentin Hildreth.

Running backs coach Darian Hagan, at the start of spring practice, tried to put a good spin on his predicament. “We have to develop the other guys,” said Hagan of Lockridge, Nabors, and Hildreth. “Lockridge is going to benefit from those other guys (Scott and Sumler) not being there”.

The spring was an overall disappointment. Stewart was limited due to injury, as was Lockridge. Quentin Hildreth was, however, a bright spot, receiving accolades from coaches and his teammates for his efforts this spring. “He has had a great camp, he really has,” Dan Hawkins said of Hildreth. “He has tremendous, tremendous vision. And he has got great ‘quicks’ and can make people miss … Clearly to me, he is one of the guys that has kind of stuck out in this camp as really improving his stock.”

Not much was expected from the running back corps this spring … and not much was delivered.

Brian Lockridge did have 11 carries for 38 yards for the Gold team in the spring game, all in the first half. Lockridge felt his knee tighten, and did not play in the second half. “I think hopefully it’s just a swollen muscle in there that is killing everything and making it stiff,” Lockridge said. He will be examined now that spring practice is over, and hopes to avoid surgery.

Senior Corey Nabors fared well in the absence of Lockridge and Rodney Stewart, rushing for 38 yards in 11 carries, including a three-yard touchdown run for the Gold team. The Black team rushing attack was led by red-shirt freshman Quentin Hildreth, who had 41 yards on nine carries. The 230 total yards rushing between the two teams still has to be considered low, especially when the 65-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback Seth Lobato on the game’s final play is considered.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends – Spring Grade: B-/B

If Colorado is to be competitive this fall, the passing game will need to blossom. Seen as a weak link just a year ago, the unit has been improved, both in the talent level and the depth. As spring practice opened, the Buffs were without red-shirt freshman Terdema Ussery, excused for the spring to take care of personal business back in Texas, and Markques Simas, “suspended indefinitely” for receiving a DUI in February.

The suspension for Simas lasted all of three practices, as the junior was allowed to participate in drills for the remainder of the spring. Simas took the place of senior Scotty McKnight, who was lost for the spring with an ankle injury early on. Also picking up the slack for McKnight, who looks to hold most of the receiving records in school history by the end of his career, is junior Toney Clemons. A transfer from Michigan, Clemons has the potential – if the Colorado quarterbacks can get him the ball – to be something special. When teams were chosen for the spring game, the Gold team captains, led by quarterback Tyler Hansen, made Clemons the first pick of the draft.

“(Clemons) is a great leader for everybody on our team, and I think he’s really helped our wide receiver group find an identity and play with a little bit of swagger” said Cody Hawkins. “He’s a guy who really encourages a lot of competition. He’s very, very, confident, but he’s not cocky.” Clemons also made an impression on ESPN blogger David Ubben’s take on Toney Clemons: “While far from a world-beater just yet, physically, he’s every bit of 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. Great size and athleticism. By the end of the spring game, quarterbacks Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen should know just how much they can count on the Michigan transfer once the season arrives.”

During the spring game, it was the backups who stole the spotlight, with junior Kyle Cefalo leading all receivers with 12 catches for 144 yards for the Black team. Justin Espinoza and Toney Clemons each had four catches for the Gold team, with Andre Simmons gaining the most yards, with his three catches going for 95 yards (including an 83-yard touchdown).

The tight ends lost two senior starters, Riar Geer and Patrick Devenny, making the unit a question mark for 2010. After the season, Luke Walters was granted a sixth year, bolstering the depth of corps. If there is to be production from the tight ends this fall, however, it will likely come from junior Ryan Deehan (10 catches in 2009), and red-shirt freshman DaVaughn Thornton. From the reports out of camp this spring, it appears that while there will be an (expected) drop off from the play of Geer and Devenny, the drop off will not be as dramatic as might have been feared.

DaVaughn Thornton gave Buff fans a glimpse of what is to come when he scored two touchdowns for the Gold team in the spring game. “The guy is a stud,” Tyler Hansen said of Thornton. “That guy is awesome. He’s a big guy. He can run and he can catch the ball pretty good. He’s just trying to get the mental part, and today he was good. Today he was solid.”

Offensive Line – Spring Grade: Incomplete

The temptation here is to give the offensive line a grade of “F”.

There is plenty of accumulated depth and talent along the offensive line. It’s been four years in the making. So let’s review the starting lineup for the 2010 opener at Invesco Field …

As Judge Smails (Ted Knight) said in Caddyshack – “Well? … We’re waiting”.

Unfortunately, offensive line coach Denver Johnson is still looking for the “five best guys”.

“Looking back on it a year ago, back then we had no seniors,” second-year offensive line coach Denver Johnson said this week. “We had two juniors, and one of them had never played. And everybody else, they were all freshmen and sophomores with limited playing experience. By any objective measure, we had a very inexperienced offensive line.”

And now?

“Now, we have a little more playing time, a little more time on the job, some experience under our belt” Johnson said. “We are doing some things very well. We are still developing in other areas. But (experience) just does wonders for us as far as our psyche and our outlook.”

For his part, anyway, offensive line coach Denver Johnson is not concerned about not coming out of the spring with his five starters in place. “We’re trying to develop other guys and see who, at the end of the spring and really going into the fall, you are just trying to get the best five guys are and get them out there,” Johnson said. “If three of our best five guys are all playing tackle, somebody has to move to guard. If two of our best five guys are playing center, one of those guys has to play guard. If three of our best five guys are playing guard, one of them has to move to tackle. We are just trying to get our five best football players out there.”

To me, this is perhaps the most disappointing quote of the spring. I had hopes that the Colorado coaching staff would have had enough time to review game tapes and practice tapes to make some decisions. As of now, all we know for sure is that Nate Solder will be the left tackle. Otherwise, the line remains a mystery.

The offensive line still has the opportunity to be the best unit of the offense. It still could be a cohesive, if not dominant force, with enough talent and depth to create a decent running game, as well as a competitive passing game.

Guess we’ll have to wait until August to find out who will be the main players in that effort …

3 Replies to “Spring Grades – Offense”

  1. First of all, Stuart, great writing!

    Good to see Hansen winning the top QB spot coming out of spring. Coincidence or not, his team seemed more prolific on offensive. However, I think we also saw why he wasn’t the clear cut choice earlier on: He threw the inexplicable shuffle pass to nowhere, missed on a couple throws, and badly under threw Clemmons once (J. Smith should never have had a chance to stop the TD with the PI). I also think the bad rap on Cody is a bit exaggerated. I will be derided for writing this, but I can understand why they kept the QB competition open for so long since it keeps pressure on Hansen to improve his game (if he starts making his throws more consistently the Buffs will really have something…). I also understand why they, initially, wanted to redshirt Hansen last year (wouldn’t it be nice to have Hansen back for a 5th year?). Nonetheless, I predict we will see both QB’s play next year, since there’s a good chance Hansen will get a little nicked up along the way (with such a heavy duty schedule coming up) —– Hopefully I’m wrong.

  2. I attended the spring game then read the quotes from coaching staff in the Post this morning. My read …. the coaching staff is clueless. I am convinced Hawkins is always up beat and positive because he does not know what to do. With the low pay available to CO assistants we have “gotten what we pay for” and who really has any confidence in them.

    Seems like more of the same until that “$50 million booster package” becomes reality. My only hope is it happens in my life time.

  3. Paralyis by analysis, how can any rational person ignore Cody’s mediocrity in actual games and still make this about PRACTICE. This coaching staff is terrified about losing their jobs and cannot make a decision, on the line, as to the QB nowhere. No leadership once again. These guys have not just ran the Titanic into the iceberg, they seem determined to back up and run the same course again. Sorry optimism is hard. Maybe the coaching staff will pick the right QB, maybe they will let the same five guys play the line for more than 7 plays. Lets hope.

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