Mid-term papers turned in – It’s time for the grades

Expectations for the Colorado Buffaloes for the 2011 season are, well, mixed. There are great hopes for the future of the program under the new head coach, Jon Embree, but a daunting schedule and a perceived dearth of talent on the roster mute the chances for an immediate breakout.

With that in mind, the below grades for each unit on the team is not with respect to similar athletes on the rosters of Colorado’s Pac-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: B/B+

Spring Game stats: Tyler Hansen – 8-15, 124 yards; one TD; Nick Hirschman – 11-19, 170 yards; two TD’s; Brent Burnette – 4-8, 40 yards; one TD, one interception

After three years of Cody v. Tyler, Colorado fans are conditioned to spring practices in which the battle for the starting quarterback position is the lead story. In 2011, the Buff Nation was once again primed for a battle. Senior Tyler Hansen was the returning starter, but there was a new coaching staff, a new offense, a new day. Would red-shirt freshman Nick Hirschman step up and challenge Hansen? Would junior college transfer Brent Burnette come in and assert himself as a favorite to take over the starting position?

Not so much.

With the majority of spring practices closed to the public, there hasn’t been the day-to-day comparisons of the quarterbacks, but observations from those who have been to practices, along wit the statistics from the two scrimmages and the Spring game lead to the inevitable conclusion that senior Tyler Hansen has held onto his starting position.

“I think Tyler, with his game experience, game maturity. I’ve been really pleased with him,” said quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer. “Some of the things I saw on tape that were bad habits that I thought he needed to correct right away, he has taken to heart and improved right off the bat. I like his leadership. I like his huddle demeanor. And he’s done a good job playing within the pocket.”

For Hansen, who seemingly closed the door on the competition with an 18-19, 246-yard, three touchdown performance in the second spring scrimmage, it’s been a refreshing change not to compete against Cody Hawkins. “It was awkward at moments,” Hansen acknowledged. “There were moments maybe when you’d do something good, and Coach Hawk wouldn’t say anything, but when Cody did it, he said something. Maybe there was a little nepotism there.”

With Dan and Cody Hawkins out of the equation, Hansen has praised the new staff for their “professionalism”. With the new coaches comes new confidence. “Within this program, I think there is (confidence),” said Hansen. “Outside, I think we’ve got to prove ourselves to people early in the season.”

As for Hansen’s primary backup this fall, that job will apparently fall to red-shirt freshman Nick Hirschman. Transfer Brent Burnette has had the disadvantage of not only learning a new offense, but, unlike Hansen and Hirschman, a whole new set of teammates. With Hirschman, it appears to be just a matter of time before he sees the playing field. “I feel a lot more comfortable in this offense, and I think everybody who has come out of a pro style does,” said Hirschman. “I mean, it’s tough to learn, but if you want to put in the man hours for it, it all starts to click and make sense. It makes being out here a lot easier.”

So, Colorado has a starter in Tyler Hansen. The senior has 16 career starts, including the first seven games of 2010.

For the preseason prognosticators, it will be easy to see that there is nothing new in Boulder at the quarterback position.

Buff fans, though, hope they know better.

Running backs – Spring Grade: B-/B

Spring Game stats: Josh Ford – 17 carries, 164 yards, one TD; Rodney Stewart – 14 carries, 55 yards; Tony Jones – 12 carries, 53 yards, one TD; Cordary Allen – two carries, 5 yards

As a junior last fall, Rodney Stewart ran for 1,318 yards, the fifth-highest total in Colorado history (yet not good enough for All-Big 12 honors, the only time in the 15-year history of the league that a 1,000-yard rusher failed to earn at least honorable mention all-league honors). Nonetheless, barring injury, Stewart will be the No. 1 running back for Colorado this fall.

How has Stewart fared this spring in the eyes of his new running backs coach? “He’s a lot better than I anticipated,” said Eric Bieniemy. “The thing about it is, he works his tail off. That is what I love about him. He has a tremendous work ethic, and he doesn’t take anything for granted. I just have to make sure that he is staying in tune and in focus to all the little things, because the bottom line is we want to make sure we are utilizing all of his God given ability. I’m very proud of him.’

Stewart’s primary backup last fall was Brian Lockridge. With senior-to-be Lockridge out for the spring with injuries, the focus turned to what player is waiting in the wings to take over in 2012, when Stewart and Lockridge will be gone.

One candidate which made the most of his opportunity during the spring is Tony Jones. The red-shirt freshman was consistently mentioned by Jon Embree during his post-practice press conferences. “Tony Jones is doing very well,” Embree said after one practice. “He is starting to show up. He needs to get stronger, but he has a good knack of finding the hole and the seam. The other thing he is doing well is he’s protecting the football. Don’t ever take that for granted.”

Bieniemy’s praise has been somewhat more muted. “Tony has made a few plays. He has,” said Bieniemy. “But he is a young player that is learning the system. Rodney has played a lot of football since he’s been here. Tony is still figuring his way out. Has he made some plays? Yes. Does he still have a long ways to go? Yes, he does.”

The other candidate who will try to make the most of his fall opportunities is red-shirt freshman Josh Ford. The transfer from Kansas State led the team in rushing during the Spring game, with 164 yards on 17 carries, including a 56-yard touchdown run.

New to the Buffs’ lineup this fall will be the position of fullback. Fellow seniors Tyler Ahles and Evan Harrington have moved over from the linebacker corps, and have earned praises from the coaching staff for their efforts. In between the tailbacks and the fullbacks is red-shirt freshman Cordary Allen. At 6’1, 225-pounds, Allen may prove to be a short-yardage or goal-line specialist for the Buffs this fall.

All in all, the running backs, behind Rodney Stewart, merited an “as expected” this spring. Stewart is a known quantity, as is his injured backup Brian Lockridge. Red-shirt freshmen Tony Jones, Josh Ford, and Cordary Allen had their moments, while stop-gap fullback insertions Tyler Ahles and Evan Harrington adequately filled their roles. It remains to be see whether the new backs, when facing a full healed defensive line this fall, will fare as well.

Wide Receivers – Spring Grade – C-/C

Spring Game stats: Paul Richardson – four catches, 61 yards, one TD; Kyle Cefalo – three catches, 28 yards; Keenan Canty – two catches, 35 yards, one TD; Will Jefferson – one catch, 24 yards

After the decision was made on December 6th to hire Jon Embree as the 24th head coach in Colorado history, attention of Buff fans almost immediately turned to whether Embree would be able to coach one of the few stars from the 2010 – wide receiver Paul Richardson. The true freshman came on strong in the second half of 201o, catching 27 passes for 450 yards and five touchdowns (after catching only seven passes for 64 yards and no scores in the first half of the season). Richardson had come to Boulder in late July after leaving the UCLA program in July, and he had indicated that he was homesick for California.

Not to worry.

“My mom pretty much held my hand through this whole process, so I was talking to her every day, and she said I had to do the best thing for me, and she felt the best thing for me was to stay here and finish what I started, and I agreed with her,” said Richardson, who was given the Hale Irwin Award after Spring practices, given to the top CU Sophomore-to-be. “My biggest thing wasn’t that I was necessarily homesick, I just wasn’t used to being out here and used to the community yet, and once I adjusted to it and once I was more open to it, it was perfect.” Richardson not only became a happy Buff, he acted as host to a number of official visitors in January, including three players who signed with Colorado – Gregory Henderson, Woodson Greer, and Malcolm Creer.

Richardson’s leadership carried over to the spring, where he became the leader of the receiving corps. Richardson hauled in six passes for 103 yards during the first two scrimmages, carrying that momentum into the Spring game. “He has gotten better running his routes. He has to be better understanding what the coverage is and what the defense is trying to do to him … He’ll make some spectacular catches, but then he’ll drop some too. He gets those things worked out, and I think he can be a great one.”

Richardson has also impressed his position coach. “Paul is a good player, and I think he has the ability to be a great player if he continues to work hard,” said wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy. “Paul is able to do some amazing things with his athleticism. He is a really natural, fluid ball catcher. So I see great possibilities for him.”

So, the Buffs have one threat at wide receiver – any others?

Senior Toney Clemons is another likely starter, but he has been hampered with a hamstring injury. Clemons was second on the team with 43 catches last year (behind Scotty McKnight)., and has been held out for much of the spring to make sure that he will be a “full go” for August.

But that’s about it in terms of wide receiver play. “After that, we haven’t had anyone really step up and say, ‘I’m the next one in line’.

Junior wide receiver Will Jefferson, according to Embree, “has been up and down”. Jefferson has tendinitis in both knees. “Some days,” joked Embree, ” it looks like I could beat him running.” Still, Bobby Kennedy is happy with Clemons and Jefferson. “With (Richardson), Toney Clemons and Will Jefferson, I think they can be a very solid group.” UPDATE: On April 12th, three days after the Spring game, it was announced that Will Jefferson would not be invited back to the team for the fall.

Kennedy also has praise for red-shirt freshman Keenan Canty and walk-on senior Kyle Cefalo. “We just have to keep bringing those guys along,” said Kennedy. “What we’re doing is getting them to develop a mentality of being tougher … Everyone wants to play when it is game time, but we have to learn how to play when it is practice.

“We are far from a finished product. But there are some things to be happy about. I am pleased that the guys are starting to give better effort, and they are trying to learn the system.”

The real bottom line for the receiving corps … there were 25 or so high school juniors on campus for the Spring game weekend. There were also two players in Boulder who could sign with Colorado immediately and play for the Buffs this fall – Georgia transfer Logan Gray and 2011 recruit Thomas Carter.

Both are wide receivers.

Tight Ends – Spring Grade – B+/A-

Spring Game stats: Kyle Slavin – three catches, 50 yards, two TD’s; Ryan Deehan – two catches, 32 yards; Henley Griffon – two catches, 24 yards

The fact that this position merits its own category marks a departure from the Dan Hawkins’ era.

Last season, Ryan Deehan had 25 catches for 249 yards. Those numbers may actually decrease to a degree in 2011, but not due to a drop off in Deehan’s efforts. Instead, two other factors will contribute to a reduction in touches for the returning senior. First, the Jon Embree offense places a greater emphasis on the running game. Deehan’s contribution to the team may be harder to see, but no less important. The other reason Deehan’s numbers might decrease is the play of sophomore DaVaughn Thornton. Both tight ends will see considerable playing time as the Buffs try and run the ball more effectively with two tight end sets, but may not see as many passes thrown their way.

“The biggest difference with the new offense for the tight end is that we are more involved at the point of attack, basically on most of the plays,” said Deehan, who was named honorable mention all-conference as a junior in 2010. “We are a lot more important in this offense because most of it goes through us.”

Thornton, who had only one catch in 2010 (though it went for a 12-yard touchdown against Iowa State), is excited about the new offense and the new coaching staff. “This spring is like a breath of fresh air … I honestly believe we are going to win more football games this year with the new coaches, and I will be on the field way more than I was last year,” said Thornton. “I will still make plays in practice, and the difference will be that I’ll also be out on that field in Folsom making plays.”

Jon Embree agrees that Thornton will see more playing time in 2011, in part due to the sophomore’s versatility. “DaVaughn’s a guy that is going to give us some flexibility because he can be flexed out, he can move, and he can also play as the in-line guy,” said Embree. “As he gets stronger, and as he gets a little more confident in the offense, I think more of his talent will come out.”

UPDATE: On April 12th, three days after the Spring game, it was announced that neither Harold Mobley nor Henley Griffon, both red-shirt freshmen, would be invited back for the fall.

Offensive Line – Spring Grade – B+/A-

Spring Game stats: 51 carries, 291 yards (5.7 average) two touchdowns; 23-41 passing, 334 yards (three sacks). Total offense: 93 plays, 625 yards (6.72 yards per play)

New Colorado offensive line coach Steve Marshall does have to replace an All-American in Nate Solder, but much of the offensive line from 2010 returns in tact.

Four of the five starters from last season return, though senior center Mike Iltis missed all of spring practice with injuries. Senior Ryan Miller (given the Iron Buffalo Award for off-season strength and conditioning) returns at right guard, senior Ethan Adkins returns at left guard, with sophomore David Bakhtiari sliding over from right tackle to left tackle to take over Nate Solder’s old position.

“The left tackle position is so important, so as it stands right now, David (Bakhtiari) and Alex Lewis and Ryan Dannewitz are the guys we have been working over there,” said Steve Marshall. “David is a good football player. He is still a young player. He is still learning this offense … He’s a good athlete. He is a good athlete. He is 295-pounds and can move.”

Taking the place of Bakhtiari at right tackle has been sophomore Jack Harris. A former four-star prospect, Harris was in position to compete for playing time last August, before suffering a shoulder injury. “It was definitely disappointing. It popped out and the muscle atrophy just killed me,” said Harris. “I feel like I didn’t get back to 100 percent until winter conditioning.”

For his part, Harris likes the new coaching staff, as well as their coaching style. “One word I hear Coach Marshall use a lot is ‘displace’. He definitely wants us to pound people in the ground in the run game and be aggressive in the pass protection,” said Harris. “So I would say that there is more emphasis on being aggressive all of the time.”

“I have been really pleased with Jack,” said Steve Marshall. “Jack hasn’t played a lot of football here, he still has to learn to play, he has got to get through that … He has worked hard this off-season to remake his body, get bigger and stronger. Both Jack and Bahktiari are good young prospects and time will tell.”

With the move of Bakhtiari and the emergence of Harris, it might appear as if the Buffs’ starting offensive line for September is set. Not so.

At center, with Mike Iltis out, several players have had their chance at center. “(Center) is a very, very critical position, and it is a concern,” said Marshall. “(Red-shirt freshman) Daniel Munyer (who was given the Dan Stavely Award as the most outstanding Freshman-to-be) is a young kid. (Senior) Shawn Daniels has been around. (Sophomore) Gus Handler has been here for a couple of years”.

Several other players, who have had checkered careers in Boulder, are also looking to be in the mix this fall. Senior Sione Tau has not been productive in his first four years (one season was lost to academic ineligibility, another was lost due to violation of team rules), but has one last chance to make an impression. “This is pretty much my last shot to put it out there,” said Tau. “I’m pretty excited.” Tau has made a good impression on his position coach this spring. Tau, said Marshall, “has some skills. He’s a smart guy, and I think he really likes football. He’s in the mix for one of those tackle jobs”.

As for fan favorite, sophomore Maxwell Tuioti-Mariner, who has been hampered with injuries for the past two seasons, Marshall will have to wait and see. “He has to get healthy first,” said Marshall. “If he gets healthy, I think he will (compete for playing time). The guy has power in his body, and he is another guy that is working his tail off, it is just a matter if his knee is ready to do it. It is going to be a health issue with Max. Those questions will be answered this summer.” UPDATE: On April 12th, three days after the Spring game, it was announced that Maxwell Tuioti-Mariner would not be invited back to be a part of the team in the fall.

So, an offensive line with four returning starters, with several backups already in place, and with several other players still on the mend who will compete for playing time come fall camp.

Good to see.

One Reply to “Spring Grades – Offense”

  1. Very informative assessment of the whole offense, and even the coaches take on the athletes. Hopefully with the right coaching the offensive line will become a high caliber unit, and the running game will explode on the PAC 12 scene. I still hope the scheme will still include quarterback options because Tyler can run the ball. Receivers will come along with this staff. Tyler will have a “real” play book that is oriented for total team success instead of plays designed for setting records for a coaches son. Great job analyzing the offensive side of the Spring Game with including interviews relating to the potential success of each position. Thanks

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