Colorado 2012 – “Utah Lite”?

Ask almost any Buff fan about the University of Utah, and the first response is almost universal:  Colorado and Utah are not rivals.

Buff fans know both end of the debate.

Colorado State looks upon Colorado as its main rival, while Buff fans look down upon the Rams and their fans with disdain.

Colorado, meanwhile, always looked upon Nebraska as being the Buffs’ main rival, while Cornhusker fans looked down upon the Buffs and their fans with … well, disdain.

The move to the Pac-12 left Buff fans looking for a new rival. The old Pac-10 members already had their rivals neatly in place: Washington State/Washington; Oregon State/Oregon; Cal/Stanford; USC/UCLA; and Arizona State/Arizona all formed a clean set of rivalries. This left the Buffs and their fans with a forced marriage – and rivalry – with fellow newcomer Utah.

Despite the fact that Utah was bringing with it much more momentum to the new Pac-12 than did Colorado, Buff fans were – and continue to be – reluctant to tab the Thanksgiving weekend game against the Utes as a rivalry game. After all, even with its recent success, the Utah was still a Mountain West team, and a BCS conference school could just not be bothered with another Mountain West school which fancied itself to be Colorado’s equal.

The 17-14 upset by the Buffs in Salt Lake City last November might help fuel a future rivalry, and Buff fans certainly do not care for any team which wears red. Still, Buff fans don’t like being compared with the Utes.

So, here’s a little blasphemy … Colorado, to be successful in 2012, can look to – and aspire to be – what Utah was in 2011.

Call it “Utah Lite”.

It could be argued that looking to emulate Utah is, at least for the time being, aiming too high. After all, Utah was just a missed field goal and an overtime romp over the Buffs from being the Pac-12 South’s representative in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game.

But let’s look a little deeper.

Utah finished the 2011 regular season with a 7-5 record. While Utah did hang tough against USC, and won most of the games it was supposed to win, the Utes were still a loss from a 6-6 team (which included a 30-27 overtime victory over Washington State), and managed its 7-5 record without having to play either Oregon or Stanford.

The Utah offense? Awful. The Utes finished the season with the 80th ranked rushing offense and the 99th ranked ranked passing offense. Put together, Utah averaged just 310.85 yards of total offense per game, last in the Pac-12 (even lowly Colorado managed to produce 346.31 yards per game of total offense).

Then how did Utah pull off seven regular season victories (and an eighth, in overtime, over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl)?

Easy. A great defense.

Utah was 20th in rushing defense and 38th in total defense. Even more importantly, Utah was 19th in scoring defense, giving up just over 20 points per game.

The Utes were also proficient in two other crucial categories: turnover margin (14th nationally; first in the Pac-12); and net punting (12th in the nation).

Now, let’s take a look at the 2012 Colorado Buffaloes, and see if the Utah blueprint for a winning record can be duplicated.

Offense …

Utah was last in the Pac-12 in passing offense, with several different quarterbacks trying to make something out of nothing. Colorado has a problem in the passing game this fall, with no proven wideouts there to scare opposing secondaries. True, Paul Richardson may be back for conference play, but until then – and perhaps all season – the Buffs will have to make a lineup with Tyler McCulloch, Nelson Spruce, and some unproven freshmen work.

Can newly annointed starter at quarterback Jordan Webb carry the day? Can he produce at least as much as Tyler Hansen’s 2,883 yards and 20 touchdowns? I believe that these numbers are well within Webb’s reach. Hansen did not have a healthy Paul Richardson for much of the season, and the tight ends were only good for a combined 31 catches and one touchdown all season. This fall, the receivers, while unproven, do at least provide a variety of options, and possess much more speed as a unit than the 2011 unit. Plus, the tight ends have been significantly upgraded, with Nick Kasa joined by a trio of talented freshmen (Jordan Webb has already indicated that Vincent Hobbs is one of his favorite receivers).

If the Buffs can at least maintain a semblance of a passing game, then the challenge to become “Utah Lite” falls to the rushing attack. Last season, Colorado had four-year starter Rodney Stewart, while Utah had John White. Stewart rushed for 854 yards, while White was 11th in the nation with a 116 yards per game average.

Can the Buffs, without Rodney Stewart, not only match what Speedy was able to produce, but surpass it? There are reasons to believe that is possible. Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy certainly does. Said Bieniemy: “We’ve gotten better, we’ve studied (the playbook) more, we’ve detailed it. It’s going to be a lot better; we’re much improved.”

One reason for his optimism is CU’s offensive staff being on the job together for a full season. “We’re a lot further along . . . obviously we’re one year into it,” he said. “We’re better as a coaching staff because we’re all speaking the same language now that our players have heard us speak for a full year.”

Just as vital to Bieniemy’s optimism, though, are the return Tony Jones, Josh Ford and D.D. Goodson, the recovery of Malcolm Creer and the arrival of three freshmen tailbacks and two fullbacks that Bieniemy says will “make people remember what fullbacks are supposed to look like.”

The leader of the attack will be sophomore tailback Tony Jones.  The 5-7 Jones, who has bulked up to 192 pounds, comes into his second season with the rushing bar raised pretty high. Behind the Buffs’ team of reaching a bowl game, Jones’ personal goal is 1,200 yards on the ground. If he reaches that, he would become only CU’s second 1,000-yard rusher in eight seasons. Stewart ran for 1,318 yards in 2010. Preceding that was Bobby Purify, who had 1,017 in 2004.

Bieniemy believes 1,200 is “very, very realistic” for Jones, but adds with a grin: “You know what? I’m surprised he said 1,200. I’m surprised he didn’t say 1,600. He was being very modest. The thing I love about him is that he’s a humble kid. He appreciates having the opportunity that he’s worked himself into. He’s making the most of it.”

Defense …

Colorado players and coaches are optimistic about the offense, but, realistically, there is little reason to believe that the Buffs will be much more than a mediocre offense in 2012. You don’t insert a new quarterback, a new running back, a new tight end, and two new wide receivers and create instant success. It will take time.

And if CU is to make a bowl game in 2012, time is a luxury the Buffs can’t afford.

Which leaves it to the defense to pattern itself after Utah 2011 to create Colorado 2012.

The Utes were 74th in pass defense in 2011, which was still good enough for 4th in the pass-happy Pac-12. The Colorado secondary needs to create similar numbers this fall. The place to start is in the secondary. While the Buffs are short on experience  and depth, the young defensive backs are getting better in a hurry. Greg Henderson demonstrated last season that a true freshman can make a difference at cornerback, and CU has two – Kenneth Crawley and Yuri Wright – who can have a similar impact this fall. And, at least for now, there is quality depth at the position … Colorado should not have to play a converted wide receiver or running back in the defensive backfield (on one week’s practice) against USC and Oregon this fall. The safeties are very good – Ray Polk and Parker Orms – but there is questionable depth behind them.

While the Utah secondary was acceptable, it’s front seven was dominant. Holding opponents to only 113 yards per game rushing was far superior to Colorado’s 183 yards per game. If the Buffs are to be a bowl team, this number bears watching. The defensive line is a curious mixture of upperclass talent (Will Pericak; Chidera Uzo-Diribe) supplemented by a host of freshmen looking to make an immediate impact (Josh Tupou, Tyler Henington, and Justin Solis). With the press and public barred from fall practices, there is little to go on other than the coaches’ reviews … which have been full of praise.

If the defensive line can hold its own, it will be up to the Buffs’ best unit, its linebackers, to make plays. Seniors Doug Rippy and Jon Major, along with junior Derrick Webb, will be counted upon to make opposing offenses pause. If the newly upgraded defensive line can hold its own in the run game, and the now deep secondary can keep passing offenses in check, it will be up to the Buffs’ talented linebackers to make third down stops and create turnovers.

Did someone say turnovers?

Last year, Colorado was 84th in turnover margin; Utah was 14th. For Colorado 2012 to match the record of Utah 2011, this is an area upon which the Buffs absolutely must improve.

Overall …

Colorado does not face the 13-game, seven road game Bataan death march of a season ago. Gone are road games to Hawai’i and Ohio State.  The 2012 September schedule sets up about as well as any Buff fan could have hoped.

Now it is time for the Buffs to take the next step.

Last season, Colorado had a new coaching staff, fighting uphill against the weight of five straight losing seasons and a steep learning curve.

Colorado’s talent pool, while improving, is not the match of USC or Oregon, and will not be for some time to come. Still, it is arguably the match of several other teams in the Pac-12, teams which went bowling in 2011.

Colorado fans may not want to have anything to do with Utah (or its fans) in terms of a rivalry. But, if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, the Utes should be content that, at least in 2012, the Buffs and their fans would like to see on the field

… the 2011 Utah team.

Reading the Tea Leaves – (August 12th)

A primary focus for much of the Buff Nation this Fall Camp has been, and continues to be …

Who will be the starting quarterback for Colorado on September 1st in the opener against Colorado State?

As Fall Camp opened, there were four potential candidates: junior transfer (from Kansas) Jordan Webb; sophomore transfer (from Texas) Connor Wood; sophomore Nick Hirschman; and Shane Dillon, a true freshman. Dillon was removed from the competition early, as off-season shoulder surgery will prevent him from being a full participant this August. Dillon will red-shirt, and ready himself for the 2013 campaign and beyond.

This leaves three options for head coach Jon Embree, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, and quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer.

What have we learned in the first week of practices?

Jon Embree’s take on the three quarterbacks, from the Colorado Media Day on Saturday:

  • Wood: “Big arm…can make all the throws…good grasp of the offense…needs to be more consistent in his decision making…needs to continue to work on his accuracy.”
  • Hirschman: “His teammates really like him, gravitate to him…also has a big arm, but sometimes believes he can throw through his mistakes…needs a better grasp of the offense.”
  • Webb: “A big attribute is his 19 games at this level… does a good job of working the pocket…reminds me of Koy (Detmer) in getting the ball out in unique ways.”

As to the quarterback competition overall, Embree had this to say: “We’re in a quarterback competition right now and three guys, it’s (Connor) Wood, (Jordan) Webb, and (Nick) Hirschman all competing and they have all had their moments. It will get down to it now, we just finished summer school so we haven’t maybe done as much because finals were Friday. But now that school is done we will really put the screws down on these guys. We would love to get it down to two, if we can or one as quickly as possible so that the offense knows who the guys are that are leading them when we go out there to play CSU. We will start doing some more situational things and start evaluating those guys, not just 7-on-7. As I’ve said before, that’s all fine and all that but I want to see who can bounce back when they make a poor decision, see who can make things happen when there’s some pressure in their face, see who can just move the team and lead them down the field.”

 To add even more spice to the debate, quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer hinted this week that the quarterback race might extend into the season. Scherer told the Daily Camera that CU might alternate quarterbacks against Colorado State and Sacramento State, with the coaches allowing the candidates to sort themselves out on the playing field. “We don’t treat it like preseason, but to let it play itself out a week or so into the season, we may have to do that,” Scherer said. “The one thing I think we don’t want to do is say, ‘We’re going to have a starter by this date.’ Because you may not make the right decision or the best decision.” (In a very unscientific poll here at CU at the Game, a full two-thirds of you were against the idea).

So, in handicapping the quarterback race, let’s look at where we are at after one week of Fall Camp …

Nick Hirschman, as a true freshman, played briefly in the 2011 campaign. Hirschman was in for mop up duty against Stanford and Washington in lopsided losses in midseasson, and was then forced into action against Oregon when starter Tyler Hansen was injured. With Hansen still out, Hirschman was given his first career start against Arizona State. The first quarter against the Sun Devils was a disaster, as Hirschman failed to generate any offense, lasting only two series as the Buffs fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter.  Hirschman had a chance at redemption this spring, but broke his foot the week before the start of practices. He has now undergone three surgeries, and while he has been cleared as a “Full Go” for the season, injury concerns remain.

Reading the Tea Leaves… As coach Embree noted, the players like Hirschman. The team is also anxious to have their leader chosen. This week, junior offensive lineman David Bakhtiari told the Denver Post, “Before, I didn’t have a problem (with the quarterback competition dragging on well into the fall),” Bakhtiari said. “But now, I guess I’m having a little ‘camp fever,’ so I guess I’m getting a little annoyed. I want to see consistency. I want somebody to emerge from the group. I just want to see one of them step up and take the whole role, basically take this offense”.  The feel here … The coaches would have liked to have Hirschman installed as the starter at the end of spring practices, but injuries and a lack of overall improvement have given the coaches pause.

Connor Wood has now had a full year with the Colorado system. Wood transferred in from Texas last September, and spent the fall running the scout team. With Hirschman out, Wood was able to run with the “1’s” pretty much solo during spring practices. Thoughts around the Buff Nation were that Wood had been given every opportunity to win the starting job this past April, but was not able to convince the coaches that he should be named as the starter heading into the fall.

Reading the Tea Leaves … The starting job was, and perhaps still is, Wood’s to lose. Wood received some high marks from Embree and Scherer in week one, but the first week was mainly conducted in shorts and shells. With summer school now over, the Buffs will have nothing to do for the next three weeks but concentrate on football. As Embree stated, “We will start doing some more situational things and start evaluating those guys, not just 7-on-7. As I’ve said before, that’s all fine and all that but I want to see who can bounce back when they make a poor decision, see who can make things happen when there’s some pressure in their face, see who can just move the team and lead them down the field”. The stage is yours, Mr. Wood.

Jordan Webb has only been with the Buffs for a few weeks. A junior with two years of eligibility remaining, Webb had a less than stellar career for a less than stellar Kansas Jayhawk team. Still, as Embree pointed out, he does have 19 career starts under his belt. Embree also compared Webb to a CU fan favorite, Koy Detmer, no small compliment.

Reading the Tea Leaves … Webb was seen by many in the Buff Nation as an insurance policy for the Buffs, in case Hirschman, Wood and Dillon did not work out. There has been little reported after the first week of practices to dispel this notion. If Webb is the starter against Colorado State, it may be saying more about Hirschman and Wood than it does about Webb.

Jon Embree has pointed out that there was little reason to expect the naming of a stater after one week of camp. Every practice before Friday was in shells, and, quite appropriately, the coaches allowed the players to focus on finishing up summer school before getting intense with practices. Now, however, a sense of urgency will be setting in. The Colorado State game is now less than three weeks away. If there is to be a separation in the quarterback race, it will have to come in the next week or two.

Is it fair to insist upon the naming of a quarterback before the end of Fall Camp? Of course not. CU fans certainly want the coaches to make the right call, as this one decision could mean the difference between a bowl game and a school-record setting seventh consecutive losing season.

Can such a call be made, though? Certainly. Look at UCLA. New head coach Jim Mora tapped touted redshirt freshman Brett Hundleythe winner of the Bruins’ four-way competition on Friday, prevailing over senior veterans Kevin Prince, Richard Brehaut and Jerry Neuheisel. Prince had started 26 games and Brehaut 11, but Hundley won the job early.

For those of you who have been with CU at the Game for years well know, I never liked the annual battle for the starting quarterback position between Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen. Hawkins always won, but Hansen would have his potential red-shirt (and with it, don’t forget, a 2012 senior season with the Buffs) torn off mid-season.

The cliche goes, “If you say you have two quarterbacks, what you are really saying is that you have none”.

And right now, Colorado has three …

5 Replies to “Colorado 2012 … “Utah Lite”?”

  1. My favorite thing about the Utah Utes? Easy – this season they play at Folsom on the day after Thanksgiving. The Missus and I are spending Turkey Day in Colorado visiting our son/his girlfriend in Fort Collins….and I am spending “Black Friday” at Folsom rooting for our Buffs. Already looking forward to it and it is more than three months away!

  2. “Colorado fans may not want to have anything to do with Utah (or its fans) in terms of a rivalry. But, if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, the Utes should be content that, at least in 2012, the Buffs and their fans would like to see on the field

    … the 2011 Utah team.”

    SHAME ON YOU STUART! The Utes are the CSU Rams in Red. They had a nice little stretch but they are just another squirt from the WAC off division. In case you didn’t notice we defeated them on the road last year! Because we were better? Nope, because Utah SUCKS!

  3. Good article, Stuart. I cannot wait for the season to start, (it’s been awhile since I thought that) but I believe there are great things to come. GO BUFFS!!!!!!!!

  4. Of all the things that Hawkins did to Buff Nation – the one that was the worst was tearing up Hansen’s red-shirt at the end of TWO different seasons – seasons that were already lost! It really killed me last year when Bienemy talked about how much he would have liked to have one more year with Hansen! Hawikns: the Tool!

  5. If Webb starts it will be like Cody Hawkins all over again. Webb strugled as a starter at Kansas and will be no better at CU. If the other qb’s are that bad then CU. is in big big trouble. I kind of thought Webb was a poor use of a scholarship.

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