Spring Break-Down


Note: With the press and the public barred from spring practices this year, it is difficult to form an objective opinion as to how the Colorado football program improved over the course of the first half of spring practices. However, there have been a number of interviews given by coaches and players over the first two weeks of practice. Below is a compilation of what has been learned from those interviews. (Much credit goes to Adam and Sean at www.buffstampede.com, who have been the most diligent in posting interviews and updates in what has otherwise been a sparse spring for news).


The competition that wasn’t.

The most anticipated battle of Spring, 2012, never materialized. Sophomore quarterbacks Nick Hirschman and Connor Wood were set to face off in the challenge to replace three-year starter Tyler Hansen.

Then, a week before the start of spring practices, Hirschman broke a bone  in his foot, and will be out until fall.

Does that mean that Connor Wood is the starter by default?

Not necessarily. Wood has taken the most snaps with the first team this spring, but Hirschman is at the practices, observing (getting “mental reps”, according to head coach Jon Embree), with red-shirt freshman John Schrock also getting some significant practice time with the first team.

Connor Wood, said offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, “has his good moments and when he has a bad moment, he learns from that and doesn’t repeat it. That’s what I appreciate about him. It’s been fun watching the growth process with him – that’s what you get excited about.”

Bieniemy wasn’t sure how Hirschman’s absence is affecting Wood: “I don’t know if it’s affected him or not. More than anything, you’d love for both of those kids to be out there for the competition . . . from that standpoint, we lose just a little bit. I will say this: (John) Schrock has taken on a tremendous role and accepted it as the backup. He’s done a great job. I do know that we’re growing more together as an offensive unit. Obviously you want all hands on deck. That’s the unfair part about this business; injuries do happen.”

Even if Wood is atop the depth chart at the end of spring practice, it sounds unlikely that Wood will be named as the starter for the September 2nd opener against Colorado State this April. Nick Hirschman will be given his opportunity to win the job in August, as will incoming freshman Shane Dillon.

CU quarterback’s coach Rip Scherer, before the first snap of spring, was already hinting that the race would carry over until the fall. “I can tell you I honestly don’t have a preference in terms of how it unfolds,” Scherer told BuffaloSportsNews.com. “Regardless of how we come out of spring, there is still the possibility that a freshman could come in here – because we think we have a highly talented freshman – who could alter that. We may come out of spring saying, ‘So and so is the starter at this point.’ But until we see how Shane does we won’t know because he is part of that equation and part of that process.

“I’ve made it clear to the quarterbacks that first of all this is an ongoing process. We don’t start evaluating these guys from scratch. Everybody has a body of work … So that goes into the evaluation process. Some of them aren’t going to get as many reps in the spring as others. Not everyone is going to get equal reps because some guys have proven over a period of time that they are deserving of more reps. Some guys have proven that they are not yet ready. I tell that they are evaluated every day and that could change every day.”

What we’ve learned … Wood has done nothing to lessen the notion that he is the most likely candidate to start this fall. Schrock has taken advantage of his opportunity to assert himself as a viable option. Hirschman and Dillon are not taking any snaps this spring, but will be given the chance to win the job this fall. Red-shirt freshman Stevie Joe Dorman appears to be the odd man out.

Wide receivers

Heading into the spring, Buff fans knew that the wide receiver corps was, essentially, Paul Richardson and Company.

Midway through the spring, not a great deal has been learned about which members of the company will join Richardson in the spotlight, though there is one primary candidate.

Richardson, for his part, has done everything to assert himself as a leader on an offense otherwise devoid of stars.

After an explosive start to the 2011 season – Richardson set a school record for receiving yards (284) and tied the single-game reception record (11) in Game 2 vs. California – a knee injured in practice kept him out of four games and reduced his role to little more than a decoy for much of the rest of the season.

By itself, that gnawed at Richardson, who has a strong distaste for being inactive and unproductive. But a by-product of his not being 100 percent physically was a perception that it had diminished his self-worth and his ability to lead. “I lost my voice and took a step back,” he said.

He finished out the 2011 season with these numbers: 39 catches, 555 yards, five touchdowns. Remove the Cal game and these numbers remain: 28 catches, 271 yards, five TDs.

“Statistically it might have seemed like I disappeared or wasn’t contributing,” he said. “Our coaching staff knows what I was able to do and what I wasn’t able to do. They were trying to protect me . . . I understood. I didn’t want to make the (injury) situation worse than what it was.”

During Coaches’ Week – the winter conditioning wrap-up in which players compete in various grueling drills – Richardson was one of several players singled out by Embree and other staffers for being relentless, even ruthless, in the competition. When Englehart asked Richardson why he had worked so hard, the reply was, “I told him that I felt like I was a monster. He said, ‘You’re here every day doing this and that . . . .’ I told him again, ‘Coach, I feel like I’m a monster. This is what I was made to do.’ I know how hungry I am and where I want to be in life; it all determines my work ethic. I’m doing it every day with a smile on my face.”

Richardson isn’t a physical monster; he stands 6-1 and weighs 177 pounds. Weight doesn’t go on easily, and he doesn’t want it to if it means losing a step. “Being 190 plus, being 200, and running a 4.6 is not going to cut the cake,” he said. “My coaches would rather me be at a weight I can control and be able to play at the speed I’m playing at.”

So how fast is he now? “I’m way faster than last season . . . it’s almost scary how fast I am now,” he said.

Richardson had two touchdown receptions in the first scrimmage of the spring, a 70-yarder and a 35-yarder, and was described by Embree as “freaky good”.

One receiver position set … whose the next starter?

The coaches have spent the most time this spring praising the work of red-shirt freshman Nelson Spruce.

“Yeah, he is gaining my confidence,” CU wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy told BuffStampede.com. “He is not a finished product yet but the thing with him is, I think he understands as well as the other guys understand, that if you come out and continue to make plays, you’ll continue to get those shots with the ones. If you don’t, then we’ll find another guy.”

Another possible starter for the 2012 season is sophomore Tyler McCulloch, who had ten catches for 96 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman last season.

“He is not where we need him to be yet but I see him making strides,” said Kennedy. “He knows what we’re doing on offense and now there is just little technique things that he has to improve on: dipping and ripping, playing lower, coming off the ball every play. So he is making progress in the right direction, we just need to keep pushing him.”

Sophomore Keenan Canty, who had 14 catches for 161 yards in 2011, also received a modicum of praise from Kennedy.

“Keenan right now is better than he was at any point last year,” said Kennedy in his BuffaloStampede.com interview. “He is understanding holding his space against defenders on the sideline. He is doing a good job of leaning on guys and separating from them. So I see improvement with him. A lot of times last year, a guy would just kind of get his hands on him and widen him so the route depth wasn’t correct. I see a little added strength out of him. He is a guy that factors into the mix. What he needs to do, is he needs to become a more consistent catcher.”

And what of DaVaughn Thornton? A converted tight end, the 6’4″, 220-pound junior spent time in both positions last fall, but is practicing primarily as a wide receiver this spring.

“He is kind of a hybrid guy,” said Kennedy. “He can run. His blocking in the trenches wasn’t necessarily as good as we would have liked. DaVaughn does better when he can see things in space. So when you flex him out a little bit, bring him in motion, he just reacts better and sees things better.”

What we’ve learned … Paul Richardson appears primed to return to the status of the All-Pac-12 caliber player fans witnessed last fall before his injury. The remainder of the wide receiver corps, has yet to sort itself out. Nelson Spruce, Tyler McCulloch, Keenan Canty and DaVaughn Thornton will have another two weeks after spring break to make their case. Otherwise, the positions may go to one of the freshmen coming to camp this fall. “We have been telling everybody that is on campus this spring that this is their shot,” said Kennedy. “So if they don’t produce in the spring, they are going to miss their shot. We’re going to bring those freshmen in and give them their shot in the fall. If they grab on to it and hold on to it and show they are capable of learning the offense and having production then they are going to play.”

Running backs

Before Rodney Stewart came along, no running back had ever led Colorado in rushing four consecutive years.

Three years? Sure. Names familiar to Buff fans – Bobby Anderson, Charlie Davis, Lamont Warren, Herchell Troutman, and Hugh Charles – all led the team in rushing for three years.

But four years?

Only Rodney Stewart.

This spring, the search begins for Stewart’s replacement, and the primary candidates are sophomore Tony Jones and junior Josh Ford.

Not because Jones and Ford have set themselves apart … it’s because they are the only two healthy running backs in camp this spring who have experience at running back.

Sophomore Malcolm Creer is out with a knee injury, leaving former defensive back D.D. Goodson and former quarterback/defensive back Justin Gorman as the only other running backs on the roster.

Jones has had the best spring so far, with two long touchdowns in the second spring scrimmage. The first came on a 50-yard screen pass; the second on a 70-yard run to close out the 30-play scrimmage. “Tony has been running the ball exceptionally well,” said offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

“I just try to come out here and get better every day,” Jones told BuffaloStampede.com. “I am really staying focused since I am trying to be the starter of the Colorado Buffs.”

As for the fullbacks, Colorado is still trying to fill a position which didn’t exist under Dan Hawkins.

This spring, the two players vying for the most playing time are a former tight end and a true freshman who enrolled early. Alex Wood is a junior walk-on who presently occupies the top spot on the depth chart. “I am proud of being No. 1 on the depth chart right now, and hopefully as I keep working hard, I will be able to continue that into the fall,” Wood told BuffStampede.com. “E.B. (Eric Bieniemy) has my back, and he has given me a lot of confidence.”

Despite the competition, Wood is working with true freshman Clay Norgard, who is still adjusting to college life after enrolling in January. “Clay wants to get after it but his mind is going a thousand miles per hour every play,” Wood said. “He really wants to play fullback. I know it is different from what he played in high school, so I am trying to help him figure out the offense and slow things down for him. He is a strong, strong kid for a freshman and I want to see him play like that.”

What we’ve learned … Colorado is not very deep at running back, but Tony Jones has apparently continued to improve. Jones showed flashes late last season, and may be the odds-on favorite to earn the starting role this fall. The fullback position is still a work in progress. One of the true freshmen – Clay Norgard, who is in camp, or Christian Powell, who arrives in August – may well win the job this August, but, for now at least, walk-on Alex Wood is providing some competition.

Tight Ends

The question of the spring: Can former prep All-American defensive lineman Nick Kasa make the transition, and become an All-Pac-12 tight end?

There are two more experienced players at the position this spring, but CU tight ends coach J.D. Brookhart already believes Kasa is the most well-rounded because he has the size and strength to be an effective run blocker and he is serviceable in the passing game but still has a long way to go there.

Brookhart wishes he could put Scott Fernandez’s understanding of the offense into Kasa’s mind as well as the heads of one or two of his three incoming freshmen tight ends. It sure would solve this problem in a hurry. Fans shouldn’t be surprised to see Fernandez on the field next fall, particularly early in the season as the freshman transition.

“Scooter knows everything,” Brookhart told BuffaloSportsNews.com. “Scooter is an ex-O-lineman. He’s limited to what he can do in the pass game, but he gets the position. He can play. He can get involved.”

Klye Slavin is the other tight end on the roster this spring. He is in his third year in the program now and still hasn’t managed to make an impact, despite a solid spring last year catching the ball. He made two touchdown catches in last year’s spring game, but wasn’t heard from much during the season.

“Slavin has to show up and be a good move guy for us,” Brookhart said. “That’s his challenge this spring.

“He’s got some carry over to get done. Last year, he physically wasn’t able to handle the point. That’s his challenge that he’s got to get done right now. He’s got to be a move tight end that can handle a Buck and occasionally a backer and occasionally an end and do some things like that. Physically, he’s got to be able to do those things.”

What we’ve learned … Brookhart said he has no choice but to turn Kasa into a success story at tight end. He said the offense is depending on Kasa being able to contribute. The others, including at least two of the three incoming freshmen, will play and have their moments, but the team is relying on Kasa because he is the most ready from a physical standpoint to fill the role.

Offensive Line

Last April, Colorado lost offensive lineman Nate Solder to the first round of the NFL draft.

This April, offensive lineman Ryan Miller will likely be the first Buff drafted.

And yet, Colorado still continues to struggle on offense … mainly due to inconsistent offensive line play.

The buzz of the early spring was that the Buffs’ best returning lineman, junior David Bakhtiari, was moving from left tackle (where he started all but two games in 2011) to left guard.

Not so, said Bakhtiari. “Coach has me right now working 80 percent at left tackle and 20 percent at left guard,” Bakhtiari told BuffStampede.com. “He wants me to know the [assignments] both in and out.”

“[Colorado offensive line coach Steve Marshall] wants us to always know two positions and with the inside guys he wants them to know both guards and center. Right now my primary is left tackle and secondary is left guard. Coach wants ten guys that can do all ten positions. I played right tackle when I got here, I’ve played left tackle and coach feels comfortable with me playing guard, so he wants us to know everything just in case anything were to happen.”

Colorado loses both of its starting guards from last season, Miller and Ethan Adkins, but returns three starters. In addition to Bakhtiari, Gus Handler and Ryan Dannewitz return. Handler started the last nine games at center last fall, while Dannewitz earned ten starts at tackle. Dannewitz has been out this spring due to injury, giving other players the opportunity to demonstrate their value.

“The offensive line has done a great job this whole entire camp,” Eric Bieniemy said after the second scrimmage. “That is probably our most cohesive unit. Those kids are doing a great job of leading.”

What we’ve learned … Very little, actually. With the defensive line so decimated, the Colorado coaching staff has not been able to let the lines go after one another at a full go. The practices, and even the two, 30-play scrimmages, have been scripted, so that the defense could have the right personnel on the field. The offensive line went into the spring with only one name on the injury list (tackle Jack Harris), and has only added two names – Dannewitz and Kaiwi Crabb – to the list in the first two weeks of practice.  All three are expected to be available this fall. That, coupled with Eric Bieniemy’s praise, is the best news so far for the offsensive line this spring.



One Reply to “Spring Break-Down – Offense”

  1. Thanks for the update, Stuart. Kinda hard to get a clear handle on how camp is going without the access but from the limited info coming out, the OL stability and ToJo’s performance are the best stories. We’ll see how the OL shows come Fall camp when the DL gets their numbers back up. As of PRich, he’s clearly a major talent but he can only be as effective as his fellow WO mates allow. Finding some WR’s to step up and take some pressure off PRich is one of the biggest issues facing the offense this year. Either someone in camp now or a newcomer come Fall, SOMEBODY has to step up and make plays.

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