Are the Buffs Ready?

On Thursday, September 3rd (11:00 p.m., MT, CBS Sports Network), Colorado will play its first game since November 29th. The Buffs will also be looking for their first victory since September 20th … almost a full year ago. Ironically enough, the last team the Buffs beat was Hawai’i, CU’s first opponent this fall.

Despite the negatives, there is a fresh confidence with this team. It’s more mature, and comes into the season with greater expectations . A new defensive coordinator has been brought in – a defensive guru by the name of Jim Leavitt, who just happens to have a resume which promises to make the Buff defense much better very quickly.

But the nagging question remains:

Are the Buffs ready?

Are the Buffs really ready to take the next step? To close out close games? To post wins instead of moral victories?

One way of trying to answer that question is to take a quick walk through the CU roster, to see if the stress level for Buff fans heading into the season is high, medium or low.

(Note No. 1: We will look at the roster with an eye towards the starter remaining healthy. If we go with the hypothetical: What if Sefo Liufau tears an ACL in practice next week? Obviously, the stress level would go up considerably. So when we look a the starters, we’ll keep our fingers crossed that they will be around for the entire campaign … Note No. 2: Before you post comments about how great it will be for CU to have 12 starters on both offense and defense this fall, please accept that I have taken the liberty of posting 12 positions on offense, including a tight end and a fullback, and 12 starters on defense, including five defensive backs).



Starter: Sefo Liufau

Colorado not only has its starting quarterback returning, the Buffs have a quarterback returning who set 51 school records last season. Liufau, entering his junior season, is already in the top ten in school history in passing yards (6th; 4,979); touchdowns (3rd; 40); attempts (5th; 749); completions (4th; 474). Liufau is also currently the career leader in completion percentage (63.3%), and, if he holds serve for the next two seasons, will own most of CU’s career passing records. Stress level: Low.

Running back

Starter: Christian Powell

Before Rodney Stewart came along, no Buff in school history led the team in rushing four consecutive seasons. In 2015, Christian Powell has the chance to be come the second consecutive Buff running back to accomplish that very feat. The problem, of course, is that Powell’s numbers continue to decline. Leading the team in rushing in 2012, Powell had 691 yards. In 2013, the number fell to 562 yards. Then last season, in an injury-filled campaign, Powell’s total for the season dipped to 448 yards, marking the first time in over 30 years in which a Buff led the team in rushing while failing to reach the 500 yard mark. When healthy, Powell is effective, and we’re projecting here that Powell will be around all season. If he can’t make it, as Buff fans know, there are a number of other quality backs, including Michael Adkins and Phillip Lindsay, in the wings ready for their turn with the ball. Stress level: Low.


Starter: George Frazier

Buff fans don’t see much of George Frazier, but when they do, it’s generally a good thing. Frazier had all of ten touches of the ball last season (five rushes; five catches), but scored four times. Frazier had his biggest moment of the year last year against Hawai’i, with an 18-yard touchdown catch.  Hopefully, the sophomore will get even more touches this fall. Stress level: Low.

Wide Receiver (X)

Starter: Nelson Spruce

The only possible issue anyone can take with Spruce is that his production dropped off considerably in the second half of his record-setting 2014 season. After 56 catches for 697 yards and ten touchdowns in the first five games of 2014, Spruce was held to 50 catches for 501 yards and only two touchdowns in the final seven games. Teams will be geared up to stop Spruce, we’ll see how he responds. Stress Level: Low.

Wide Receiver (Z)

Starter: Shay Fields

On his way to earning CU’s Freshman Male Athlete of the Year, Fields had 50 catches for 486 yards and four touchdowns. Fields set five freshman records last year, including the most catches ever by a true freshman. Had it not been for the accolades given Spruce, Fields would have been considered a star for the Buffs. With a full off-season in Boulder to hone his skills, Buff fans should expect even more from Fields this fall. Stress Level: Low.

Wide Receiver (H)

Starter: Jay MacIntyre / Donovan Lee

The position formerly occupied by Tyler McCulloch, sophomore Donovan Lee and red-shirt freshman Jay MacIntyre will be vying for playing time. Lee played in ten games last year, including one start. He showed flashes of brilliance (46-yard kickoff return against Utah; 45-yard reverse against Arizona State). Will Lee become a standout? Will MacIntyre? Or will Bryce Bobo or Lee Walker become the Buffs’ third wide receiver of note? Stress Level: Medium.

Tight End

Starter: Sean Irwin

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: This might be the year in which Colorado produces quality tight end play. Mike MacIntyre produced an NFL draft pick at the position in his final season at San Jose State, but to date the position has been a forgotten one at Colorado. Sean Irwin is the default starter, being the only player returning with playing experience. Red-shirt freshmen Dylan Keeney and Hayden Jones provide hope for the future, but both were hampered by injuries in the off-season. Stress Level: High.

Offensive Tackles

Starters: Jeromy Irwin; Stephane Nembot

The Buffs are set at the tackle position, as both starters from last season return. Nembot has started 27 consecutive games, second on the team only to Nelson Spruce (32), while Irwin 21 career starts to his credit. Whether Nembot, the only senior on the line, will become the next CU offensive line to be drafted into the NFL remains to be seen, the fact remains that Colorado does have quality experience at both ends of the offensive line. Stress Level: Low.


Starter: Alex Kelley

Kelley, a junior, started all 12 games last year, and was on the field for 988 of CU’s 996 snaps on offense. A preseason Rimington Award watch list nominee, Kelley is one of the best centers in the conference. Stress Level: Low.


Starters: Jonathan Huckins, Gerrad Kough

Of all of the offensive starters, these two bring with them the most question marks. Both sophomores, the pair did not see much playing time as red-shirt freshmen, though Kough did earn two starts replacing injured regulars last fall. The pair replace Kaiwi Crabb and Daniel Munyer, fixtures along the line the past several seasons. Transfer Shane Callahan might find his way into the starting lineup at some point, but to date has not proven to the be the four-star recruit who won a national championship at Auburn a few seasons back. Stress Level: High.



Defensive Ends

Starters: Derek McCartney, Jimmie Gilbert

Though Gilbert is a junior and McCartney only a sophomore, this pair is already the bedrock of CU’s defensive line. Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has been coy about what defensive schemes Colorado will run this fall, but whether CU runs a 4-3, a 3-4, or a 4-2, expect that McCartney and Gilbert will be on the field for a majority of the snaps. Stress Level: Low.

Defensive Tackle / Nose Tackle

Starters: Justin Solis, Samson Kafovalu

Here’s where it starts to get interesting. Josh Tupou was supposed to be a returning starter here, and Tyler Henington was looking to return to his starting role from 2013. Instead, neither player will be on the field for a single down this fall, making the Buff Nation nervous. There are plenty of bodies with potential to rotate in and out of these positions, with Leo Jackson, Eddy Lopez, Jordan Carrell, Clay Norgard and Jase Franke all in the mix. Last year, though, Colorado was 102nd in rushing defense, giving up a full yard more per carry than any other team in the Pac-12. A little Latin here for you: sine qua non – literally, “without this, nothing“. If the Buffs can’t figure out how to plug up the middle, not much else will matter. Stress Level: High.

Inside (Mike) Linebacker

Starter: Addison Gillam

In 2013, Addison Gillam became the first freshman to lead the team in tackles in the history of the program. Last year, Gillam’s production fell off due to injuries. The reports are that Gillam is at 100% heading into the fall. If this is the case, Buff fans are in for a treat. Stress Level: Low.

Inside (Will) Linebacker

Starter: Kenneth Olugbode

With Gillam hurt, it was left to Olugbode last fall to pick up the slack. The junior-to-be did just that, leading the team in tackles with 83 (57 unassisted). A healthy Gillam will only make life that much easier for Olugbode, who represented the team at the Pac-12 media days along with tackle Stephane Nembot. Olugbode started all 12 games last fall, and this spring was given the Eddie Crowder Award, given to players who displayed outstanding leadership during the spring. Stress Level: Low.

Outside (Sam) Linebacker

Starter: Deaysean Rippy

Not all that long ago, there was considerable joy in the Buff Nation when it was announced that Deaysean Rippy was transferring to Colorado from Pitt. A highly recruited linebacker, Rippy was to follow in the footsteps of his successful cousin, Doug Rippy (2008-12). Now a junior, Deaysean has yet to live up to the hype, playing only special teams last year. Perhaps the saving grace here is that CU rarely plays a three-linebacker set, with a nickel back almost always in the game against the spread offenses of the Pac-12. Stress Level: Medium.


Starters: Kenneth Crawley, Ahkello Witherspoon

Greg Henderson is gone, leaving the starting position at one corner open. Junior Ahkello Witherspoon, who made a name for himself in the Spring game last year, but was on the field for only five games last fall, is the question mark. Kenneth Crawley, with 31 career starts, is a known quantity, so teams will likely look to exploit the other side of the field. How Witherspoon (or John Walker or Yuri Wright) meet the challenge will go a long way in determining CU’s won/loss record this fall. Stress Level: Medium.

Nickel Back

Starter: Chidobe Awuzie

Awuzie, a junior this fall, is a man for all seasons. Awuzie is listed as the number one nickel back on the roster, but he may wind up as a starting cornerback if Ahkello Witherspoon is not productive at the position. If Awuzie slides over to cornerback, junior John Walker, who saw increased playing time as the 2014 season wore on, becomes the No. 1 nickel back. Stress Level: Medium.


Starters: Tedric Thompson, Evan White

As Buff fans well know, Tedric Thompson was the only Buff to have an interception last fall. To add insult to injury, Thompson’s three picks were all collected by the end of the fifth game of the season, meaning that Colorado has gone seven consecutive games without a single interception. Thompson returns, and White does have some starting experience. Also in the fold is Jered Bell, a former starter who has been out the past two seasons with injuries. Stress Level: Medium.

Special Teams


Starter: Diego Gonzalez

While Will Oliver never made CU fans forget Mason Crosby, he was a serviceable and productive four-year starter at kicker.  Diego Gonzalez and Chris Graham were on the team last fall, and remain in competition to replace Oliver. Fans concerns were not alleviated during fall scrimmage, when Gonzalez had one extra point blocked, while another clanked off the goalpost (though he did hit a 57-yard field goal). Stress Level: High.


Starter: Alex Kinney

Another four-year starter is gone, with the replacement for Darragh O’Neill likely to be a true freshman. Alex Kinney is the favorite to jump right into the starting lineup, but until the former high school standout shows the Buff Nation he can handle the pressures of the college game, this position will remain a concern. Stress Level: High.

Kick Returner / Punt Returner

Starters: Nelson Spruce, Shay Fields

It’s been ten years since Colorado had a punt return for a touchdown (Stephone Robinson), and it seems like it has been about that long since CU was even a threat to return a kick for any distance. The Buffs were better in kickoff returns last fall, and overall improvements in speed, depth, and experience should help improve both the return and coverage teams this fall. Stress Level: Medium.

Colorado has the opportunity to be a bowl-eligible team in 2015 … and also has the opportunity to live through yet another season of embarrassing and frustrating losses. The Buffs are talking about a winning season and making bowl plans for Christmas, but, as Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan … ’till they get punched in the mouth”.

Hawai’i will lay the first punch next week.

We’ll see how the 2015 Buffs respond.



Program Note … Next weekend will see the return of the (in)famous “T.I.P.S.”, the previews for CU opponents taking a look at T-Talent; I-Intangibles; P-Preparation/Schedule; and S-Statistics for the upcoming game. Email updates, a free service to all CU at the Gamers will also go from once a week to twice a week for the duration of the season. If you are not on the email update list, and would like to be, just drop me a note at




2 Replies to “Are the Buffs Ready?”

  1. 2 things I would change
    RBs I would elevate to medium. Not only do we not have a back right now who can take charge and “run away” from the other backs (maybe Carr?) but the guard question factors in too.
    At NT I would reduce to medium. Losing those guys was bad but I think Samson and the JC guys will more than adequately fill the void. I think Eddie Lopez, who was thrown in as a freshman last year will develop as a valuable contributor as well.

  2. Yo Stuart,

    Interesting analysis, but I disagree on some of your stress level assignments. Offensive tackle you have rated as “LOW” because our tackles have a combined 48 starts between them.

    The tackle with 27 of those starts has all the POTENTIAL in the world, but as Hall of Fame coach Darrell Royal famously said, “Potential means you ain’t done it yet.”

    The unnamed tackle in question has given up 16 sacks and 39 QB pressures in his time starting. He’s also been penalized 15 times, including 9 last year.

    Every Buff opponent this fall will have their best pass rusher playing opposite this tackle. That’s enough to raise my blood pressure and the accompanying stress.

    I really hope this year that the guy finally puts it all together and plays at All-American levels (I’d settle for All Pac-12).

    The success of this year’s Buffs will depend a great deal on the play of this young man.


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