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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 89: Colorado

One thing to like about Jon Embree’s recruiting efforts in Boulder: Colorado has signed only two JUCO recruits under his watch. That’s out of a total of 51 signed prospects over Embree’s two recruiting classes, with both joining the program in 2011. This past winter’s class, 28-players strong, did not include one JUCO recruit. Last year’s class also ranked eighth in the Pac-12, according to Rivals.com, after Embree’s first effort – though completed on the fly, after he was named as Dan Hawkins’ permanent successor on Dec. 6, 2010 – was ranked last in the conference. The lack of reliance on JUCO recruits indicates that Embree isn’t looking for quick fixes, and that he understands that C.U. must rebuild from the ground up. However, it also means that Colorado’s roster remains one of the youngest in college football.

Conference
Pac-12, South

Location
Boulder, Colo.

Nickname
Buffaloes

Returning starters
10 (4 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 87

2011 record
(3-10, 2-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 97

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    at Colorado St. (in Denver)
  • Sept. 8
    Sacramento St.
  • Sept. 15
    at Fresno St.
  • Sept. 22
    at Washington St.
  • Sept. 29
    U.C.L.A.
  • Oct. 11
    Arizona St.
  • Oct. 20
    at U.S.C.
  • Oct. 27
    at Oregon
  • Nov. 3
    Stanford
  • Nov. 10
    at Arizona
  • Nov. 17
    Washington
  • Nov. 23
    Utah

Last year’s prediction

Colorado can sit back and take a deep breath, free from the confines of Dan Hawkins and his misguided blueprint for the program. But don’t relax for too long: come September, one of the nation’s most intimidating schedules awaits. There are other reasons for concern. One is a rookie coach. A second worry is the dearth of big-play guys on offense. No group on the defense seems secure, though the defensive line looks like the strongest of the bunch. There are question marks at linebacker and particularly in the secondary. Lost in the positive vibes following the coaching and conference moves is the fact that Colorado is four years removed from its last bowl trip and six years removed from its last winning season. The light is not just going to turn on, especially with a rookie coach and these issues.

2011 recap

In a nutshell New coach, new staff, new systems, depleted roster, beaten-down program. Oh, and a new conference. Those expecting anything other than a painful debut for Embree at his alma mater were likely enjoying Boulder a little too much – if that’s even possible, which I don’t believe it is. The year didn’t start terribly, with the Buffaloes hanging tight with California and topping Colorado State, but the season spiraled out of control on Oct. 8, one week after C.U. blew a late lead to lose at Washington State. From Oct. 8 through Nov. 4, a five-game span in Pac-12 play, Colorado was outscored by 235-64. Given how poorly the team played over this stretch, it was heartening to see the Buffaloes bounce back to win two of three to end the regular season – even if that one loss, a 45-6 decision at U.C.L.A., was more than a little distressing. The bottom line? You shouldn’t have been looking for progress in the standings, but rather on the practice field, in the locker room, in the weight room and in the film room. Progress made outside the public eye is still progress.

High point C.U. achieved three feats in a 17-14 road win over Utah to end the regular season. One, it propelled the Buffaloes into the offseason on a high note; it’s always nice to head into the winter with a nice taste in your mouth. Two, it provided C.U. with a win over the program’s new rival, as Utah has replaced Nebraska as the Buffaloes’ post-Thanksgiving Day opponent – it’s not the same, believe me. And three, the victory over the Utes was Colorado’s first true road win since beating Texas Tech in Lubbock on Oct. 27, 2007. Sandwiched between the Red Raiders and Utes were 24 road defeats.

Low point You could count any one of the five ugly losses mentioned above, though only one would qualify as an out-and-out disappointment: Arizona State thrashed C.U., 48-14, but the remaining four losses came at Stanford, at Washington, home against U.S.C. and home against Oregon. The worst losses are those that took the wind out of Colorado’s sails early, like the overtime loss to California, the woeful third quarter against Ohio State and the surefire-win-turned-loss against the Cougars.

Tidbit That Colorado lost to Oregon by 43 points was expected, and therefore not disappointing – not for those not associated with the program, at least. That Colorado lost by 45-2 was embarrassing, however. Why? Because to me, notching only a safety feels worse than getting shutout. Agreed? Another reason why the score stood out: C.U. had been held to a safety only once in school history, and not since 1914 – when the program was led by Fred Folsom, whose name now graces the Buffaloes’ home stadium.

Tidbit (spring game edition) After drawing 15,655 fans to last year’s spring game, the second-most for a spring game in program history, only 7,100 fans turned out to watch Embree’s second team scrimmage on April 14. The most-attended spring game in program history came in 2008 (17,800), and only then because former C.U. head coach Bill McCartney called on fans to fill the house. Two reasons for this April’s decline in attendance? One might be that Embree no longer has that new-car smell. Another is the fact that unlike in 2011, when Colorado played its spring game at night for the first time, Embree opted to hold the game at 5 p.m. – dusk, or thereabouts.

Tidbit (10-loss edition) Embree is the second head coach in program history to lose at least 10 games in his debut season, joining Dan Hawkins. Embree is also one of four C.U. coaches to suffer a double-digit loss season, joining Hawkins, Chuck Fairbanks and, yes, McCartney. You know about Hawkins’ struggles; Fairbanks’ tenure might have been even more disastrous, believe it or not. McCartney, brought in to clean up the mess, went 2-8, 4-7 and 1-10 over his first three years before the light turned on for C.U. in 1985. The rest is – or was – history.

Former players in the N.F.L.

18 Justin Bannan (Denver), CB Jalil Brown (Kansas City), WR Toney Clemons (Pittsburgh), K Mason Crosby (Green Bay), LS Justin Drescher (New Orleans), TE Daniel Graham (Tennessee), QB Tyler Hansen (Cincinnati), LB Brad Jones (Green Bay), WR Scott McKnight (New York Jets), OT Ryan Miller (Cleveland), OT Tyler Polumbus (Washington), CB Jimmy Smith (Baltimore), OT Nate Solder (New England), RB Rodney Stewart (Cincinnati), FB Lawrence Vickers (Dallas), CB Terrence Wheatley (Tennessee), WR Pat Williams (Baltimore).

Arbitrary top five list

Colorado’s best wins, 2001-11
1. 2001: Colorado 62, Nebraska 36.
2. 2001: Colorado 39, Texas 37.
3. 2007: Colorado 65, Nebraska 51.
4. 2002: Colorado 28, Nebraska 13.
5. 2004: Colorado 26, Nebraska 20.

Coaching

Jon Embree (Colorado ’87), 3-10 after his first season back in Boulder. To call his debut campaign a disappointment would ignore these key facts at our disposal: Colorado was a mess; the roster lacked anything close to top-level talent; the program had forgotten how to win games; and the Buffaloes were in their first season in a new conference. He gets a pass for last season for at least the next two years. Embree is a former starter at Colorado, a big, strong tight end who was a central figure on the first Bill McCartney-led teams to turn the corner in the mid-1980s. He began his coaching career at his alma mater, serving as a volunteer coach under McCartney in 1991, shortly after the conclusion of his N.F.L. career. He began coaching in earnest in 1993, when he joined Colorado as a full-time assistant. He spent the next decade in Boulder, first as the tight ends coach (1993-94), then coaching the defensive ends under Rick Neuheisel (1995-98) before returning to tight end duties under Gary Barnett (1999-2002); over his final two seasons under Barnett, Embree coached the C.U. receivers and kickers. He then left for U.C.L.A., where he earned three years of solid Pac-12 experience under Karl Dorrell. Then it was off to the N.F.L.: first with the Chiefs, followed by the Broncos and Redskins, spending much of the 2010 season as Washington’s tight ends coach before accepting the open Colorado position in early December. The drawbacks: Embree had no coordinator experience, let alone head coaching experience, at any level; his inexperience was at first a concern, though he’s certainly more seasoned after last season’s growing pains. The positives: he’s not Dan Hawkins, meaning Embree is a college coach not only with B.C.S. conference experience but with experience at Colorado. As anyone who knows the program can tell you, Colorado is unlike any place else. Embree gets that, he gets Colorado, which is why he was hired in the first place.

Players to watch

By default, Connor Wood was Colorado’s starting quarterback during the spring. Come the first Friday in September, Wood should remain Colorado’s starting quarterback. For now, however, as C.U. heads into the summer, Embree is playing his cards close to the vest – though not too close. All signs point to Wood, a former Texas transfer, settling into the starting spot left vacant by Tyler Hansen, a multiple-year starter who gamely battled injuries and occasional ineffectiveness to complete a fairly strong college career.

Wood can make the throws. A major recruit into Austin, he left after encountering a logjam at the position; his search for playing time led Wood to Boulder, where his eligibility clock ticked alive just in time to match Colorado’s opening at the position. After a solid spring, albeit one spent getting in rhythm with the Buffaloes’ changing cast of characters at the skill positions, Wood hit on 7 of 10 attempts for 137 yards and a pair of scores in the spring game. That pushed him into the summer on a high note, and gave Embree and his staff – including offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and quarterbacks coach Rip Sherer – reason to believe that the offense will be in good hands.

But there’s still a quarterback competition to resolve. The hold-up is due to the status of sophomore Nick Hirschman, who sustained yet another foot injury just prior to the start of spring ball. C.U. projects that Hirschman, who completed 18 of 35 attempts for 192 yards as Hansen’s backup in 2011, will return in time for fall camp. It’s not merely a matter of getting back on the field for Hirschman, however; it’s a matter of getting there and staying there, which has been an issue. Wood is starting against Colorado State on Sept. 2. Whether he remains the starter depends on his own play and Hirschman’s right foot.

In all, C.U. must replace 86 percent of its offensive production from a year ago. The lion’s share of that yardage came in the body of running back Rodney Stewart, one of the lone beacons of light over Colorado’s recent swoon. With Stewart gone, C.U. loses its most consistent offensive weapon. The search is on for his replacement. It’ll likely be another diminutive back, sophomore Tony Jones (297 yards), who served as Stewart’s primary backup last fall. The Buffaloes also have junior Josh Ford as a bigger option; he played well in brief stretches in 2011. Also in the mix are sophomores D.D. Goodson, Justin Gorman and Malcolm Creer, if the latter’s healthy, as well as four incoming freshmen.

It’s hard to get a read on this offensive line. On one hand, you see that C.U. must replace both starting guards – including Ryan Miller, an all-American in some circles – and two key interior reserves. On the other hand, C.U. brings back six linemen who made at least two starts in 2011. Junior David Bakhtari returns for his third season in the starting lineup, and his second at left tackle. Junior Gus Handler returns at center. After starting the first three games at center last fall, sophomore Daniel Munyer moves out to right guard, stepping into Miller’s huge shoes.

Junior Jack Harris returns at right tackle after suffering a season-ending injury against California on Sept. 10. Now healthy, he pushes his replacement in the starting lineup, senior Ryan Dannewitz, into a reserve role. Dannewitz might also be an option at left guard, where he made one start in 2011, but the job is currently held by sophomore Alexander Lewis, who is athletic to have been used as a tight end in certain situations as a freshman. Colorado’s story up front is one of youth, especially in terms of depth, and relative inexperience. The line could break out; there’s enough talent here for the line to gel early and stay there. But the line could also be a constant nuisance. We won’t know until the Buffaloes take the field against Colorado State.

Most of Colorado’s defensive losses come up front, where the Buffaloes are retooling without three of last year’s starters. The losses were heavily centered inside, where C.U. must replace Conrad Obi and Curtis Cunningham, so it made sense for defensive coordinator Greg Brown to shift senior Will Pericak (64 tackles, 2.5 for loss) inside from end, where he started 10 games a year ago. An honorable mention all-conference pick last fall, Pericak is the most experienced – and the most valuable – member of the defensive line. Steadiness is an underrated virtue for a lineman; Pericak is certainly steady.

For now, he’ll be joined inside by sophomore Kirk Poston. That will change once C.U. gets a healthy Nate Bonsu back in the mix; at 300 pounds, Bonsu would team with Pericak to give the Buffaloes a nice interior pairing. Pericak’s move inside opens up a spot at end for sophomore Juda Parker, a lightly-used reserve as a rookie. Given Parker’s inexperience – and his untested backups on the left side – there might be a role at end for incoming freshman Kisima Jagne, one of the jewels of Colorado’s recent recruiting class. For now, Parker, who has his share of athletic ability, will join junior Chidera Uzo-Diribe (18 tackles, 5.5 sacks) in the starting lineup. Uzo-Diribe may be close to tapping into his potential.

The biggest move at linebacker has senior Jon Major (85 tackles, 9.5 for loss), last year’s leading tackler, returning to the strong side after being forced inside last fall due to injuries. With Major – an all-conference candidate – back in his natural position, C.U. just needs senior middle linebacker Doug Rippy (62 tackles) to return to full health. He injured his knee seven games into last season, just as he was blossoming as a starter; he’s expected to be back by August, which is great news for this defense. Colorado’s dream threesome has Major on the strong side, Rippy in the middle and junior Derrick Webb (54 tackles) on the weak side. Sophomore Brady Daigh will keep Rippy’s seat warm, but he should be ready to go by September. Rippy and Major make a great pair.

The secondary will be better, and not – wait for it – because this group couldn’t get any worse. The Buffaloes made Kevin Price look like Matt Barkley; made Barkley look like Joe Montana; made Andrew Luck look like, well, Andrew Luck. There is tremendous room for improvement, to put it lightly. And this secondary will grow, improve, get stops and force turnovers – it’ll be a better group, if not quite improved to a point where C.U. is going to move from the bottom of the F.B.S. to the top. Think somewhere in the middle.

The Buffaloes took their lumps. Cornerbacks like Greg Henderson (58 tackles, 1 interception) and Josh Moten will come out stronger on the other side. Both were thrust into the starting lineup – Henderson for all but one game – a tad ahead of schedule; Henderson responded wonderfully, earning honorable mention all-conference honors. A year later, Henderson’s one of the up-and-coming defensive backs in the Pac-12, while Moten and sophomore Jered Bell, soon back in the mix after last season’s injury, can help bottle up receivers on the other side. Perhaps all three could use a little more seasoning; that doesn’t mean they won’t be better, or that Henderson isn’t a keeper.

C.U. also has an all-conference contender at free safety in senior Ray Polk (80 tackles, 1 interception). It’s hard to imagine, but Colorado’s defense would have been even worse without Polk anchoring the back end; C.U. credits him with eight touchdown-saving plays, which sounds about right. There’s a hole at strong safety, where C.U. must replace Anthony Perkins. Junior Parker Orms, a four-game starter at cornerback in 2011, will get first crack at the position.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver What’s lost in the passing game: Toney Clemons’ 43 receptions, Stewart’s 45 grabs, tight end Ryan Deehan’s 24 and Logan Gray’s 18. That was as of Jan. 1. Then came the spring, and junior Paul Richardson tore his A.C.L., leaving his 2012 season in extreme doubt. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with Richardson, to a degree: he may have posted 39 grabs for 555 yards and 5 scores last fall, but 11 of those receptions, 284 of those yards and 2 of those touchdowns came in one game – he had a day for the ages in the loss to California, nearly single-handedly leading C.U. to victory.

But losing Richardson turns the receiver corps from a looming concern to an all-hands-on-deck sort of disaster zone. Only two returning receivers, sophomores Tyler McCulloch (10 catches for 96 yards) and Keenan Canty (14 for 161), posted double-digit receptions last fall. Only one returning receiver, junior DeVaughn Thompson, has made at least one catch in each of the last two years. Tony Jones (27 for 168) made some plays in the passing game last fall, but C.U. desperately needs to give Wood some weapons to work with in the passing game.

So seeing redshirt freshman Nelson Spruce play well during the spring was a nice surprise. And C.U. does have size at the position; Canty is the only receiver in line for a sizable role who stands below 6’1. But in a Pac-12 that has shifted wholesale into non-stop-offensive-fireworks mode, the Buffaloes’ dearth of proven receiving options stands as a major question mark heading into the summer. Would you settle for some excitement at tight end? If not an exciting development, it’ll be interesting to see how converted defensive end Nick Kasa, once a top-tier recruit, fares in his new role at tight end. There’s no questioning his athletic ability.

Game(s) to watch

C.U. gets several winnable games at home, but also a handful of toss-ups on the road. The good outweighs the bad, especially when you consider that two surefire losses – U.S.C. and Oregon – come away from home. Embree’s second season will be defined by how C.U. fares in the swing games, whether they come at home or away. This list includes road games against Colorado State (in Denver), Fresno State, Washington State and Arizona, and home games against U.C.L.A. and Arizona State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell You can’t imagine what sort of situation Embree walked into last December. You can look at the standings and get an idea – the story of Colorado football’s steady decline, told in wins and losses – but you really can’t put into words the sort of weak, sloppy, ineptly-coached group he inherited as Hawkins’ successor. Then you get to this idea: Embree had to reverse the program’s entire culture, where mediocrity was the goal and losing an acceptable result. Not even Embree knew what he was getting into. We’re now a year-plus removed from his arrival; now, today, Embree knows what it’s going to take. It won’t take a miracle, merely more hard work and even more patience. Colorado’s already getting better. Heading into 2012, C.U. looks far stronger along the back seven on defense, especially in the secondary. There’s a nice blend of experience and potential along the defensive line. The offensive line could falter, yes, but the group could be pretty good, if the Buffaloes can survive along the interior. This team does have issues at the offensive skill positions, however, especially at wide receiver. Is this a particularly good team? Nope. Is this a better team? Absolutely. And you’ll see that improvement manifested in the win column, if only with one extra win in one fewer regular season game. C.U. still looks like the weakest team in the Pac-12, but a good portion of the gap between the Buffaloes and the rest of the league has been closed. C.U. needs to remain patient.

Dream season Colorado takes advantage of a smooth start to the schedule, opening with five wins in six games before dropping back down to Earth over the second half. The Buffaloes still win seven games, handing the program’s its first winning season since 2005.

Nightmare season The year starts poorly with a loss to Colorado State and continues in this disappointing vein nearly throughout. The wins: Sacramento State and Fresno State. The Buffaloes go winless in Pac-12 play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Colorado fans congregate? Colorado has a number of football-oriented independent sites, which is always good to see. If you’re interested, take a look at Net BuffsBuff Backers and All Buffs. For recruiting coverage, check out Buff Stampede and Buffalo Sports News. And do yourself a favor and visit Ralphie Report, the clear and undisputed leader of Colorado blogs. There’s more to be found at Buff Scoop, which also touches on Colorado’s recruiting.

Colorado’s all-name nominee QB Stevie Joe Dorman.

Word Count

Through 36 teams 125,510.

Up Next

Who is No. 88? Both the offensive coordinator and one of the co-defensive coordinators graduated from a school in the Pac-12; the other co-defensive coordinator earned his degree from a university with an F.C.S. program that is 0-5 all-time against the Pac-12, with four of the losses occurring between 1938-47.

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Comments

  1. Adam says:

    I’m not a Colorado fan, but I feel like a few early 90s games should’ve made the top 5. Colorado was a top program in the late 80s/early 90s.

    Plus, Kordell Stewart at Michigan. That probably should be on here (and I’m a Michigan fan).

  2. Adam says:

    Also, I really enjoy these long write-ups in the offseason. Any college football I can get my hands on is great. Thanks!

  3. David says:

    Army is next.

    OC Ian Shields, Oregon State
    Co-DC Payam Saadat, Washington State
    Co-DC Chris Smeland, Cal Poly

  4. Monty says:

    Second tidbit: The safety against Oregon was earned by tackling Cliff Harris in the endzone on a punt return. That play would be the last thing Cliff would do on the field in an Oregon Ducks uniform.

  5. Bobak says:

    As an otherwise disinterested party, I really enjoyed Colorado’s upset/blowout of what has seemed before to be an unstoppable Nebraska team. I still remember the poor boy who was shown on national television crying his eyes out as Nebraska was losing (I hope he didn’t get too much flack for it, but it was even on SportsCenter). I wonder what happened to that same Husker team…oh right: The first Grade-A BCS mess.

    Of course, the Buffs followed it up with an upset of Texas and rode into a BCS bowl where they were soundly defeated by the team that should have faced that incredible Miami team: Oregon.

  6. gtleviathan says:

    You allude to Colorado being a unique situation for a football program. Can you (or someone else) expand what you mean by that? As a fan of another “unique” program, Ga Tech, I enjoy learning about the various cultures around college football.

  7. Pezgordo says:

    As a PAC-12 fan I believe the Buffs will be improved this season, but they are still the worst team in the conference.

    They are a very young team. They’ll be starting a new QB, RB, inexperienced REC’s and 3 new OL. The D should be improved, but it will still be made up of a lot of underclassmen.

    Embree and his staff will also be more experienced, so that should help, but overall they have a very shallow talent pool to work with right now.

    I’d say they are in store for another 3, maybe a 4 win season.

  8. Dawgs says:

    @gtleviathan:

    Tech Sucks…..Paul cant win a bowl game and the dawgs run the state

  9. GTWrek says:

    It’s ok Dawgs. We lose the football game every year, but we win in real life every other day. You might want to get back to work before your Georgia Tech boss catches you slacking off on the computer. Thanks though for your well-crafted, insightful comment.

  10. Allbuffs says:

    Great preview, and pretty much spot. I don’t think quite enough was made of our injury situation in the secondary last year however. We were moving WR’s and RB’s to play the position because of how crushed we were. That only exacerbated the problems that highlighted.

    This could be a season where you see better play out of the Buffs, but not a better record. 2013 will be the true test, as our Pac-12 schedule lightens up, and the improved recruiting classes gain some experience.

    Thanks for the link back to Allbuffs!

  11. BuffNut says:

    Very good article. It touches on what Embree’s greatest task really was/is – changing the culture. Hawkins was an unmitigated disaster that received a contract extension and prolonged any recovery until amputation. Embree has actually done a remarkable job recruiting, considering that 17 year-olds never saw Colorado play when the Buffs were an elite team in CFB from 1989-1996. There will be more growing pains in 2012, but the experience will be invaluable for the young core of the Buffs. I’m expecting 6 wins, one of them a shocking upset.

  12. Buff-a-Nut says:

    Great write up. I think the incoming recruiting class is the best Colorado has had in recent memory. Look for Kenneth Crawley to have a big year on both defense and special teams.
    The lack of offense playmakers is a serious concern and Colorado needs Tony to step up big time, especially with the depth at receiver.
    I think Colorado will surprise some people and upset some good teams (Stanford?)

  13. ne says:

    gtwhale, about cu’s ‘uniqueness’, if still relevant.
    i suspect some of this will sound familiar to you.

    generally, cu is the flagship university in colo, but its support in all areas of its endeavors does not match that status: 1)it receives about 3.5% of its overall budget from the state of colo, the rest from tuition increases and research (cu has been an AAU.edu member since 1966); 2) 55% of its students are not from colorado and pay out-of-state tuition that is 3X that of in-state students in order to support the revenue requirements of the university; 3) thus, its local alumni base is smaller than that of CSU, the ag/land grant school; 4) in the old big8/big12 footprint, a small alumni base, in the pac12 the alumni base is much larger; 5) the athletic dept has had deficits due to firing coaches (barnett, hawkins), and a stadium expansion that didn’t pull its weight in the first few years after it came online, due in part to the ‘scandal’, poor performance on the field, lack of local fan base, and other factors; 6) cu has high admissions standards, does not allow exceptions for good athletes that fall short of the standards; 7) cu does not offer cake majors for jocks, unlike many other schools; it is nearly impossible for juco kids to gain admission to cu, the few that do have eligibility issues; 8) the boulder community does not embrace the university fully, and often is hostile to the athletic departments; 9) year around, there are many things to do in boulder besides football, basketball, etc; 10) there are four major sports franchises in denver, each take a huge bite out of the dollars available to be spent on cu football tickets and donations, there are minor sports franchises in denver also (hoops, hockey, lacrosse, soccer, etc.), a lot of competition for the sports dollar, which the broncos dominate; 11) cu’s athletic facilities need updating, folsom seats 53.5K, the indoor practice facility is a joke (an old tennis bubble), and other football facilities lag far behind other bcs schools.

    how is that for a start?

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