What’s Changed. The offense goes from impossibly young and inexperienced to just young, more or less: though inconsistent and ranked in the bottom third of the conference by every conventional measure last year, there are sophomores at every position who can properly be described as “battle-tested” – Cody Hawkins at quarterback, Demetrius Sumler and Brian Lockridge at running back, Scotty McKnight and Josh Smith at receiver, freshman all-American Ryan Miller and converted tight end Nate Solder on the line. Not that I have any good idea what to make of them as a group after their first year, which was spent teetering on the brink between breakout success (27, 31 and 65 points in wins over Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Nebraska) and maddening growing pains (20, 14 and 10 points in losses to Kansas State, Kansas and Missouri in a four-week span, followed by a blown 21-0 halftime lead in a loss to last place Iowa State).
The youth movement suggests they should be better, but from that array of unpredictability, what’s the baseline? Certainly they don’t expect to score 65 on the Huskers again, any more than they expect to be held under 200 total yards in a 45-point rout against Missouri.
For an offense with no above-average playmakers whatsoever, the key most of the time was the consistency of Cody Hawkins, which was itself a kind of cyclical beast – Hawkins’ performance seemed to work in conjunction with the success of the running game:
|The least you should know about Colorado...|
|2007 Record • Past Five Years|
2007: 6-7 (4-4 Big 12; 3rd/North)
2003-07: 28-35 (18-24 Big 12)
|Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*-|
|2004-08: 49 • 43 • 48 • 32 • 15|
|Returning Starters, Roughly|
|13 (5 Offense, 8 Defense)|
|Probably the best thing that could happen for Colorado is that incoming tailback savior Darrell Scott assume this position from the get-go. Until then, it belongs to another Los Angeles transplant, defensive tackle George "The Rabid Goldfish" Hypolite, a likely first day pick next April and the only returning Buffalo who was even honorable mention all-Big 12 in 2007. He has 18 tackles for loss over two years as the anchor of the most respectable unit on the team; his last name sounds like a vitamin formula for infants, but you’d never say that to his face.|
|I’m Probably the Only One Who Notices...|
|Word up, big love, mad props, etc. to the CU sports propaganda department for one gem of a post-spring prospectus, the most detailed, data-packed, user-friendly animal of its breed. The intricacy of the minutiae presented here is far beyond anyone’s practical use – first down tendencies, complete spring statistics over three scrimmages, offensive line statistics, pages and pagese of roster breakdowns, player-by-player details on pending graduation status, and a short section called "expanded punting," for starters. I’d hate to be the guy delivering the multi-volume tome that must be the actual media guide in July.|
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* According to Rivals.
That’s somewhat chicken-and-egg, depending on the offense, but given its reliance on play-action in the games I watched (vs. Colorado State, Oklahoma, Kansas, Alabama), Colorado’s attempts at balance start on the ground and dictate Hawkins’ performance accordingly. In that respect, the most important player this fall is an unknown: Darrell Scott is the running back everybody wanted and CU actually landed, almost singlehandedly breaking a debilitating recruiting slump (see box below) in the wake of the hookers-n-rape scandal under Gary Barnett. In all likelihood, a backfield with Sumler and/or Lockridge will be just adequate most of the time, and occasionally stuffed, as it was last year; Scott, on the other hand, has the hype of a franchise guy who can turn the entire offense around. This can be a very good offense with one reliable, central workhorse.
What’s the Same. Defensively, Hawkins’ staff hasn’t done much yet to overturn the trend begun under Gary Barnett:
There are a few exceptions, but in the least three years, especially, the Buffs can be counted on to be a little above average against the run, a little below average against the pass, and just about average overall. The eight starters back off last year’s defense – three on the line, two linebackers, three in the secondary – should fall right back into the pattern they perpetuated last year. Other than truly terrible games against the pass in 50-point efforts by Missouri and Nebraska (big yards by Baylor and Texas Tech were a little inflated and were accompanied by multiple interceptions) and a porous run D against Kansas State, that form held.
If it’s going to improve, it will probably come in the form of sacks (a meager 11 in the last ten games) and in the secondary, where the three starters are backed by four other guys who have played a good bit. But aside from maybe running back-turned-tackle George Hypolite, nobody remotely stands out, even in terms of something like recruiting hype, as a catalyst for much improvement outside of the general osmosis of becoming upperclassmen.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. The Buffs basically recited their ABCs last spring because there were no healthy offensive linemen and a lot of redshirt freshmen at the skill positions, etc. Stocked with the fruits of eight offensive linemen from the 2007 class (all redshirts except Miller), a completely intact coaching staff and a quarterback with actual on-field experience, Papa Hawkins let loose this year with the more advanced sections of the playbook:
The most significant change during spring drills came on the offensive side of the ball. With the players now more accustomed to the system on offense, and with the timing (game clock) rules changing for the fourth time in as many years, it was time to take things up a notch. The coaches instituted a no-huddle offense, one that will produce more plays and keep the defense from making wholesale substitutions. It figures to be particularly a big hit in home games, when the visitor isn’t used to the altitude at Folsom Field. In fact, Hawkins had hoped to install it a year ago, but the offense hadn’t progressed enough for the staff to be comfortable with it.
One of the major keys to the no-huddle in experienced leadership at quarterback, as CU now has that with Cody Hawkins entrenched as the starter. Signals coming in from the other quarterbacks to call the plays from offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich will keep them involved in the happenings as well, and both Nick Nelson and Matt Ballenger did well in the spring. The pair shined on the field as well when Hawkins was one of the two learning the signals and sending them in. This alone already has the offense well ahead of this time a year ago, which is important since the offense as a whole is still very young.
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The “no-huddle,” or some version thereof, is always good for some “look out, they’re taking the reigns off” articles by content-starved columnists in the spring, though almost no one actually runs it in a live game outside of the occasional two-minute drill. The popular “check with me” described here doesn’t usually shorten time between snaps and restricts substitution by the offense as well. But, you know, more power to ‘em – just keep those wildly gesturing backup quarterbacks away from Bill Belichick and Charlie Weis.
Colorado on You Tube. The Buffs led 1-8 Iowa State 21-0 at the half last November before getting stopped on fourth down on the first possession of the second half and giving up 31 unanswered points. And then, well, see if you can figure out the ending:
Actually, the Iowa State play-by-play guys were on top of it: in Division I Football, brother, you gotta snap the ball. Actually, the entire second half of this game is posted in six parts: one through five are here here here here and here.
See Also: Some terrible video of Darrell Scott, which for CU’s sake had better be in slow motion. ... Ralphie will not be contained, cuz he’s a damn buffalo. What? ... And the amateur Dan Hawkins rants will never get old.
In high school, fine, Scott, but this is Big 12 Football, brother.
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Best-Case: CU had better get in all the hits it can against Colorado State and Eastern Washington, because the next month and a half is a nightmare: four of the next six games are against teams that finished in the top ten last year (West Virginia, Texas, Kansas, Missouri), and the other two (Florida State and Kansas State) are against teams that beat the Buffs by double digits. If they come through that stretch at 4-4 – which will require a serious commitment to physical ball control on offense and at least one, probably two upsets – the last four (at Texas A&M, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and at must-be-improved Nebraska) are only slightly more manageable. If it can get to November with bowl hopes intact and then take three of those last four, the improvement will be far beyond the 7-5 record indicates.
Worst-Case: Obviously, with this schedule, the team could be just as good as last year and win only half the games – it goes into the season as a clear underdog in eight of the last ten, and lost to both the teams (K-State and Iowa State) it’s probably favored to beat this time around. The offense still seems pretty patchwork – the 2-10 mark in Hawkins’ debut in 2006 was the worst record in more than 20 years and seems about as inconceivable now as it did before that season, but if the pieces don’t mesh at the wrong times, this could be the most competitive 3-9 outfit you’ll ever watch.
Non-Binding Forecast: “Just a Few Plays Away” or Bust. If Scott is the real thing, the team will definitely be better, on the order of the Barnett teams that won the North in 2002, 2004 and 2005 (the 2001 edition is a bit out of reach), but the division is much tougher now and the schedule is relentless. Give them an improved running game and the alleged home field advantage in the mountains, and the Buffs would still be pushing their ceiling to be better than 5-7.