There’s a lot of catching up to do for Oregon fans regarding Colorado. They’re the only Pac-12 team with a new staff this year, and the Ducks haven’t played them since 2016. But also because this team is a fascinating set of contradictions: they started 5-0 and then lost every subsequent game to miss a bowl. They were on a steady climb to prominence only to slide back hard over the last two seasons. They have a surprising amount of talent and stability at a lot of positions, but are utterly chaotic at a couple of crucial ones.
I like the prospects for this team to improve in its fundamentals, mostly by stabilizing some key positions to allow the existing talent to shine through, but the record might not reflect it because the schedule gets substantially tougher. They face Nebraska again, which will probably be a better team than last year, and based on adv stats Colorado should have lost even that game, they swap Stanford for Cal (though who knows with the Trees, that could be a good thing), and they get Oregon instead of Oregon St (though it's not like the Beavs are a sure win, as the Buffs found out last year). There’s a narrow path to a bowl here, and the much needed extra practices that come with it, but it’s going to require at least one upset, probably two.
Thanks to Jack Barsch of Ralphie Report for his insights into the team. Check out the full podcast for a ton of great stories, a complete rundown of the new coaching staff, and a lot of good laughs. There are discourses on Austrian cheerleaders, the invention of the red zone, and naturally, the appeal of Oregon vs Colorado weed.
Offense - #85 in S&P+
The most interesting hire is OC Johnson, previously at Minnesota and Louisiana-Lafayette, which had pretty decent offenses though very different personnel. It’s hard to say what kind of offense we’ll see in 2019, it seems like something that will be dictated largely by the strengths and weaknesses of the players he’s inheriting. They’ve also retained two longtime position coaches who were former CU players, RB coach Hagan and WR coach Chiaverini, who I think have done a pretty good job with their talent over the years and should provide some stability. If they can just get out of the basement of the conference in offensive line play, there’s enough talent here to make a big jump in offensive performance - I didn’t think their statistical ranking accurately reflected how good the rest of their talent was last year, and much of that talent is coming back.
We have to start with the offensive line because it’s the key to understanding the rest of the poor offense in 2018: they weren’t great to begin with and constant injuries and substitutions reduced their performance to something appalling. On an offense that played about 875 snaps on the year, only one lineman played more than 800 of them, five more played between 550 and 750, one got about 200, and two more got in the mid-60s. That’s either a seven- or nine-man rotation, depending on how you count it.
What I was seeing in film study was constant missed assignments and pressure in the backfield. It made it difficult to assess what Colorado’s offensive scheme even was, since the QB was running for his life on most plays and the RBs were smacking into tackles almost immediately.
The linemen they’ve lost -- #55 OG Tonz, #64 OL Haigler, and #75 OT Kaiser -- were half of their six most experienced, accounting about 40% of their total snaps in 2018. They return one of their most experienced in #78 LT Sherman, two more veteran guards in #65 OG Pursell and #56 OG Lynott, and three more guys who got extensive backup time but were clear liabilities in my eyes, #58 OT Kutsch, #73 OG Moretti, and #76 OT Fillip. Colorado has hit the transfer market to shore up their o-line depth, getting a 3-star tackle from Oklahoma St, #51 LT Hambright as well as two Jucos, #50 OG Sauvao and #71 OL Senn, plus a greyshirt from UCLA in #54 OL Ray.
I do not envy new OL coach Kapilovic (who’s from UNC, and put several linemen in the NFL) having to construct a Power-5 starting lineup out of these six returners and four transfers. There’s certainly a lot of experience here, and Jack tells us that the previous staff was messing around with a lot of unnecessary rotation so it’s possible the new staff will get better performance out of them simply by straightening things out. On the podcast we discussed a number of possibilities (and quite a few great stories) of different o-line battles in Fall camp that I’ll be watching for; right now we’re looking at Sherman moving to RT, Hambright taking his LT spot, Pursell and Lynott flipping positions with the latter becoming the new center, and then one of the transfers fighting it out with the returners for the last guard position.
Considering he was scrambling damned near every play, fourth year starter #12 QB Montez would have a pretty intriguing argument for being the best quarterback in the conference. His arm is only a bit shy of elite, especially in terms of ball placement on well covered receivers, but his mobility, escapability, and decision-making under pressure are remarkable.
The Buffs are in good shape at receiver, returning their top three: excellent all-around talent #2 WR Shenault and reliable wideouts #3 WR Nixon and #18 WR Brown. They lose their next three, but return four or five more good-looking backups and young players, so I think they’ll hold steady or possibly improve. Alex tells us that the passing game was extremely hit-or-miss last year, with a whole lot of incompletions or quick, low yardage passes right before the pass rush appeared, but then a surprising huge play from Senault to bring the averages way up. That was borne out in the advanced stats: pretty grim in every category but #22 in IsoPPP, a measure of explosive offense.
Running back is more of a concern. They’re losing thousand-yard rusher #34 RB McMillian and his backup #21 RB Evans. Both of these guys ran real hard to my eyes, forcing extra yards through contact after the line hadn’t made much of a hole for them. As far as I can tell, sophomore #8 RB Fontenot (11 carries in 2018) leads a pack that also consists of four freshmen: #20 RB D. Smith, #23 RB Broussard, #1 RB Mangham, and #28 RB Davis, none of whom appeared last year.
Jack laid out how each of those five guys bring a different skill set to the rushing game, so I think he’s right in his prediction it’ll be a running back by committee approach. They all looked serviceable in the Spring game to me, but I don’t have enough looks at any of them to say they can replace McMillian’s hard YAC numbers. Even if one or more turn out to be a great rushing talent, I’d be concerned that the blocking just isn’t there to realize it. Excluding QB runs, CU rushed for the third lowest yardage in the Pac-12 (beating only the air raid teams Wazzu and Stanford), and it was clear from watching film that was because the line just wasn’t opening anything for them.
One thing that might help blocking is more prominent tight end play, since TEs were hardly utilized by the previous staff. They’ve brought in new TE coach Pupunu who has a quality resume at the position from the FCS ranks. In addition to the lightly-played returner #38 TE Russell, they’ve gotten in the transfers of #9 TE Harris from Auburn and #15 TE Brumbaugh (son of the new DL coach) from Maryland, converted #35 TE Bisharat from a tailback, and picked up Luke Stillwell (no jersey number yet) from the Juco market. That much movement into the position indicates to me they’re trying to build in more blocking help for the line and quicker downfield outlets in the passing game - I think I saw more passes to tight ends in the 2019 Spring game than in the entire 2018 season.
Defense - #58 in S&P+
Like former Coach MacIntyre, Coach Tucker comes from a defensive background, mostly coaching DBs in both college and the pros. He’s left ILB coach Els in place from the previous staff, and brought in a more experienced (and I think an upgrade) DL coach, Brumbaugh. But his hires of DC Summers, who has a pretty inglorious resume, and a couple of other defensive positional guys who are getting their first shots as coaches, make me think that Tucker plans on taking over and running the entire defense himself - as Jack put it, “It’ll be his defense, and Tyson Summers will be the steward of that defense.” This was a decent if not great unit in 2018, better than I was expecting to see; I don’t foresee much difficulty in adapting the defensive front to a new scheme (which I believe will continue to be a 3-3-5, though a somewhat different variant of it), but the backfield might take a while to adjust. If they can get some freshman beef in the middle and sort out their DBs they could take a step forward.
Colorado lost two of its three most utilized linebackers, #20 ILB D. Lewis and #32 ILB Gamboa, but even so I think they’ll be in good shape or even improve in 2019. They return the best of them -- and arguably the top backer in the conference -- in #53 ILB Landman, and they’ve gotten a couple of good-looking Jucos in #10 ILB Allen and #12 ILB Q. Perry, plus Jack tells us that returning #41 ILB Van Diest should be battling it out with them in Fall camp for the other starting spot. They’re also returning a couple others with playing time last year, #36 ILB A. Jones and #46 ILB Newman, so both talent and depth look good here.
I think the outside backer spots should be fine as well, even though it’s going through a lot of transition. The most experienced, #5 OLB Taylor, is converting from an inside backer, where I thought he was too slight to play effectively, to a STAR safety, a hybrid role I think he looks good for and should fit into this system well (he may also be changing his jersey number, I’ll watch for that in camp). The remaining two spots look to be a battle between the experienced returner #26 OLB Wells, two guys I didn’t see much of but Jack is high on in #42 OLB Falo and #44 OLB Callier, and a Juco transfer (of Last Chance U fame) #4 OLB Montgomery. Plus, they return pass-rush specialist #10 OLB Tchangam.
The frontline talent at defensive end looks good to me: returners #54 DE Lang and #34 DE M. Johnson, plus a Juco #18 DE Doss, and I think Johnson may be a future NFL player. However, as far as I can tell those are the only ends they’ll have available, so depth is a major concern here. Jack tells us that between graduation, retirement, and transfers, Colorado only had five defensive linemen on scholarship when the new staff arrived.
Most of the staff’s efforts in shoring up the defense has instead focused on beefing up the interior of the line. I think the biggest misstep in the previous staff’s tenure was the failure in the 2017 cycle to finally upgrade from the smaller DTs they had been recruiting up until that point. Instead they only got one, #33 DT Edwards, who left for the NFL after just two years. They’ve also lost several other linemen to transfer, most importantly #95 DT Antwine to Oklahoma St. What I was seeing in film study was an otherwise pretty good defensive front repeatedly get run over because they weren’t able to contest the interior.
To their credit, the new staff identified the problem and immediately set about fixing it, recruiting four big new tackles: #55 DT Williams, #56 DT Murray, #75 DT Simon, and #91 DT Rodman (average weight: 301 lbs). They also have a couple of young transfers, sophomore Juco #94 DT Jordan and the UCLA greyshirt #99 DT Sami. They had also gotten another Auburn transfer at DT in Jauntavius Johnson, but sadly his wife and child were injured in a car accident last month and he’s decided to return home to be with them. Colorado will almost certainly deploy quite a few untested tackles this season and we’ll just have to wait and see how they perform, but at least they have some promising bodies.
This unit is the most baffling on the team to me. I recall that for much of the last decade the team was led by great defensive back play, and I wasn’t really seeing that in 2018. Part of it might be a ton of staff turnover; in 2019, the safeties will have their third coach in four years, and the cornerbacks their fourth.
That might also play into a puzzling amount of turnover and rotation here. CU played 13 different DBs in 2018, and on top of that three more -- #12 DB Hypolite, #22 S Wallace, and #27 CB George -- didn’t play and are now transferring out.
All told, they’re losing nine defensive backs to graduation or transfer, leaving seven returners. There’s only one who I think has his job locked down, #1 CB Abrams. Their next surest bet is probably a safety transfer from SMU, Mikial Onu -- he was that team’s leading tackler in 2017 and his 85 solo tackles that year was the fifth highest in FBS; in 2018 he only played seven games but still looked pretty good -- but he wasn’t present for Spring ball and doesn’t have a jersey number yet.
Past those two it seems like anybody’s guess as to starters and backups. The next most experienced returning DB, #8 S Udoffia, is switching from CB where I thought he was a poor fit. The third most, #3 S Rakestraw, will probably be a backup. #14 CB Miller is likely the choice opposite Abrams, but he’s battled a lot of injury time and might be pretty rusty. I know very little about the three other returners, #25 CB M. Blackmon, #9 S Maddox, and #37 S Cooper. Jack tells us that the crown jewel of the 2019 class was #5 S M. Perry and that there’s a good chance he jumps all of the veterans to play alongside the other new face, Onu.
While there’s been a lot of attention, and rightly so, on Coach Tucker beefing up the Buffaloes’ line play, the transition in style of the defensive backfield might be just as significant to a team that’s put a lot of DBs in the NFL. Coach MacIntyre’s focus was on length and playing man coverage; Coach Tucker looks to be emphasizing speed and matchup zone. As Jack put it, “The prototype defensive back is completely changing in this defense.” That’s the sort of schematic switch that takes quite some time to install, and it might be a while before we see a return to great secondary play in Boulder.