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Duck Dive: Colorado Football 2020 Preview

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Going deep with the Buffaloes’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

NCAA Football: Colorado at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Special thanks to Jack Barsch (@JackBarsch) for jumping on the Quack 12 Podcast to help break down the Colorado roster. You can check out the episode HERE!


Colorado went 5-7 in 2019. Seven games were decided by a single score, and the Buffaloes went 4-3 in those games. They beat Washington, Nebraska, Stanford, and Arizona St, all teams that have more talented rosters, and were positioned to beat the far more talented USC before a late-game head injury to the Buffs’ QB. They lost a heartbreaker in overtime to Air Force (who hammered Wazzu in their bowl game) that kept CU from what would have been just their second bowl game in the past dozen seasons.

In my opinion, this was a team poised for a breakthrough in 2020. And then, for the second straight year, the Buffs had to replace their head coach, as Mel Tucker was hired away by Michigan St and took with him about half the staff. They’ll need to replace a four-year starting QB and three more key players who are off to the NFL.

Those challenges, combined with a global pandemic limiting practices that’s going to hurt incoming coaches more than established ones, might be too much for new HC Dorrell to overcome. But it wouldn’t take much in the way of pleasant surprises going his way for them to stay on track for that breakthrough. I can’t say it’s definitely going to happen — far too much depends on a QB choice about which we know virtually nothing — but I think it’s the most likely team in the Pac-12 to make a bowl after missing one last year.


NCAA Football: Washington at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

In last year’s Colorado summer preview, I started with the offensive line, because chronic problems there were the biggest factor in CU’s disappointing 2017 and 2018 seasons. I’ll start with that unit again because I think that’s now reversed - after getting over some midseason injuries they stabilized to a seven-man rotation, with their best three playing every snap. They return four of those seven, including #78 RT Sherman who I think is a future NFL player, and #65 RG Pursell who was the center in 2018 and will probably take that position back in 2020. Veterans #58 LG Kutsch and #70 RG Roddick look to fill out the remaining interior spots.

The tackle position across from Sherman is the only question mark, but Jack reasons that #76 OT Fillip (a 6’7” third-year who got about 200 snaps as a true freshman and redshirted last year) will get the nod, with the transfer from UCLA #54 OL Ray as depth. Jack had a pretty interesting story on the podcast about transitioning to the new OL coach Rodrigue, and has reason to expect the remarkable improvement that coaching has made for this unit won’t fall off.

Despite losing excellent all-around weapon Laviska Shenault to the NFL as well as the deep-threat receiver Tony Brown (I wrote about how central Brown was to CU’s offense in last year’s in-season preview), I think the Buffs are pretty well situated at the offensive skill positions. Those two are the extent of their losses, and Shenault had limited reps anyway due to ongoing injury concerns. They return the rest of the receiving corps, including the very productive #3 WR Nixon outside and #14 WR Stanley in the slot, as well as #10 WR Ja. Jackson and #22 WR Arias who didn’t get a ton of targets but still averaged about 20 yards per catch. They’ll add #13 WR Bell to the mix who Jack is pretty high on, as well as Laviska’s younger brother #5 WR Shenault, and true freshman Brendan Rice (son of NFL legend Jerry Rice).

I think CU will have a high quality running back room as well. I really liked how hard #8 RB Fontenot and #1 RB Mangham ran last year, and in the seven CU games I charted their rushing efficiency was excellent - in particular, they avoided negative run plays and stuffs better than any other Pac-12 team except Oregon. They’ll add a true freshman whom Jack raved about on the podcast, a 4-star from Louisiana named Ashaad Clayton who’s got the dimensions and highlight tape of a true power back.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

That brings us to a potentially pivotal unit, the tight ends. A running joke in our interviews with Jack is how enamored we both are with #38 TE Russell, but he thinks blueshirt #25 TE Stillwell and true freshman Caleb Fauria (son of Colorado TE legend Christian Fauria) could take the position over in a run-heavy, two-TE set offense. It would make sense to play into CU’s personnel strengths in that way, since the last time OC Chiaverini had control of the offense he was running a Texas Tech-style air raid that went remarkably poorly.

The make-or-break decision for CU’s offense is the quarterback. The options will probably come down to the junior #7 QB T. Lytle or the true freshman early enrollee #12 QB B. Lewis. The former has some in-game experience, though not much and it wasn’t particularly encouraging. The latter appears to be a talented high 3-star dual-threat, but without Spring ball no one has seen him take a snap in college. A run-heavy offense where the QB is only throwing maybe a third of the time might make a lot of sense for him: limit the damage an inexperienced signal-caller can do, and resemble Dorrell’s 10-win UCLA team in 2005 headlined by Maurice Jones-Drew.


NCAA Football: Colorado at Colorado State Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Despite the head coaching turnover, Colorado retained DC Summers. I wouldn’t have thought that was a great move until I watched film on the Buffs after their week 7 game against Oregon, and realized that much of their defensive problems in the first half of the year stemmed from an absurd number of injuries to the starters and an install of a new defensive system. By the last couple weeks of the year, when they got most of their starters back and guys were finally familiar with the playbook, they stifled the Huskies in a win over UW and kept the Utah offense in check for most of the game until it broke open late on offensive and special teams miscues.

Much of that effect comes from a trio of high quality linemen, #99 DT Sami, #34 DE M. Johnson, and #54 DE Lang; the first two of whom were injured for several games but came back in late. All three return in 2020, and they’re rejoined by DL coach Wilson, who ran the CU d-line 15-20 years ago under Gary Barnett as well as the Super Bowl-winning Eagles in 2017. If they can stay healthy, I like this interior defensive line better than almost every other Pac-12 team.

That’ll be helped by the investment former coach Tucker made last offseason: almost the first thing he did on arriving in Boulder was identify the lack of size in CU’s trenches, and he brought in a bunch of big-bodied transfers and recruits right away. They weren’t quite ready to go last year and it showed when the starters had to go out. But with a second year in the program the Buffs might get some good bench play from returners #55 DT A. Williams, #94 DL J. Jordan, and #91 DL Rodman plus a few others to give the starters some relief.

One adaptation Summers made in the second half of the year was going from a 3-3-5 on most downs to a dime package and ratcheting up the blitzes. That led to a breakout for true freshman #5 S M. Perry, who really turned it on in the backfield:

However, part of the reason for that switch was inconsistent OLB play, particularly covering the curl/flat responsibilities in his defensive structure. In my preview of Colorado just before their game against the Ducks I included film of Arizona hammering the Buffs over and over with the same play because the OLBs couldn’t cover it properly. They converted one outside backer, Davion Taylor, to a hybrid STAR position and had him roving the field - he was so effective he wound up being taken in the second round of the NFL draft. They also lose their pass rush specialist, #52 OLB Tchangam, and a backup #42 OLB Falo. That just leaves #26 OLB Wells returning, and I had a mixed opinion of his performance in 2019 - he has the size for the position but I thought he was out of position a lot, and we’ll have to see if he’s more up on the playbook in Fall camp … or if any of the transfers or Jucos that have come into the program will take his spot.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Colorado at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I don’t have similar doubts about the inside backers, as they return arguably the best in the league in #53 ILB Landman and a very productive #36 ILB A. Jones, as well as backup #31 LB Van Diest. Landman’s biggest vulnerability was lateral speed in pass coverage, but I think he improved that somewhat by reading the play faster and getting there a step quicker than in the first half of the year.

The defensive backs took some big hits - first in injuries (eight DBs were simultaneously on the injured list the week they played Oregon), and then in departures. The two most significant losses are #1 CB Abrams and #2 S Onu, who I thought were their best defensive backs and certainly racked up the most tackles and turnovers.

As Jack pointed out on the podcast, the silver lining is that a whole lot of backups turned into starters for a while and got vital experience. Other than Perry, the DB who benefitted the most was fellow freshman #17 CB Trujillo, who had a rocky debut but by the end of the season was playing pretty well. I was less wild about juniors #14 CB Blackmon and #3 S Rakestraw, but they’ll get some competition from some new players: #27 DB Bethel, a transfer from Miami-FL; #16 DB Luckett, a long freshman last year with clear promise; and the true freshman 4-star Christian Gonzalez from Texas.

I think CU’s interior defense at all three levels should be pretty stout in 2020, and teams will instead try to attack them on the edges and down the sidelines. So in fall camp I’ll be watching the most for outside linebacker play, if they get a STAR replacement for Taylor (perhaps the aptly named #2 DB Striker), and how the corners are shaping up.


NCAA Football: Air Force at Colorado Russell Lansford-USA TODAY Sports

Accountability Corner

My major prediction for Colorado last summer was that they’d improve on fundamentals, but they were likely to miss a bowl anyway because a tough schedule meant too small of a margin for error, and I think that proved true. I also concluded that the new staff, despite a few puzzling retentions, looked pretty appealing to me because it was filled with veterans who lost their previous job through no fault of their own ... if anything, that turned out to be almost too accurate for the Buffs’ liking.

Offensively, I think I characterized this team fairly well: that the major challenge would be stabilizing the offensive line but that I liked OL coach Kapilovic’s odds of doing so, that they had a good group of WRs and were sure to find a couple of stud running backs out of all their young options. I feel I missed on the tight end group, however - they didn’t really use any of the ones I was expecting but instead leaned heavily on Russell, and I didn’t see that coming.

For the defense, I was more optimistic at OLB than I should have been: that continued to be a vulnerability and moving Taylor to STAR, while probably a good move overall, made this group predictably thin. However, I think I nailed everything else: the d-line improving significantly (including naming all the players that would make the biggest difference), the easy call that the ILBs led by Landman would be a strength, and that the DB group looked like it was going to be a mess of young players, transfers, and uncertainty.