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Duck Dive: Colorado Football 2021 Preview

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

NCAA Football: Colorado at Arizona Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Special thanks to Jack Barsch of The Ralphie Report and the At The Buzzer podcast for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the Colorado roster. Listen HERE.


Colorado v Arizona Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Offense

Several factors came together to make Colorado’s 2020 season a surprising success, though perhaps not to readers of Addicted to Quack. As I’ve been detailing in several film reviews over the years, the Buffaloes’ offensive weakness in the couple seasons after their peak in 2016 wasn’t quarterback talent, skill players, or scheme, but rather a porous and unhealthy offensive line. When that unit stabilized by the end of 2019, and they brought in new HC Dorrell who was already inclined to take advantage of it and a strong running back room with a power rushing game, it made it easy for Jack and I to guess on last summer’s podcast that this kind of offense would be the outcome.

Still, while we expected #4 QB Noyer to be a starting possibility, I was shocked at how often and how effective he’d be as a runner - they opened the season absolutely crushing UCLA with repeated QB power. That much punishment seemed to catch up to him by midseason though, and a shoulder injury that seemed to get worse over the year robbed his throws of velocity. Noyer wasn’t a great passer to begin with — what they were getting through the air was mostly a product of play-action surprises, something else we identified as a strong possibility last summer — and by the second half of the bowl game blowout, then-true freshman #12 QB Lewis had replaced him.

Noyer had surgery after the season and sat out Spring practice in recovery, with Lewis, a high 3-star with a lot of mobility and a live arm, taking reps with the first-team offense. If Noyer isn’t 100%, I’d expect Lewis to get the nod in the Fall - and arguably, Lewis should get it regardless, since he now has some experience under his belt and looks to me to be the complete package, including the ability to run and hopefully slide instead of taking contact.

EDIT: An hour after publication, Noyer has entered the transfer portal.

Jack thinks Dorrell’s conservatism will have won out in the Fall and it’ll be Noyer’s job unless he’s completely incapable of it. I think that conservatism is why the two new quarterbacks in the room are unlikely to be serious threats to Lewis - #9 QB Carter is a mid 3-star true freshman who needs some more work, and the transfer #7 QB Shrout from Tennessee isn’t enough of a runner to fit into the now-established offense. Shrout’s numbers in Knoxville aren’t much to write home about; he clearly has a big arm but there are some clear accuracy issues and Jack brought up that he might just be a project for QB coach Langsdorf, who developed a number of immobile pitching machines in Corvallis.

RB coach Hagan, the starting option QB in Bill McCartney’s I-Bone offense who won the Buffs the 1990 national championship, has been coaching running backs in Boulder under five different head coaches. Despite losing two of the backs I really liked — #1 RB Mangham has transferred out and #8 RB Fontenot missed 2020 with an injury — his new starter #23 RB Broussard had a breakout season, averaging 5.7 ypc on 156 rushes and winning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. I think he’ll continue to be the centerpiece of the offense.

Depth looks pretty good here too. Fontenot should be back to 100% after his injury as is #20 RB D. Smith, whom Jack says Hagan really likes. 4-star #0 RB Clayton from the 2020 class is coming along nicely with 4.4 ypc but on only a few carries - I was a little puzzled as to why a walk-on, #28 RB Davis, was getting more of the backup reps at a poor 1.9 ypc, but Jack thinks that’s just because Hagan prefers to ease off of true freshmen and ride a single back when they’re ready.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Texas vs Colorado Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The wide receiver room had only one departure, former 4-star K.D. Nixon who’s transferring to USC. I expected him to have had a bigger season by now but he got somewhat buried in this system, which spreads the ball around a lot. He was one of six wideouts to get more than 100 receiving yards, with two more getting a couple of targets each. The top receiver in 2020 was #14 WR Stanley who’s been around for a few years and I’ve always liked; Jack thinks that he and two younger receivers, #5 WR Shenault (younger brother of Laviska who’s in the NFL) and #2 WR Rice (son of NFL legend Jerry) will join him in separating from the rest of the unit.

The rest of the rotation should be rounded out by the two other 100-yard receivers from last year, #13 WR Bell and #6 WR Arias, and I especially like the latter’s length. There are five other freshmen in the room, three from 2020 and two from 2021; all are mid 3-stars and I don’t expect immediate breakouts but that’s enough depth to deal with any injuries without a huge falloff.

Colorado returns all eight of their tight ends, plus took two more freshmen in the 2021 cycle and a transfer from Arkansas. That many in the room indicates where I think this offense wants to go, which is a lot of 12-personnel heavy looks and a pro-style passing game.

But there are a number of caveats here. First is that the two leading pass-catchers in this unit are both former walk-ons, #38 TE Russell and #86 TE Schmanski; they’re somewhat athletically limited and only the former gets many targets (Jack and I both like watching Russell, he’s a heart-of-the-team kind of guy, but his film is pretty clear at this point). A transfer from UCLA, #84 TE Lynch, got a couple targets, but he’s no more of a downfield threat than Schmanski is - those two had only five catches for 21 yards between them last year. The second caveat is that when Russell was injured midseason, they gave up on tight ends almost entirely and played virtually every remaining snap of the season in 4-wide, which is a mismatch for what this offense wants to be.

The intriguing prospect is a mid 3-star from the 2020 class, #18 TE Fauria (son of CU standout TE Christian). He missed last season with a leg injury and I still think he needs to bulk up some, but if he’s at 100% he could be lining up with Russell for something more like what this offense is aiming for. Beyond him though, I have my doubts about the rest of the unit. The transfer may be switching to the defensive line (where they really need bodies) and I doubt the true freshmen will be ready. The four other returning scholarship TEs all got passed up by two walk-ons, and then the Buffs changed their personnel formation rather than put them in. To me the implication of that is obvious, and I think a more aggressive roster manager would encourage three to five departures here to open up scholarship space for some other positions we’ll cover below where they’re really thin. That’s probably not Dorrell’s style, though, and at any rate Colorado used up its 25th initial counter on a placekicker.

Colorado returns four of their starting offensive linemen, and through a series of misadventures over the last several years including an almost comical amount of rotation at center in 2020 (recounted in detail on the podcast), also have three more very experienced guards coming back.

That’s a lot of depth, and it’s especially nice to have at least three guys who can competently snap the ball in live game reps. I expect the three starters in the interior to keep their jobs — #58 LG Kutsch, #65 C Pursell, and #70 RG Roddick — and have three quality backups behind them in #74 LG Lytle, #52 C Jynes, and #54 RG Ray. Stability and experience in the middle of CU’s line has been the big difference-maker in this offense, particularly the run game, and that should continue.

The possible Achilles’ heel here is the tackles. They return last year’s starter #76 RT Fillip, who had the good fortune to play every snap there and has developed a lot from when he first arrived in 2018 and I had him mistaken for a tight end because he was so skinny. But they’ve now lost the left tackle, William Sherman, to the NFL, and in 2019 they had to take a one-year transfer, Arlington Hambright, to play LT. That means the rest of the returning roster has taken zero snaps at tackle.

I expect that the transfer from Ohio St, former 4-star Max Wray, will win a starting job, simply because he has some experience - he started one game against the Spartans last year, which I happen to have watched as part of my film study on the Buckeyes, and thought he looked pretty good. Assuming he works out, CU should be fine with Fillip and Wray as starters, though I’m not sure who’ll switch to the left side because both have been exclusively on the right so far and Fillip had a labrum tear this Spring.

But if either guy gets hurt, I’m expecting a big falloff in performance, because this style of offense is just not one that can handle subpar tackle play. There’s just no experience here - the three guys with the right body type transferred out or retired (Max’s brother Jake Wray was the medical retirement), and from what I saw in the Spring game the guys who are left just aren’t talented enough to play at this point. It would be a bitter irony if the position that had turned around the Buffs’ offense in recent years became their greatest vulnerability.


NCAA Football: Colorado at Stanford D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

In January of this year Dorrell fired DC Summers, who’d been in Boulder the last two years and survived the transition from previous HC Tucker to Dorrell. I thought Summers was coaching some surprisingly good 3-4 defenses by the end of 2019 and throughout the abbreviated 2020 season, even though I didn’t have high expectations after his disastrous run as head coach at Georgia Southern.

Dorrell didn’t remove anyone else from the defensive staff, and instead of hiring an outside DC he promoted from within - DL coach Wilson will now be the defensive playcaller. Wilson has been a DL coach for the last 20 years, including a three-year stint at Mississippi St when he was also the co-DC from 2010 to 2012. I reviewed some film of those games and they’re interesting - it was a 4-3 scheme and tended to veer from highs to lows in effectiveness, finishing #35, #18, and #53 in SP+, respectively. The other co-DCs at the time were Manny Diaz in 2010 (now head coach of Miami) and Geoff Collins in 2011-12 (now head coach of Georgia Tech), and I’ve gotten conflicting stories about who was actually calling the plays. Wilson went back to coaching the DL exclusively in 2013, moving around the country as a DL coach ever since - Georgia, USC, two NFL teams, and Colorado last year.

Jack and I discussed this change extensively on the podcast, because it’s very puzzling and I suspect there are some political undercurrents here. I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks trying to figure out why Dorrell would have made these moves, talking to other contacts and doing more research, but none of it has borne fruit. But whether or not we’ll ever understand the motives, the upshot for me is that I don’t think this move makes much sense. Colorado was doing just fine with Summers’ 3-4 and has been recruiting the personnel to have done even better with it in 2021, but in the Spring game Wilson had switched them to his 4-3 and they simply don’t have the bodies, either in numbers or in the right sizes, to make this a smooth transition.

Colorado v Arizona Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Colorado lost its best defensive lineman, Mustafa Johnson, to the NFL. The rest return, including two guys I really liked in the 3-down front: #54 DE Lang and #99 DT Sami. I think Lang will adapt well to the scheme change since he’s built like an edge rusher, but I don’t know what they’ll do with Sami - he’s 6’6” and 325 lbs, and was great playing shaded off the center in the previous system, but during the Spring game they had him moved to 5-tech despite his weight because he’s the only other lineman with enough length. #94 DL Jordan and #91 DL Rodman also return with some experience; both are over 300 lbs and I figure they’ll be the new tackles but I don’t know how they’ll do one-gapping.

If Sami somehow works out as an end that could be a decent starting line, but it’s going to be an adventure when rotating them. There are only five other returning linemen on the roster (adequate for a 3-down front but too few for a 4-down), plus three true freshmen who weren’t on campus for Spring practice, and possibly converting the tight end transfer from Arkansas mentioned above, Blayne Toll. None of those nine have any experience and they’re all rated low-to-mid 3-stars. To field the typical eight-man rotation this system needs, Wilson will have to achieve at least a 50% hit rate with the inexperienced players - that’s very optimistic for kids at this talent level.

One way the line might get help is moving #26 OLB Wells to a quasi-DE. He was pretty effective in the previous scheme getting into the backfield, with 3.75 sacks/TFLs per game, and might work as a passing-down rusher, but he’s too light at 235 lbs to be a standard-down end. I admit to not understanding how the backers will work in the new system - Colorado has kept all the same positional designations in their official roster, and now has both ILB and OLB coaches, which is very unusual for 4-3 teams.

The Buffs have one of the best inside backers in the conference, #53 ILB Landman, but he ruptured his Achilles tendon last season and has been out for the entire Spring. He plans to get back to 100% over the summer. Assuming that he does, I’m still not sure how the rest of the unit will line up around him. Wells would be something of a wasted opportunity playing WILL in this system, the next-best inside backer, #36 ILB A. Jones, has transferred out, and the rest of the talent isn’t nearly as impressive.

The most experienced from last year are #31 ILB Van Diest and #1 OLB Thomas, but I suspect that transfers will wind up getting the jobs. Colorado took two: #20 ILB Barnes from Oklahoma who participated in some Spring ball, and Jack Lamb from Notre Dame who didn’t. The rest of the linebacker room is younger, less talented, or have been playing a far different position that probably won’t exist in a 4-3.

There are now 14 backers in the room, including Landman, Wells, and the two transfers, and that’s simply too many scholarships to use up on backers in this scheme … but none are big enough to switch to defensive end. With that many bodies, eleven of whom played college ball last year, depth shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s an open question if there’s a serviceable rotation here in the new system.

One interesting possibility is that Wilson might change up the scheme from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5, with a hybrid backer/safety position. But all the players Jack and I discussed as options to fill that role would be converted safeties, namely Juco #19 DB Oliver who’s big enough for it at 6’4” and 220 lbs, and #0 DB C. Miller, who at 6’0” and 190 lbs seems undersized.

The safeties only had one departure, #3 DB Rakestraw who’s transferring out. They return one starter, #23 DB Lewis, and five more experienced backups beyond Oliver and Miller. The one I like most is #5 DB Perry, who was a very effective and entertaining blitzer in the back half of 2019. They’ve also brought in a transfer from TCU, Atanza Vongor, who was a 4-star but was behind multiple NFL safeties in Fort Worth. That’s a good group to choose starters and a couple of backups from, though I don’t think any are experienced at or built like corners so I doubt there will be any position changes for them save for the possible hybrid role.

Colorado returns both returning starters at corner last year, #6 CB Blackmon and #21 CB Gonzalez. The latter was a true freshman last year and despite being one of the few 4-stars on the team, I was still surprised that he took over the job and pushed the expected returning starter, #17 CB Trujillo, into the transfer portal. He’s not the only departure from the unit - #16 CB Luckett and #15 CB Oats have also transferred out.

The only other corners on the roster are #14 CB Bethel, a transfer from Miami last year who was playing some nickelback last year, and #2 CB Striker who I don’t believe has played before. They’ve also brought in two low 3-star true freshmen in the 2021 class whom 24/7 lists as corners, Kaylin Moore and Tyrin Taylor, but I didn’t see them in the Spring game and don’t know how CU is going to use them.

That leaves them pretty thin at the boundary corner positions, and this kind of 4-3 or 4-2-5 with a hybrid backer/safety is going to ask those corners to be on an island a lot. The previous system, which switched between a 3-4 and a 3-3-5, operated in zone a lot and their starting corners had a lot of help either in coverage or with safeties in exotic blitzes hurrying up the timer. I don’t think the same can be said in 2021 so it remains to be seen how the starting corners will hold up with new responsibilities, and if they’ll get any time off the field with so little depth behind them.


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

Accountability Corner

Last summer’s Colorado preview turned out to be one of the most accurate I’ve ever written, predicting Colorado’s successes while most of the media was pretty negative about the Buffs (including, amusingly, Jack on his own podcast … I spent some time this summer congratulating him and he seemed reluctant to accept it for some reason). Jack specifically mentioned when we recorded together last summer that Noyer might take the quarterback job, something I didn’t write about and wish I had, though I still got the general shape of the situation right by predicting that whoever was the best running QB would win the job since that’s what all signs pointed to as the best offense for this personnel.

I started with the offensive line because I believed, correctly, that it was the key to understanding Colorado’s previous poor performances and why they’d improve in 2020, and nailed all five of the starters as well as Sherman being drafted. I got all of the skill talent right, including the way tight ends would be used in the new scheme, though of course I couldn’t predict Russell’s injury. The overall comment that the running back room looked great to me proved correct and I will claim some credit here since I think that’s a product of their longtime coach and the kinds of players they’ve recruited, though the individual personnel pulled a switcheroo on me - Fontenot was injured, Mangham eventually transferred, and I didn’t mention Broussard because he was coming off an ACL injury and I didn’t expect him to play at all, let alone that well.

On the defense, virtually every personnel call I made was borne out, and was the reason I was predicting a better season for Colorado after realizing that they had recovered from their early season injuries when I went back to watch film on the back half of their 2019 season. I started by writing, “I like this interior defensive line better than almost every other Pac-12 team,” and concluded, “I think CU’s interior defense at all three levels should be pretty stout in 2020.” The only thing close to a black eye is that I didn’t predict Trujillo to lose his job to Gonzalez at corner, though I did anticipate the possibility by noting the 4-star would provide some competition.


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