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Duck Dive: Colorado Football 2022 Preview

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

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

Special thanks to Jack Barsch of Ralphie Report for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Colorado’s roster. LISTEN HERE


Offense

Colorado’s offense ranked 119th out of 130 in F+ advanced statistics and accumulated the second fewest offensive yards in FBS last year. There were extensive debates in CU’s fanbase about what the primary culprit was between the playcalling, the quarterback, and the offensive line, and it looks like HC Dorrell has made moves to address all three. But I suspect that the real problem is Dorrell himself, since he seems to be insisting on fitting the square peg of a pro-style, power-running, tight end-heavy offensive scheme into the round hole of the Buffaloes’ severe talent limitations.

Offensive coordinator and longtime receivers coach Darrin Chiaverini is out, replaced by OC Sanford Jr. The Buffs played his Minnesota team last year (a 30-0 rout) and I did film study on the Gophers’ 2021 opener against Ohio St, as well as a couple other stops of his over the years at Boise St, Notre Dame, and Utah St. I’ve liked his offenses when he has the right talent for it – particularly an overpowering offensive line – and he has several top-25 seasons in F+ in his career. But he also has some dreadful seasons when that o-line and tight end talent isn’t there, and I’ve never seen his offenses pivot to a different scheme with a better fit for the talent.

Last year it looked like Tennessee transfer #5 QB Shrout, a mid 3-star from the 2018 class, was going to win the job, but he suffered a significant knee injury during Fall camp and high 3-star true sophomore #12 QB B. Lewis became the starter instead. I liked Lewis’ athleticism and he posted four games against FBS opponents with above-average NCAA passer ratings (one against Oregon, naturally). I thought he got too much abuse from the CU fanbase – he was the least problematic aspect of the offense, in my opinion, and I thought the scheme and poor o-line protection were actively sabotaging him.

Jack and I both would prefer to see Lewis get the job again in a more wide open offense, but it seems like the pocket passer Shrout will probably get the nod from Dorrell in Sanford’s typical scheme. Shrout is difficult to evaluate, since he was held out of practice from scrimmage in both of his Colorado Spring games and all the film we have on him is as a third-stringer for two years in Knoxville, with 5 TDs to 3 INTs and a fairly poor 129.0 rating. The thing I would most want to see, but will probably have to wait for the season to get eyes on, is how well Shrout moves in and out of the pocket after his knee injury, since I believe he’s not going to get a lot of protection – he’s potentially a downgrade from Lewis in that regard. Jack thinks Lewis still has the primary backup job, but that Houston transfer #14 QB Kopp will beat out returner #9 QB Carter for the number three spot.

The running back room looks pretty solid to me, despite the losses of leading rusher Jarek Broussard and former 4-star Ashaad Clayton to the transfer portal. CU returns the second- and third-leading rushers in #8 RB Fontenot and #20 RB D. Smith, a couple of hard-running upperclassmen I’ve always liked. Their yards per carry averages were both below 4 last year, and some in the Colorado fanbase are ready to write these guys off, but I disagree with that take - I think their numbers are mostly on the abysmal offensive line performance and not their running ability. This is the unit that I think is the best stylistic fit for Sanford’s offense.

There are a couple of other intriguing additional possibilities here. One is returner #33 RB Stacks, who only had one carry last year but Jack raved about as a very stout 235-lbs back who could be used in bruising short-yardage situations. The other is true freshman Victor Venn, a mid 3-star whom apparently RB coach Hagan really likes (and he’s got a good eye for talent, he’s been at Colorado across multiple coaching changes and won the Buffs their 1990 national championship), though I didn’t get to see Venn or fellow 2022 recruit Anthony Hankerson in Spring ball. I did get to see two walk-ons though, #44 RB Offerdal and #39 RB Wagner, who both looked competent carrying the ball and so I think CU should have plenty of playable depth here. (A final note for clarity: FCS transfer Ramon Jefferson, a thousand yard rusher last year, committed to the Buffs in January but on Friday decided to de-commit.)

Colorado v Oregon Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

The tight ends return #38 TE Russell, Jack and my favorite Buff for many years now. He’s a former walk-on and he’s got some athletic limitations, but makes up for a lot of deficiencies in the offense with his enthusiasm and reliability. He got virtually every catch thrown to a TE last year despite frequently being in 2-TE formations, and indeed had the most targets and receiving yards of anyone on the team, including the WRs.

Last year I thought it was puzzling that the Buffs had a dozen tight ends on the roster, including three walk-ons who were getting receptions, and was even more puzzled that CU didn’t really use any of them besides Russell. They’ve since lost half that number and added just one more, 2022 mid 3-star Zach Courtney who’ll be joining in the Fall. Seven TEs in the room is more appropriate depth for a TE-heavy offense, though I suspect Russell is still going to get virtually all the action here. The only one who seems to be at the right playing size is #87 TE Olsen, a high 3-star redshirt freshman who was used a lot as a blocking tight end in the Spring game. The rest of the room are three low-to-mid 3-star freshmen who haven’t played and seem undersized to me, though Jack says to look out for #18 TE Fauria (son of the CU legend) who might play split out as just a big WR stand-in.

On paper the losses to the WR room look daunting – five transfers out who represent about half this unit’s production last year, including leading WR Brenden Rice and third-leading WR Dimitri Stanley. But between getting a few guys back from injury, an accomplished transfer in, and the fact that this unit just isn’t central to Dorrell’s offenses, I don’t think those departures will matter that much.

The Buffs return senior #6 WR Arias, their second-leading WR who I’ve always liked as an outside receiver and well built for it at 6’4”, though Jack says he’s mentally scarred by some bad drops in Arias’ career. They also return #1 WR Lemonious-Craig, #3 WR Penry, #80 WR Robinson, and #13 WR Bell, all of whom have missed some amount of time last year or this Spring with injuries (Bell missed the entire season but Jack and I both think is the best WR in the room). Rounding out the returners are #10 WR J. Jackson, a senior who didn’t play last year, and walk-on redshirt freshman #25 WR Hestera who looked pretty good in the Spring game.

Colorado got a grad transfer from Baylor, #2 WR Sneed, who had more targets in 2021 than CU’s top two wideouts combined. (Colorado has a similar transfer policy to Stanford, which presents such narrow progress-towards-degree requirements that it’s extremely difficult to take any undergrad transfers.) They’ve also added three 2022 mid 3-stars: Grant Page, Chase Sowell, and Jordyn Tyson, though I didn’t see any in the Spring game.

I expect the Buffs will have more than adequate depth at wide receiver, given that the offense will likely have two tight ends on the field on most snaps (and maybe a sixth lineman, judging by what I saw from Minnesota last year). But I expect that scheme to create its own problems for this unit too. For one thing there’s the running theme that they’d probably be better off going four-wide (with or without Russell or Fauria as a split-out pass catcher) since even as a bunch of mid 3-stars this is still the most talented unit on the team. For another, I think there’ll be a personnel crunch at inside receiver, since Bell, Penry, Jackson, and Sneed all look to be built like slot guys – those represent some of CU’s best receiving options and they’re the ones who’ll probably be sidelined for 12- or 22-personnel reps.

NCAA Football: Colorado at UCLA Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The offensive line performance last year was so poor that Dorrell fired the OL coach midseason, something that shocked me given how much they’d improved in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. They enjoyed a short-lived “fired coach bump” the week after (against Oregon, of course) but otherwise looked hopeless all season, and the interim was replaced this offseason with OL coach DeVan from Arizona. I’m not expecting much improvement here for 2022 - this will be the fourth coach the o-line has had in four years, Arizona’s line was playing just about as poorly last year, and the departures are staggering.

The Buffs will lose longtime starters Kary Kutsch and Colby Pursell from the left guard and center spots, respectively. They also lose the three most experienced backups from last year, Chance Lytle, Kanan Ray, Max Wray, plus an experienced backup center from 2020 in Joshua Jynes, and a freshman Carson Lee to the portal.

Colorado returns three starters: #60 LT Wiley, #70 RG Roddick, and #76 RT Fillip. All have been around for several years now and normally I’d project a senior jump in performance, but lack of coaching continuity and general poor play last year – when they were also returning starters – makes me skeptical it’ll ever happen for these guys.

Jack says he expects that #75 OL T. Brown, a former 4-star from Alabama (actually CU’s only incoming bluechip for 2022, despite losing nine from the roster) to play left guard. He’s built like a tackle but at his size he’ll probably be fine at guard. They’ve also taken a low 3-star transfer from Arizona, Luke Eckardt, who didn’t play for the Wildcats. The issue is finding a replacement center, because neither Brown, Eckardt, nor unrated Juco Alex Harkey have snapping experience and basically no one else on the roster does either. The two centers I saw in the Spring game, previous Iowa transfer #53 OL Fenske and #64 OL A. Johnson, both look like tackles as well and judging by some of the adventurous snaps I saw them deliver they’re probably new to the position. Jack thinks the search for a viable center is going to last through the Fall and may never be satisfactorily resolved.

Beyond the eight guys already mentioned there are just three other scholarship linemen currently in the room who are all quite young and have very little experience. I saw a couple of walk-ons get a significant number of reps in the Spring game and I think the Buffs may have to turn to them if there are some injuries. Jack says he likes the three true freshmen they got in the 2022 class and their talent ratings (at above .84 in the 24/7 composite) do make them a cut above the rest of the unit on paper, but they weren’t around for Spring and I consider the odds Dorrell will play them around zero.

I think playable depth is a serious concern here. I cannot possibly imagine seeing the same bruising power-running attack that Sanford operated at Minnesota, Notre Dame, and elsewhere working with this line and I would be terrified as a CU fan that trying to force it would constitute an unaffordable injury risk.

Colorado v Utah Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Defense

In January of 2021, Dorrell fired the DC he’d inherited from the previous staff, Tyson Summers, and promoted DL coach Wilson to also be DC. In the 2021 Spring game, Wilson tried to implement the 4-3 defense he’d run for almost two decades – with bigger DEs on the edges — but it wasn’t a good match for the existing personnel which had used a 3-4 or 3-3-5 for the last several years, and they switched back to a 3-down front for the 2021 season.

In the 2022 Spring game, we saw a 2-4-5 structure with two DTs and lighter OLBs on the edges. Jack and I spent a lot of time on the podcast at different points trying to solve the riddle of what structure Wilson will actually use in the Fall, and we both believe this time he’s going to stick with the 2-4. It lets him keep the even surface that he definitely prefers, it’s a good fit for the way the roster is currently balanced in that it takes advantage of a well populated OLB corps and a smaller but very reliable group of experienced big d-linemen, and it puts extra personnel where he needs it the most which is the back end.

Colorado’s defense should be able to handle the transition smoothly, which is good news for the Buffs since they’re losing arguably the best player in each of the five units from the 2021 squad. The defensive line loses longtime starter Mustafa Johnson, but I still think this will be the strength of the defense with returning starters #91 DT Rodman and #99 DT Sami plus backup #94 DT Jordan, all well over 300 lbs and with several years’ experience under their belts. They also return #54 DL Lang, one of my favorite Pac-12 d-lineman but who’s been injured recently, and the relative newcomer from the Juco ranks last year #13 DL Ju. Jackson in the 275 – 290 lbs range, to be the more disruptive kind of 3-tech. I’ve been writing about how much I like this group since they were brought on board by the previous staff in 2019, and I think Wilson gets the most out of them.

In terms of depth, the number of bodies is appropriate to a 2-down front, though the bench is very green if the starting rotation begins to take some injuries. There are four more scholarship linemen in the room all of whom came in during the 2021 cycle and didn’t play last year: freshmen #97 DL Baugh, #95 DL Martin, and #93 DL R. Williams, plus Juco #18 DL Doss. The rest of the unit is just three walk-ons, and the only new defensive players they took in the 2022 class or from the portal are 250 lbs or lighter and I think will be linebackers. As with just about every unit on the Buffs’ roster, these guys are low-to-mid 3-stars at best, and unlike the starters somewhat undersized, so they’ll probably need another year to get to the right playing weight and condition.

Colorado v Arizona Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

The outside backers lose a starter and one of their leading tacklers in Carson Wells, and while they return a lot of additional experience, this position was used pretty differently in previous defenses so I think they’ll have the trickiest transition. In my opinion it’s telling that Wilson gave up his d-line coaching responsibilities (to incoming DL coach Chatman from Tulane) in order to take over OLB duties, I think because he wants to oversee that change himself. In the Spring game these guys were exclusively pass rushers and edge containers so I didn’t see them dropping into coverage really at all, though Spring games are famously vanilla so that still might be part of what we see in the Fall.

The returners are the other starter #1 OLB Thomas, plus backups #44 OLB Grant, #33 OLB Gustav, #48 OLB Magalei, #4 OLB Montgomery, and #58 OLB A. Williams. Jack tells us both that Thomas was hurt for part of the 2021 season so four of those five backups got extra experience, and that the staff is very high on Williams even though he got the least of that experience.

In the 2022 cycle four new defensive players joined the Buffs who I think will eventually be classified as OLBs in this structure because they’re in the 225 – 250 lbs range. Three of them are mid 3-star freshmen who weren’t on campus for Spring: Aaron Austin, Shakaun Bowser, and Kaden Ludwick. The fourth, unrated Juco #90 DE Main, was playing extensively on the edge with his fist up in the Spring game, and even though on the official roster he’s listed as an end, he’s the only one who is. So I think Main is an OLB by another name, and possibly a starter there.

For the scheme that I believe Wilson will employ, the OLBs / edge rushers have appropriate depth and a decent amount of returning production, and I think he’s a good enough position coach to make the transition work. Still, it’s going to be the tough one and we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.

The inside linebackers lose the great Nate Landman, as well as backups Jack Lamb and Jonathan Van Diest. They return the other starter #12 ILB Q. Perry, plus #20 ILB Barnes — who was in such regular rotation he might as well have been a starter even though they were usually just fielding two inside backers – and less used backups #7 ILB Ham and #35 ILB M. Williams.

In the Spring game, I was seeing Perry and Barnes in with what I think was the number one defense, and Ham and Williams with the twos, as you’d expect from last year’s production. However, both Jack and I think that this unit is potentially due for a shake-up in 2022. I’ve thought that Perry is big but slow-footed while Barnes is fast but too light for a while now, and what I saw in the the Spring game reinforced that. Jack says that Williams has turned a lot of heads as a freshman and he’s built well for the role, and I think Ham flashed a bit more than the presumptive starters in Spring practice.

CU has also gotten the late commitment from a transfer, WVU starter and leading tackler Josh Chandler-Semedo, who’ll join in the Fall. The rest of the additions are two Jucos, #29 ILB Hurtado and Caidan Robertson, and a couple of true freshmen in mid 3-stars Eoghan Kerry and Aubrey Smith. I think this position has enough bodies and experience so that the loss of Landman won’t hit them too hard, but I expect a real battle in Fall camp and it’s entirely possible that both guys with the most returning production find themselves as backups when the season starts.

Washington v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The cornerbacks lose both of the starters who got something like 90% of the reps last year, Mekhi Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez. They’ve transferred to two teams Colorado has to play next year, USC and Oregon respectively, but Jack had some gracious things to say about their futures on the podcast. They’ve swapped coaches with Oregon, with the Ducks getting Demetrice Martin and the Buffs getting CB coach Chance in return. I think both are great developers and I don’t see any huge stylistic differences in the corners they’ve coached, so I don’t think that change will be a tough one.

The returners I saw in the Spring game were #0 CB Moore and #6 CB Reed, followed by #2 CB Striker. Two of the true freshmen were on campus early, #26 CB Oliver and #21 CB Wiggins, and the latter was playing opposite Striker in the Spring game. They’ll add Simeon Harris and Keyshon Mills in the Fall, and they should get back Miami transfer #27 CB Bethel from injury at some point, though he’s been hurt for much of his time in Boulder the last two years.

Everybody in this room is a mid 3-star except Reed who’s a low 3-star, though I agree with Jack that Reed is the most polished of any of them I’ve watched. Jack thinks that for the new starters they’ll go with Reed on one side and either Bethel or Moore on the other, maybe depending on Bethel’s health. Another possibility Jack raised is that #5 DB Taylor switches over to corner; I was seeing him play boundary safety in the Spring game but apparently he was all over the field last year when they had to move some guys around. The bottom line is that I think this unit has the potential to be alright if they stay healthy or the freshmen are ready to step up if they hit some injuries, but that given the huge loss of talent and experience with the departures they’re probably looking at a bigger step back here than the other units who are also losing their best players.

The safeties lose one of their starters, Mark Perry whom I’ve always liked for his hard hits and blitzes (he’s transferring to TCU, yet another team CU faces), plus five other backups who didn’t play much if at all last year. They return the other starter, #23 DB I. Lewis, a senior who’s stuck around for three coaching staffs now. I didn’t see much nickelback use last year but juding by the Spring game and some of the personnel group choices I believe they will deploy one in 2022. I think that’ll be #43 DB Woods, who had the next most playing time at safety in 2021 when he was a true freshman.

Lewis was held out for the Spring game so we got to see some of the competition for the safety spots, and I don’t think it was settled at all. Taylor played a bit last year but he might be needed in the cornerback room, and the guy I saw the most was an unrated senior transfer from Eastern Michigan #41 DB Lyle. I still don’t think I’ve seen returner #22 DB Pittman, and the only real highlight from Spring was that walk-on #16 DB Woolverton got the day’s only interception.

They’ll probably have to fight this one out through the Fall, when a couple of 3-star true freshmen arrive in Dylan Dixson and Xavier Smith plus unrated Juco Jeremy Mack, and Jack thinks do-everything athlete Oakie Salave’a will be converted to a safety. Dixson, a highish 3-star at .8742 in the 24/7 composite, will be the highest rated defensive back out of high school by a fairly wide margin (and the third highest on the entire defense), and given the lack of talent and experience, Lewis aside, in the safety room they might need a newcomer to play right away. The safeties gave up quite a lot in pass coverage last year and I have a hard time believing that’ll get better from the personnel, though the structural changes if they obtain might do them some favors.


Accountability Corner

In last year’s preview of Colorado, I predicted that Lewis would get the job, though that turned out to be an easy bet because Noyer transferred out right after I published it and Shrout got hurt. I said that I thought the running backs and wide receivers had enough depth, talent, and returning experience to be just fine and I think they were, or at least they weren’t the bottleneck with this offense. I think I really nailed the concerns with the tight end unit and that they wouldn’t be able to withstand the pressure that Dorrell’s preferred offense was going to put on them. The offensive line was the stunning unit, I was pretty high on this group after what I saw in the second half of 2019 and the abbreviated 2020 season, and their total collapse in 2021 was shocking. I noted that the Buffs were thin at tackle and they couldn’t afford an injury, and that did turn out to be so when Wray got a season-ending injury, but I didn’t predict Wiley to become the starting tackle, nor did I think the returning guards would struggle so badly. To be honest I’m still baffled why that was, I’ve never seen a regression that bad with the same coaches and basically the same players.

I spent a lot of the defensive write-up detailing all the reasons why Wilson switching to a 4-3 didn’t make any sense, and while that turned out to be wasted time because he went right back to a 3-down front in the Fall, I’m still going to take it as a win. I described the defensive line personnel correctly with the surprising exception of Johnson returning after his NFL draft declaration. I got most of the ILB rotation correct except I didn’t think Perry would beat out Lamb for the job. The secondary was predicted exactly, including the concern that they had no real depth behind the starters and would probably use a minimal rotation.

Oregon v Colorado Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images