When writing my deep dive into Colorado’s new roster and staff in June, the major unresolved question was how the marriage would go between Head Coach Sanders’ horizontally oriented Jackson State passing offense and OC Lewis’ vertically oriented Kent State passing offense. The JSU group includes the coach’s youngest son #2 QB She. Sanders, the skill position coaches, and several skill position transfers. Meanwhile, Lewis — who comes off the Baylor coaching tree through Dino Babers and Lewis’ time at Bowling Green and Syracuse, and filled up the tape with power runs and four-vert deep shots — brought OL coach O’Boyle and two starting offensive linemen with him from his five years as the head man and playcaller at Kent State.
So far, the answer has been that the horizontal passing game has mostly won out, and the Buffaloes in 2023 look much more like the JSU tape than the Kent State tape from 2022 I reviewed. There are several complicating factors that Jack and I discussed on the podcast — most notably the absence of the efficient run game which Lewis had to set up his previous extremely uptempo offenses, and poor o-line protection which is causing a sack, scramble, or throwaway on over 33% of dropbacks – but still, playcalling preferences are fairly clear through the first three games. Only 12% of pass attempts from the pocket travel 20+ air yards, while over 62% of such attempts go 5 yards or fewer past the line of scrimmage or are screens.
Colorado is about even in terms of efficiency in their passing offense at a 49% success rate on designed passing plays (73 successes vs 76 failures given the down & distance, outside of garbage time). Sanders is a cool and canny passer from the pocket and will take an efficiency play rather than high-risk gunslinging, which would have made the Buffs’ success rate much higher, but frequent pocket collapses resulting in sacks, incompletions, and unproductive quick throws have dragged it down lower than I believe the QB, skill talent, and playcalling would produce with average protection.
By the same token, however, the horizontal nature of the passing offense tends to keep drives methodical by design, and the yardage and explosiveness modest. CU is averaging 7.75 adjusted YPA and under 13% of attempts gain 15+ yards, which are slightly below average numbers for Power-5 teams in my experience. It’s primarily a passing offense, with the Buffs calling designed passing plays on a 3:1 basis so far in 2023, and so these are the numbers mostly driving their current overall F+ advanced statistics offensive ranking of 59th this year.
The X-factor in an otherwise fairly straightforward offense to understand is the quarterback himself. Sanders is a remarkably gifted improvisational player, and every one of the Buffs’ fundamental passing stats that I tally improve when he breaks the pocket – assuming he avoids taking a sack. With no disrespect to Lewis, who I believe is a smart playcaller (his Kent St offenses regularly performed 50 ranks higher in F+ advanced stats than the team’s 24/7 team talent composite), I am close to concluding that Colorado actually plays better as a backyard football team. Some examples:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – Even the camera operator had given up on this one. Watch Sanders’ helmet; he never drops his eyes and is constantly looking downfield for the throw, and when multiple defenders get greedy for the sack he finds the receiver.
- :19 – This isn’t really a pocket breakdown but with the defense dropping eight, Sanders realizes they’re not going to get the leverage on the crossing outlet, so he breaks to get a better angle, and the receiver gets the message by switching from post to corner. This is all completely improvised stuff, not a designed rollout or a choice route.
- :36 – Nobody’s getting open on the deep verticals, a consistent problem when they’d run this pattern, and the pocket collapses before Sanders can find anything. He breaks the sack and trusts his best target make something up on the scramble drill.
- :47 – Sanders doesn’t just tuck it and run when scrambling often, even on the rare times he does run like this one he’s looking for a pass the whole time and it just doesn’t present itself. Good toughness here fighting for extra yardage.
When playing from the pocket, throws are mostly short and to the perimeter by design, with only the occasional deep throw. Besides running backs on checkdowns, who have gotten a lot of work, the group of pass-catchers has been limited to a relatively small group – taller outside receiver #10 WR Weaver, shorter inside receiver #5 WR Horn, two-way player #12 WR Hunter (the most talented of the group but who’ll unfortunately miss the next few weeks with liver damage after taking an illegal cheap shot last Saturday), possession receiver #6 WR Dawson, and converted walk-on #87 TE Harrison. Here’s a representative sample of the designed passing playbook successes:
- :00 – Some situational uptempo aspects of Lewis’ playcalling has survived, like this attempt to catch the defense before it’s set. Harrison has a big cushion on this TE screen (by week 3 he’d mostly be targeted over the middle, however ESPN’s cameras consistently failed to capture his route-running on such plays) and he steps over the DB for more yardage.
- :08 – I debated including this play since it’s extremely rare that all the requisite elements line up – a deep shot from the pocket, with protection and proper throwing mechanics as Sanders steps into it and arcs it well, and the receiver doesn’t let it bounce off his hands as happened on 5.12% of catchable balls – but it’s so gorgeous I couldn’t resist.
- :16 – Quick outlet throws against the blitz to the possession receiver like this make up a huge percentage of my tally sheet, I should have had two or three of these. The zip that Sanders puts on the ball is excellent, he really gets it out and across the field quickly, and it doesn’t diminish with opposite-hash throws either.
- :22 – This is what I got used to seeing at JSU and it’s continued with different receivers – turning quick throws into extra yardage by putting some sweet moves onto inferior athletes on the defense.
Jack and I spent quite some time on the podcast discussing the merits of the WR corps and what will happen with Hunter’s absence. I think it’s been puzzling that there are nine scholarship receivers (plus a tenth who’s a walk-on coach’s son and looked great in the Spring game) that this staff recruited or took out of the portal who essentially haven’t played at all this year, and it’s an open question for me whether they’ll introduce more diversity in receivers the season goes on, or if in response to Hunter’s injury they’ll consolidate even more from five targets to four. Jack suggested the most likely to join the group if any is true freshman 4-star #14 WR Miller at 6’2” due to some good camp reports.
The major factor limiting the efficiency of the offense – and making it difficult to assess anything about how it’s drawn up to be – is how poor the line has been in protection. There have been some personnel setbacks here, with the NCAA denying the waiver for #56 OL T. Brown at the last minute who Jack and I think was their first choice for left guard, an injury that kept the guy who’d become their starting right guard for the last two weeks out for the opener, and the loss of their returning starter #55 C Wells to injury last week. The lineup in week 3, which Jack expects to see again tomorrow, was returner #69 LT Christian-Lichtenhan, #65 LG Bailey from Kent St, true freshman #58 C Zilinskas, FCS grad transfer #73 RG Bebee, and #78 RT Washington also from Kent St.
The two tackles and Bailey were the staff’s first choices and have played every snap, Bebee was their sixth man from the get-go, and all six other available scholarship linemen are older, more experienced, and have higher on-paper talent ratings than the low 3-star Zilinskas. So I don’t really buy shuffling as an excuse for these o-line grades – it’s simply the level this group of players is performing at, in my opinion. The tackles in particular both have close to 19% per-play error rates in pass protection on my tally sheet, which for a couple of guys over 6’9” is astonishing (I actually think they’re a little too tall for the position, a high center of gravity can be a drawback).
Here’s a representative sample of failed passing plays:
- :00 – They say that sacks are a quarterback stat, and I have a few on my tally sheet that I think Sanders shares some blame for in holding the ball too long. Not this one, or really the lion’s share of them, which is on total line collapse that gives the QB nowhere to go. It’s why in raw stats the Buffs are in last place nationally in sacks allowed and yardage lost by sack.
- :16 – I don’t have a huge sample size on this, but I’ve noticed that Sanders’ throwing mechanics on deep balls really break down under even a little bit of pressure, as he hurries to get the ball out and neglects to step into it properly, resulting in it either underthrows or the ball floating on him as it does here.
- :25 – Considering how effective Sanders is out of the pocket, this is actually the optimal pass defense play: a relatively conservative pass rush with good lane discipline that keeps him put, layered defense the receivers can’t crack, and allowing the QB his usual habit of checking it down. The result is the same as a sack – loss of yardage.
- :34 – In isolation, screens make up about 15% of playcalls, which I understand as an extension of the run game as they’re about getting the ball to the perimeter where they’re stronger than they are in the center of the formation. But they’re underwater in efficiency at just a 38% success rate … I don’t understand the play design on most of them, which rarely creates a numbers advantage, and on double or tunnel screens like this one require downfield blocking this team just can’t execute.
The offensive line issues that limit the passing offense are magnified in the run game, which has shrunk considerably compared to Lewis’ Kent St offenses and even JSU’s offense with a similar system. Designed rushes only have a 35% efficiency rate (19 successes vs 35 failures). They’re averaging 3.9 adjusted YPC on designed runs and only 9% of them gain 10+ yards. All seven of the o-linemen I tallied have run-blocking error rates of over 35%, which I’ve never seen before. Furthermore, I think there are some curious play design choices in the run game, and it’s clear to me that due to the QB depth situation Sanders is unlikely to risk his health by keeping the ball on read-options (or more likely, under instruction not to).
Here’s a representative sample of unsuccessful rushing plays:
- :00 – Not a great sign for the left tackle to be thrown aside like this, but the other major recurring issue against three-down fronts is that they can’t effectively combo the nose and get up to the backers, so a light box works to stop the run.
- :06 – The center and LG are losing their frontside blocks so this wouldn’t have succeeded even if it were the correct read, but it’s clearly not – the unblocked end just goes straight for the back and makes the TFL. There’s no RPO tag on this play either, an odd but consistent omission from a playbook trying to keep the QB upright and seeking a box count advantage, but a throw wouldn’t get anything because the defense has numbers to the field. In this way not being able to run against a light box constrains the passing offense as well.
- :11 – The LT and RG are just losing their blocks here and that’s enough for the play to fail, but as I kept seeing this play has weird zone assignments – the H-back is climbing to the field backer, so why is the LG coming off the combo for him too, instead of the C coming off for the boundary backer?
- :18 – I think this is an RPO, at last, which reads the ILB who’s bailing to cover trips to the field so the QB properly hands off. That’s probably the right move for any defense, given that the front can handle this line without any additional personnel.
Colorado does have an excellent group of running backs, between speedy true freshman #3 RB Edwards, and the reliable veterans returner #9 RB Hankerson and JSU transfer #36 RB Wilkerson. Each of them have broken some great runs the first three weeks when the blocking was there or when the defense messed up, and the Buffs are at no loss of running threats. Some examples:
- :00 – Wilkerson simply outruns the slow scraping backer here, while the DBs in man coverage get run off and then blocked by the WRs. That’s part of a pattern in which to the extent the Buffs get success on the ground they need to go outside the formation.
- :12 – Both the DE and the WILL jump inside here, which is likely an assignment error, and Edwards makes them pay for it – his burst is phenomenal.
- :21 – The end pays for not watching film on this one, staying way too wide on a QB who’s not going to pull the ball. Nice bend on the pathing by Hankerson to run the RT’s heels right after the MIKE jumps on his initial inside angle.
- :27 – Much too aggressive play by the backer here, guessing the gap and getting it wrong. With nobody there to stop him, Edwards can really show off his speed.
Jack tells us that Houston transfer #22 RB McCaskill finally has his no-contact jersey off this week in practice after a long recuperation from an ACL injury that caused him to miss the 2022 season and the first three games of 2023. McCaskill is both a bigger and a more accomplished back at the FBS level than anyone in the room, and if he’s able to play tomorrow as reports indicate, that might prove significant. How much he could be his own blocker and run through holes that aren’t there if the blocking doesn’t improve is unknown since we haven’t seen him at all with this line and in this type of offense — Houston’s was very different – so we’ll just have to wait and see.
The defense is up about 30 ranks F+ under DC Kelly in compared to last year, though that’s only to 95th, and it lags their post-transfer talent ratings (in the mid-30s) considerably.
I’ve been most surprised by the interior of the defensive line, where there have been several changes after I published my June preview: CU had two late departures from what I’d tabbed to be 4is, #99 DT Cokes has slimmed down considerably and can no longer two-gap at nose, and unexpectedly the staff is electing to give #50 DT Hawkins and #52 DT Wallace little to no playing time. That’s altered the situation from what I thought would be a very healthy eight-man group to just four, and with size and personnel constraints among those four. As such, Kelly has changed up the defensive structure, from the three-down Mint front he brought from Alabama and had deployed in the Spring game, to more of a 2-4 with a 1-tech, a 3-tech, an OLB, and a lighter stand-up end.
The results have been catastrophic for the rush defense. The Buffs are defending designed runs at only a 29% success rate (24 vs 58), and are giving up 5.5 adjusted YPC. Offenses can simply lean forward on this line again and again for efficiency runs, and if the defense loses discipline trying for a big stop and gets out of position it can break big. Some examples:
- :00 – McNeil is walked out of the gap pretty easily by the RG, the only other down lineman is on the other side of the formation and can’t help now that they’re a two-down front, and there’s a reason this LB isn’t starting anymore.
- :14 – The field position and the offense’s heavy configuration suggest the Buffs should be ready for a run, but they’re still in the nickel rather than a bear or a third backer look, I suspect because they don’t have the personnel to do any differently. The TEs are able to clear out the nickel easily, and on top of that both backers, who have to compensate for the lack of beef on the line, over-aggressively attack the same gap, which is the wrong one.
- :29 – Here the o-line is washing in the d-line handily on this press & bounce play. The ILB sticks his nose in too early and the OLB gets taken out by the TE’s slice block.
- :44 – There’s no way Cokes would be so easily sealed inside before his weight loss, now the burden is all shifted to the backers. With one running wide on the QB keep threat, the other has to recognize that TE slice taking out the OLB and scrape over the LT, instead he gets trapped too.
At linebacker, I was curious in June about whether they got enough (or the right) additions through the portal, and it turned out CU has gone with the only returner here, #25 ILB Ham, and a very late Fall camp arrival, #51 ILB Mitchell who’s played at Jucos, Texas, and Tennessee. On the podcast, Jack and I talked about Mitchell as something of a godsend, as on many plays he seems like the only athletically “plus” player in the front and makes up for some deficiencies in the team’s rush defense with a lot of aggression. That can be counterproductive at times, but the fact that he never gives up on a play and is willing to chase it down from behind is a big factor on my tally sheet on one interesting stat – the Buffs allow about 13% of designed runs to gain 10+ yards, which is a bit above average for a Power-5 team and their best defensive stat among the numbers I track. So this front will let offenses get 5-9 yard runs all the time, and when they break, they break really big, but running backs have had a hard time getting consistent chunk yardage against them.
Here’s a representative sample of successful rush defenses:
- :00 – It took some experimentation but by the second half of the opener they’d settled in with this group of primary backers – #44 OLB Domineck on the outside, Ham and Mitchell on the inside – who’ve played the majority of reps since.
- :08 – If you’re going to guess, guess right. The backer aggression pays off here as they overload the fullback, and Domineck beats the TE.
- :15 – As has been his pattern since his Fresno St days, #55 DT Payne’s stamina tends to flag and he’s cleared out pretty easily here, but Mitchell’s aggression saves the play behind him by coming down faster than the RG can get off the combo.
- :21 – The key here is Cokes, Domineck, and Ham attacking before the OL can set up their blocks. I wouldn’t characterize this as a “speed” defense in that I don’t think they’ve deliberately built the defense around that body type, but the run plays they’ve won frequently have a quick jump as an essential reason for it.
Until the cheap shot knocked him out of the second half of last week’s game, CU fielded one of the best corners in the country in Hunter, and the other side of the field has been played pretty well by #3 CB Cooper. They also have a very deep group on the edges, led by starters Domineck and #49 DE Alston, who rotate frequently and have generated a moderately effective pass rush with a 17% s/s/t per dropback rate. That’s led them to a perfectly even pass defense rate – 49 successes and 49 failures. Here’s a representative sample of successful pass defense plays:
- :00 – Both tackles are beat here, with Alston scaring the QB into scrambling and Domineck cleaning up. Great single coverage by the corners and #18 DB Slusher, and the other safeties double up on the TE.
- :07 – Domineck earns the holding flag here, and nice spin move to maintain his lane by Cokes.
- :16 – It’s certainly true that Nebraska’s QB made a lot of unforced errors that helped Colorado out, but this isn’t one of them – it’s a really athletic and fully earned play by #7 DB Silmon-Craig, who grades out strongly at nickel on my tally sheet.
- :40 – Great pursuit here across the wide side of the field. The changes the defensive front at least have the silver lining of improved ability to harry the QB once he’s broken the pocket.
With Hunter out, it looks like the next man up is Ole Miss transfer #10 CB Breedlove, who played in the second half last week. That was new for him; I reviewed the Rebels’ defense for a different project and he wasn’t really on the field. We’ve seen very little of anyone else, as #4 CB Jay, #9 CB Robinson, and #23 CB Stoutmire have all been dealing with injuries, and true freshman 5-star #1 CB McClain has been on special teams only as Coach Sanders says he’s not ready (Jack relayed the coach has said McClain is “holding himself back”).
Other than the pass rush being, as Jack put it, “same-y” bodies without significant athletic upside, in my opinion the pass defense vulnerability is the coverage of the middle of the field, attacking the linebackers and safeties. The Buffs’ success rate against crossing routes (which the Rams threw over a dozen last week) is under 15%, and the inability to rotate at either position — especially with the unfortunate injury to Slusher in week 1, who Jack and I agree is their most athletic safety – means they just don’t have the legs to run with a lot of passing targets.
Here’s a representative sample of unsuccessful pass defense plays:
- :00 – I’ve been watching #43 DB Woods for several years now as one of the few returning starters on the team, and think he has a lot of upside in tackling, play diagnosis, and taking proper angles, but he’s never graded out in the top half of Pac-12 safeties in pass coverage for me.
- :21 – With no pressure, the giant hole in the middle of this coverage shell is practically undefended. The backers are occupied by the inverse mesh underneath and the DBs are all on outside zone coverage or spread deep, defending grass.
- :36 – The Buffs had a hard time with this receiver all night, and it got worse when Breedlove was asked to cover him in man. Here he simply out-accelerates for the back of the endzone, and there’s no underneath help due to the blitz.
- :50 – The other problem which made this game much tighter than it should have been was the endless series of crossing routes. It’s already a man beater, but it’s also a problem structurally for the Buffs’ zone choices because of how they bail the backers, and just some footspeed issues. Here both Mitchell and Silmon-Craig have a head start on the receiver but can’t catch him as he’s able to turn the corner and get downfield.