Like many schools at this time of the year, there is a new hope in Boulder Colorado, as the Buffaloes open up a new season under new coaching, new competition, and an all-around attitude of professionalism under new head coach Jon Embree. Gone are the days of Dan Hawkins, where success means losing ten consecutive games on the road and then asking for a contract extension. Fans hope they will never have to worry about blowing a major league in conference by giving up 35 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Entering their first season, there isn’t a doubt that Colorado fits better in the Pac 12 and will be able to compete year in and out with most of the competition. Recruiting should improve drastically in the upcoming classes considering how well the change of conference creates a better talent base.
The truth of the matter though is that Colorado goes to Hawaii to open the season with an 18 game road losing streak on their shoulders. The beginning of the tenure of head coach Jon Embree is not going to be pretty. A whole new staff is trying to adjust to a brand new conference, while battling off injury and dealing with a large learning curve for players. Not to mention a five game conference stretch against Stanford, Washington, Oregon, Arizona State, and USC.
Record – 5-7 (2-6)
Home Field – Folsom Field (56,613 Capacity) has been the home of the Buffaloes since 1924 and is one of the oldest fields in the country. The “hilltop” was renamed after legendary CU coach Frederick Folsom, who coached the Buffaloes in three different stints in a fifteen year period. His 76.5% winning percentage is still the best in Colorado history. The University renovated the horseshoe shaped stadium most recently in 2003.
Head Coach – Jon Embree, First Year – The former Colorado tight end and assistant coach at Colorado under three different coaches, Embree began his first head coaching job this off-season when offered the job just a month after the firing of Dan Hawkins. Embree is best known for his teaching of the tight end position, where he has had some major impact on some great names, including future NFL hall of famer Tony Gonzalez. The closest experience to head coaching that Embree has is his time with UCLA, where he was the passing game coordinator for the 2004 campaign. The Bruins that year finished seventh in the nation in passing and finished with a 10-2 record.
QB Cody Hawkins – After an impressive freshman season where the Boise product and son of coach Dan Hawkins threw for over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns, Hawkins continued to struggle health wise and with production. His grit and character will be missed in 2011. The team captain was named the Buffalo Heart Winner last season, an award given by the fans to the player that exhibits the most heart. Despite some success at the college level, Hawkins was off the radar of NFL scouts when he exited the college game. He now plays quarterback in a Swedish professional league for the Stockholm Mean Machines, where he leads the country in almost every single passing statistic.
OT Nate Solder – The first round pick in the 2011 draft by the Patriots, Solder was the one solid man up front that created a semi decent running game for the Buffaloes in 2010. At 6’8″ and 319 pounds, the big man is really athletic and uses his wingspan and positioning to his advantage. He is the only reason the offense had time to set up plays in games. Without him, an ugly season could have been even uglier (if that’s even possible to imagine.)
WR Scotty McKnight – Selected in the 7th round by the New York Jets, the former walk-on proved his ability and hard work was worth something in 2010, breaking various Colorado receiving records. The all-time leader in receptions and touchdown catches will be missed as a huge void will need to be filled at the receiver position. The 2nd team All-Big 12 selection in 2009, the most impressive thing about McKnight is he managed to catch a pass in every single game he played at Colorado. He is a very aggressive and tough player in many different facets of the game and he will be missed.
CB Jimmy Smith/Jalil Brown – Both have been a fixture in the secondary for quite some time, and both now move on to the next level. Smith was considered one of the more physical shutdown corners in college football a year ago, and brought the ability on defense to re-route receivers while jamming them on the line. He wasn’t so spectacular when it comes to making big plays via the interception, and did struggle against the run, but there is a reason why the Ravens selected him in the first round. Brown was one of the best cover corners in the Big 12 last season, and after working his way up the ranks throughout his college career with hard work, he will be missed on the field and off. One of the team captains last season, Brown was drafted in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, where he will have to again work his way up the depth chart.
Despite a heavy amount of talent returning at skill positions, there will still be a lot to figure out heading into 2011 for the Colorado offense and defense. On the offensive side of the ball are some pretty talented players returning, but the question is can they figure out the front five in time to start the season, and will the offense respond from being a primarily shotgun three receiver offense to just a more pro style set. Colorado did spend some time in the I formation, but it seemed like only in games where they were completely out of competition and looking to get home as soon as possible. Coach Jon Embree hasn’t been happy with the effort from key backups in practice, and it will be interesting to see how this team responds to an NFL like system. Another interesting question is how will the coaching staff around Embree react? Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy, The former All-American running back on the 1990 Colorado championship team, has done a great job at coaching the tailbacks in the off-season. But the up and coming star coach won’t be in charge of the passing or running game during the season, as those jobs have been given to former Akron coach J.D. Brookhart and last year’s interim head coach Brian Carbral will handle the running game. Colorado has always had a wierd way of handling teams, and this year doesn’t get any better. Defensive Coordinator Greg Brown has 15 years of experience in the NFL and returns to Colorado after a stint as co-defensive coordinator for the Arizona Wildcats. He returns nearly nobody in the secondary, and will look to fix one of the worst passing defenses in the country after losing the best two talents to the NFL. It could get ugly defensively in 2011 as it has the past few years in Boulder.
Players to Watch:
QB Tyler Hansen – A lot of high hopes have been placed on the senior that has always been in the shadows of Cody Hawkins. Now, with his own opportunity in front of him, it will be fun to watch a kid that can make plays get his chance to shine. A lot of good reports have come out of camp in regards to his accuracy and poise in the pocket. In his time on the field he has a done a good job with down field progression, moving in the pocket, and eventually finding the open man. The only question this year is if the Buffalo receiving corps can actually hold onto the football. I’m sure his athletic ability will be seen in different formations, but for now expect him to sit in the pocket and wait for the right moment. He should have a decent senior season.
RB Rodney Stewart – The 5’6″ Westerville Ohio native has really blossomed in his time in the backfield for the Colorado Buffaloes. The shifty back obviously isn’t going to plow his way for extra yards, but he has the heart to be the main man in the offense. The second-team all Big 12 back had 290 carries last season and 1,318 yards while getting in the end-zone ten times. It can’t even be questioned that Stewart is the heart and soul of this offense, and his workload might even increase in a pro style offense. He is the type of runner that can put an offense on his back and take over a game.
DE Josh Hartigan – If Colorado has a strength on defense, it is upfront, where they return three solid starters including 2010′s sack leader Josh Hartigan. A perfect example of what coach Jon Embree is battling with, Hartigan moved to the defensive line two years ago after coming into Colorado as an interior linebacker. Though Hartigan has made the transition, many other talented players have not. Hartigan had 7 sacks last season, and continues to work on an already impressive motor.
Despite some talent on the offensive side of the ball, there still remains a lack of depth at nearly every skill position. At running back, the season all hangs on the health of Rodney Stewart. If he goes down to injury, there isn’t anyone near as talented to fill the void. Beyond that factor, there isn’t really anyone that can provide a change up in the running game. 6’1″ RS Frosh Cordary Allen is listed fifth on the depth chart, but could be the power runner that this offense needs. Everyone else on the depth chart minus freshman Malcolm Creer checks in at 5’9″ or below.
In front of the backs will be an offensive line with a bit of change to start the season. With the loss of left tackle Nate Solder, the coaching staff will most likely move sophomore David Bakhtiari over from the right side and insert sophomore Jack Harris on the left side. All of the questions surround the outside, but the interior of the line returns three solid starters in Ryan Miller, Ethan Adkins and Mike Iltis. The big question is can their former standout five star recruit on the line continue to progress in his senior season. Miller is considered one of the best guard prospects in college football, that hasn’t necessarily taken that next step.
At receiver, the picture is pretty clear that Toney Clemons and Paul Richardson will be the two names to watch in 2011. Richardson broke all kinds of freshman records last season at CU and is the big play receiver you need on play-action downs in this style offense. Clemons isn’t going to burn past you, but if he can provide a solid option for quarterback Tyler Hansen in passing downs and keep drives alive, it will be a big momentum shifter during the season and actually might keep this offense in games. The senior has been hurt most of the spring but should provide the secondary numbers the Buffaloes need. Richardson has the talent to be a very gifted receiver, he just needs the time to show it on the field.
Downright ugly. The only thing that looks bright for the Colorado defensive is upfront. On the line they return three starters, and last season they were able to keep the running game at bay. Josh Hartigan (7 sacks) and DT Conrad Obi return for 2011 to a defense that was 44th nationally in stopping the run. The true key on the line this season is Conrad Obi, who has shown his ability in the past, but has never committed to giving it his all on the field. Reports from camp say that this year is different with a new coaching staff in place. If he’s motivated it definitely helps this team. A rotation of players will get in the mix at defensive end especially with the transfer of Forrest West to NC State.
At the linebacker position, Jon Major returns after missing a boatload of time to injury. This is probably the messiest position on the field entering 2011. Major will start on the strong side alongside middle linebacker Doug Rippy who is yet to prove himself on the field. On the weak side will be Patrick Mahnke. The base 43 relies so much on linebacker play in the secondary and it could get ugly next season.
In the secondary, the Buffaloes lose their best two corners, and are still searching for who will replace them. Makiri Pugh will get the first shot as the shutdown man. The transfer from Georgia is still green, but does have a lot of talent. Other than that it could be corner back by committee at least early in the season until someone’s play sticks out. This brings a great opportunity for young Buckeye receivers to break out heading into conference play.
While it’s good to be in the PAC 12 and it’s even better to issue Dan Hawkins a notice to get out of town, there is still a lot of work to be done for one of the more interesting programs in the country. 2011 will be a long season for Colorado fans, but it could be a rewarding one when it comes to the maturation of talent for the future. Is coach Embree the answer? Will his lack of experience cause an even bigger mess in 2011? Is he and his staff just the spark plug this school needs to get back into the realm of college football success? With as heavy of a schedule as the Buffaloes have, it will be a long and hard road. Hopefully one though that doesn’t conclude in a long trip right into a dead end path.
The Dream – Colorado is able to snap their 18 game road losing streak in week 1 against Hawaii and use that as a spring board heading into the season. With two winnable games in the first four weeks against Hawaii and Colorado State, that could give this team just enough confidence to pull of some wins against some mid-talented teams in the conference and maybe even an upset over a Washington or Arizona State.
The Horror Story – Many are predicting this for the Buffaloes anyways, but if nothing goes their way, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this team go without a win in conference in their first year as a member of the PAC 12. Compile that with non-conference losses to Ohio State and Hawaii and this team would be hoping dearly that they can beat their in state rivals Colorado State.
The Reality – In the first season of this new era, It will be imperative for this squad to compete in the conference games they’re supposed to (Washington State, Arizona, UCLA) and at least get one win out of it. I think they beat Washington State in a nail biter while holding on in Hawaii for a week one win and beating their rivals in week three at home. If Colorado can win three this season, it would be a good starting point heading into 2012.
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