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SB Nation Big 12 Preview: Colorado Buffaloes Team Capsule

If the Buffs are to realize their goals for 2009, Cody Hawkins' and the entire offenses' performance much improve from their 95th total offense ranking a year ago.
If the Buffs are to realize their goals for 2009, Cody Hawkins' and the entire offenses' performance much improve from their 95th total offense ranking a year ago.

  • Coach: Dan Hawkins enters his third season at Colorado (13-24, 0 - 1 in postseason).
  • Coaching Changes: Offensive Coordinator Eric Kiesau (replaces Mark Helfrich - Oregon), Offensive Line Coach Denver Johnson (replaces Jeff Grimes - Auburn), Defensive Consultant/Linebackers Bob Foster added to roster, Dan Hawkins to coach Wide Receivers.
  • 2008 Record: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in Big 12
  • Players Returning with '08 Starts:
  • Key Positions to Replace From 2008 - Defensive Line, Center, Safety
  • Key Losses from 2008: LB Brad Jones, S Ryan Walters, DT George Hypolite, DT Brandon Nicolas, C Daniel Sanders, OG Devin Head.
  • Newcomers Who Might See Time in 2009: DE Nick Kasa, DT Nate Bonsu, LB Forrest West, WR Jarrod Darden, WR Will Jefferson, WR Terdema Ussery, WR Andre Simmons, K Zach Grossnickle.

OFFENSE

2008 OFFENSIVE STATISTICS - Rushing Offense: 86th overall, 10th in Big 12 / Passing Offense: 81st overall, 11th in Big 12 / Total Offense: 95th overall, 12th in Big 12 / Scoring Offense: 100th overall, 12th in Big 12.

The 2008 season was an offensive performance to forget. A rash of injuries, inexperienced players at important positions and a lack of a consistent identity spelt trouble for the Colorado Buffaloes. With the 2009 season just around the corner, a more experienced unit overall plus a healthy group of linemen up front has many hoping that the Buffs will reverse the lackluster offensive performance of the past few years. That being said, there are still plenty of question marks that still need to be answered.

the rest of the offensive, defensive, Q&A and win/loss predictions after the jump....

NEW FACES BRINGS NEW SCHEMES: One of the headlines coming into the 2009 season was the changes to the offensive staff. Joining the Colorado Buffaloes this offseason was offensive line coach Denver Johnson, who previously held the Illinois State head coaching job. Replacing Jeff Grimes, Johnson has seemed to endear himself to the fan base, preaching to bring back a more smash mouth style of football, playing on the opposition's side of the ball and putting the five linemen on the field. Such was displayed with Johnson's decision to move Ryan Miller to guard to make way for OT Blake Behrens. Johnson inherits a unit with no seniors but full of talent and a reason to be optimistic about the program's future. If Johnson can quickly& successfully implement his system with this young but relatively experienced offensive line, Buff fans should brace for a much improved offensive performance in 2009. The good news for the new coach is, unlike last year, his unit looks much healthier. Back from injury/off the field issues is Miller, OG Ethan Adkins, OG Maxwell Tuioti-Mariner (mid season return expected) and C Mike Iltis; all of whom will be battling for a starting spot.

Their was also a shake up at the top with former wide receivers and assistant head coach, Eric Kiesau, taking over as offensive coordinator for Mark Helfrich. The season opener against Colorado State will mark the first game which Eric Kiesau has owned the game plan and called the plays on game day. Last season, the Buffs failed to establish any sort of identity, attempting to run the spread with a youthful, injured team that lacked game changing playmakers. Kiesau has said to want to bring back a more "pro-style" offense that allows for more power football, the use of tight ends and a progression based passing game, three traits that bode well for the strengths of CU's offense.

Head coach Dan Hawkins will take over the wide receiver coaching duties replacing Kiesau. Ashley Ambrose will assist Hawkins with the wide receivers and should take over in the near future.

THREE PLAYERS WHO NEED TO PLAY BIG IN 2009: With WR Markques Simas suspended for the first two games of the season, junior college transfer WR Andre Simmons qualifying status up the air as of Thursday, August 18th, the lone remaining experienced receiver on the Buffs' roster is Scotty McKnight. Not labeled as an explosive receiver, the Buffs need him to continue to be the steady force and over achieve on his prior two seasons considering the Buffs might not have a lot elsewhere to provide production. Colorado might get some production out of true freshman Will Jefferson, Jarrod Darden and Terdema Ussery but McKnight might be the best and only experienced option in 2009.

In an obvious choice, QB Cody Hawkins, who looks to have the edge in the quarterback race, needs to improve from 2008. The lack of playmakers currently at wide receiver does not bode well for increased production from Hawkins but tight end, running back and offensive line look to be improved from a year ago. If Hawkins can make better decisions and manage the offense through a strong running game, the passing game should open up. The key for Hawkins this year is to increase his completion percentage which was 57.2% in 2008, about 5% below the average junior quarterback % in 2008. Sustaining drives, keeping the defense off the field and converting on third downs will all improve with an increase in completions.

You could go running back here but with a stable of four in the backfield, the production looks to be there. Most Buff fans will look at the offensive line and hope that their health leads to more points. That being said, look to the tackle spots as players who need to play big in 2009. LT Nate Solder and RT Blake Behrens have the inside track at the two starting positions with the prospects of a bright future ahead of them. Solder, the athletically gifted converted tight end, has all the intangibles to be a dominant tackle while Behrens has similar intangibles and great footwork. Solder, due to his position change, and Behrens, due to being a redshirt freshman, will still have growing pains but if they are able to work through those early in the season, the offensive line has the makings to be special.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Hands down this was going to be WR Markques Simas or WR Andre Simmons before the former was suspended two games and the latter is still sitting on the sideline well into week two of fall ball due to admissions issues. The new impact newcomer may be WR Will Jefferson, who was an August 2009 signee. He has seen time with the first and second teams this fall and has impressed the coaches. The safe pick here, though, is Givens, who quickly inserted himself into the starting rotation this spring after gaining 20+ pounds to his true freshman frame. Givens has the ability to grow into a great one.

THE STRENGTH(S) OF THE OFFENSE: Running Back and Offensive Line. The Buffs boast one of the more loaded backfields in the Big 12 with sophomores Darrell Scott, Rodney Stewart and Brian Lockridge along with junior Demetrius Sumler. Stewart led the Buffs in rushing yards as a freshman and Sumler led the team in rushing touchdowns in 2008. Lockridge, a speedster, returns from injury after a serviceable 2007 freshman campaign and looks to be an added weapon that can be useful as a third down back and in the slot. But Darrell Scott still leads the ranks in the hype category. Supposedly in the best shape of his life at 220 pounds and fully recovered from his 2008 injury-plagued season, Scott looks to take a mulligan in 2009 and become an elite Big 12 back. Still, don't count out the other three, especially Rodney Stewart, who continues to impress. We do know one thing; running backs coach Darian Hagan will play the best man for the job regardless of preseason hype.

The offensive line has all the potential you could ask for to build a team around. They are big, fast, athletic, and will be around for a long time. Nate Solder is the veteran on the offensive line, sort of, checking in as a junior with all other players vying for starting spots coming in as either sophomores or redshirt freshmen. Solder and Ryan Miller lead the way in the size category coming at 6'9" 305 pounds and 6'8" 320 pounds respectively with Solder considered to be one of the most athletic players on the team, running a sub 5.0 second forty this offseason. C Mike Iltis looks to have the center spot locked down replacing Daniel Sanders from a year ago while Givens will man the right tackle spot. The only position that looks to be up for grabs at this point in time is the other guard spot. Ethan Adkins looks to have the upper hand but watch out for Blake Behrens and Maxwell Tuioti-Mariner, once he returns from his ACL injury, to push for time there. This unit is big, athletic, has depth and should be a bright spot in 2009 if they can protect the quarterback.

THE WEAKNESS(ES) OF THE OFFENSE: Wide Receiver and Quarterback. Wide receiver takes spots #1 and #2 in our weakness review. With Scotty McKnight the only player active who has caught a pass in a division one football game, the Buffs lack known quantities at the flanker spot. Markques Simas will hopefully return against Wyoming from suspension but with his academic ineligibility in 2008 coupled with the most current infraction, Buff fans should not count on anything. Andre Simmons, if admitted, should not be expected to be ready for the Colorado State game considering he has been sitting on the sideline for the last two weeks. Hopefully the Buffs can have both Simmons and Simas ready by the Wyoming game and can get production from one of the true freshman. Walk-on WR Jason Espinoza will also play a part in the offense. There are just not a lot of options at wide receiver this year.

Playmaking ability still remains a big concern on both sides of the ball. In 2008, the Buffs lacked explosiveness and with former WR Josh Smith transferring to UCLA, many players will be counted on to be a game changer that have not necessarily produced game changing results in the past. If the Buffs want to get to 7, 8 or 9 wins, Darrell Scott, Markques Simas, Rodney Stewart, Brian Lockridge, potentially Andre Simmons, one of the tight ends need to evolve into consistent threats on the offensive side of the ball.

DEFENSE

2008 DEFENSIVE STATISTICS - Rushing Defense: 86th overall, 9th in Big 12 / Passing Efficiency Defense: 73rd overall, 5th in Big 12 / Total Defense: 78th overall, 4th in Big 12 / Scoring Defense: 86th overall, 8th in Big 12.

2008 provided some surprises on the defensive side of the ball. A senior-laden defensive line was supposed to be the strength of the team with the cornerbacks the weak spot. Roles reversed and relatively speaking, the cornerback play exceeded expectations while the defensive line failed to meet expectations. Often thought of as "solid but not spectacular" last season, the defense is considered to be strong to very strong in the back seven in 2009 but inexperienced up front. Colorado's defense has the opportunity to be a top tier Big 12 squad if they can get solid play from the front four.

ADJUSTING AND MULTIPLE: No one knows really what the Buffs are going to do on defense this year. Dan Hawkins has kept the defense on the far side of the practice field this offseason out of the public eye, shut down practices because of the leaking of defensive formations on the internet and has even brought in Bob Foster, his past mentor at Cal-Davis, to add his defensive knowledge. As noted above and from what observers have seen, the Buffs look like they won't be afraid to mix up the base sets. The lack of known commodities up front might force Colorado to become more multiple, switching between the 3 - 4, 4 - 3 and even 3 - 3 - 5 defensive schemes. Such defensive looks are possible due to some exceptional depth at the linebacker and cornerback spots.

Defensive coordinator Ron Collins has preached this offseason that his goal is to get the 11 best players on the field and that might mean three down linemen. If the Buffs lineup with three, Collins will have to be creative in his blitz packages and cover schemes. Establishing quarterback pressure is the name of the game this year as last year the Buffs ranked 7th in the conference in sacks, averaging on 2.0 a game.

THREE PLAYERS WHO NEED TO PLAY BIG IN 2009: The Buffs need to replace 17 ½ sacks which is well over half of their total sack production from a year ago. Most are hoping that LB B.J. Beatty can replace last year's production of LB Brad Jones. Beatty showed, when healthy, that he has a nose for the football. If Colorado opts for a 3 - 4 defense, Beatty figures to play a prominent role as a rush end/stand-up outsider backer similar to what Brad Jones did for the '08 team. Again, with the major concern over who is going to get to the quarterback, players like B.J. Beatty are going to have to produce.

Marcus Burton is another player who is being counted on for a big year. An afterthought last year, Burton has rededicated himself to football and the 260 pound middle linebacker made his presence known this spring. Even though he was the biggest linebacker during offseason testing, Burton still produced the fastest forty time and showed great sideline to sideline range. Burton, considering with inexperience up front, will have a difficult job sifting through offensive linemen and being productive. Burton will have to be the anchor of the defense, especially in the early going of the season as the coaches try to figure out who will produce up front.

CB Jimmy Smith is the final player who needs to have a big year. With two inexperienced safeties in the Colorado secondary and a defensive line that is unproven, pass coverage will be at a premier this season. CB Cha'pelle Brown proved his worth last season. With CB Ben Burney returning from injury and CB Jalil Brown back from a successful 2008 campaign, the Buffs have plenty of depth at the position. But Jimmy Smith has the ability to change the game and shut down a side of the field on his own, making S Patrick Mahnke and S Anthony Perkin's life a lot easier. Smith, the 6'3" 200 pound NFL prototype cornerback, has the ability to be the best corner in the Big 12.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Early money was on DE Nick Kasa and DT Edward Nuckols due to the inexperience on the defensive line but with Kasa partially tearing his MCL and Nuckols failing to academically qualify, the Buffs will have to look elsewhere for immediate help. The most logical choice is now DT Nate Bonsu. The 6'1" 295 pound Allen, Texas product may just be forced into some early action.

THE STRENGTH(S) OF THE DEFENSE: Linebacker and Cornerback. Ask Shaun Mohler and Jeff Smart about how strong the linebacker group is. Mohler and Smart were both starters a year ago and all conference awarded players. This year, they might be battling for one spot; and the Buffs may even add another linebacker position to run the 3 - 4. Marcus Burton impressed this offseason as did Michael Sipili, who will be competing for the middle linebacker job. Throw in the young but physically gifted Douglas Rippy and the potential of B.J. Beatty and this may be the deepest position on the Buffs team. And we didn't even mention Jon Major, a heavily recruited player from Colorado who tore his ACL last season as a true freshman.

A similar story at cornerback with 2007 starter Ben Burney returning to team up with Cha'pelle Brown, Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith, all of whom started at least one game in 2008. Who starts against Colorado State will be fun to watch.

THE WEAKNESS(ES) OF THE DEFENSE: Defensive line, based purely on inexperience, not poor past performance. Gone are three seniors from a year ago and in are unproven players like DT Curtis Cunningham, DE Conrad Obi, DE Marquez Herrod, DT Eugene Goree, DT Tyler Sale, DT Will Pericak, DE Forrest West and DT Nate Bonsu. Nick Kasa may be in the mix after he recovers from the partial MCL tear.

Marquez Herrod will probably be a starter at defensive end but after that, it's anyone's guess. Curtis Cunningham played as a true freshman last season and made a few plays but he is still considered raw.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Last year's special team's performance was abysmal and should be a big point of emphasis this season if the Buffs' plan to be a player in the North. The departure of Josh Smith leaves a hole in the return game and 1,987 all purpose yards lost. The top candidates to fill the return role are Jason Espinoza, Rodney Stewart, Andre Simmons and Darrell Scott. K Aric Goodman returns, but he was just 5 for 14 on field goal attempts last season. The Buffs also return P Matt DiLallo who averaged 40.49 yards/punt last season while splitting time with Tom Suazo.

SCHEDULE BREAKDOWN AND QUICK HIT PREDICTIONS

Sept 5th - Colorado St. Rams: The rivalry game is in Boulder, not in Denver, giving the Buffs a home field advantage. CSU will be breaking in a new quarterback and looks to have a weak front seven returning on defense. If CSU can get any quarterback play, it could be a dangerous game but expect the Buffs to load the box on defense. Prediction: W (1-0)
Sept 11th - @ Toledo Rockets:
the proverbial trap game with only five days rest. It is a Friday night game on the road against a team with a new coach; yes, a little scary. Like Colorado State, Toledo returns a lot of offensive line experience. Couple all of that with the dismal road record under Dan Hawkins (only 2 wins in three years) and the Buffs could be in more trouble than we would like to believe. That being said, Colorado has the more talented team and should win by double digits. Prediction: W (2-0)
Sept 19th - Wyoming Cowboys: If the Buffs can start 2 - 0, they will have a nice eight day rest before hosting Wyoming at home who has little offensive identity even though former Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen takes over the helm as new coach. Missouri has used Colorado as its punching bag the past two years but the Wyoming offense won't resemble Chase Coffman, Chase Daniel, Derrick Washington and Jeremy Maclin. Buffs need to win this one big. Prediction: W (3-0)
Oct 1st - @West Virginia Mountaineers: This is a coin toss game. Both teams have 12 days to prepare with West Virginia coming off a tough game at Auburn the week before. West Virginia will be favored by 3 - 7 points so this is certainly a winnable game but on a Thursday night in Morgantown with the Buffs past lack of success on the road, I see a 3 - 1 start. Ask me again after week 2. Prediction: L (3-1)
Oct 10th - @ Texas Longhorns:
There are two "more than likely" road losses on the schedule which makes Dan Hawkins' "10 win expectation, not a guarantee" phrase possible. This is one of those games. Prediction: L (3-2)
Oct 17th - Kansas Jayhawks:
The Buffs should have three home games circled this year; Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Three games that will dictate the degree of success in 2009. Win 2 or 3 of these games, expect Colorado football to be playing in strong bowl game. Lose all three, Colorado may once again be home for the holidays once again. Kansas QB Todd Reesing has been a Buff killer and the Jayhawks are expected to be a top 25 team when it is all said and done. Kansas has to replace some offensive linemen and linebackers so the Buffs should be in the game. Prediction: L (3-3)
Oct 24th - @ Kansas St. Wildcats:
Coming off three losses, this is a trap game that should be a Buff win. At 3 - 3, this game's outcome could determine if CU goes on to a winning record in the last half of the season or underachieves. If this is truly the year that we see changes in Boulder, Dan Hawkins' team should go into Manhattan and win. Since it is the offseason, let's be optimistic. Prediction: W (4-3)
Oct 31st - Missouri Tigers:
Halloween day in Boulder should be a wild scene. Mizzou could come into this game with a 3 - 4 record with both teams will have a lot riding on the game. The Buffs will have revenge on their mind after being utterly embarrassed the past two years losing by a combined score of 113 - 10. Many of the pieces from those two games are gone from Columbia and while Missouri fans are pushing the "Blaine Gabbert for Heisman" campaign already, this is the year for revenge. And one other thing, Missouri returns the fewest starters from a year ago in the Big 12 along with Nebraska Prediction: W (5-3)
Nov 7th - Texas A&M Aggies:
I believe most Colorado fans would take 5 - 3 at this point in the year considering Texas A&M and Iowa State are still on the schedule with Nebraska being an important swing game. Most will admit Colorado should have beaten A&M a year ago in College Station outplaying them for all but 5 or so minutes of that game. At home in Folsom, the Buffs should be on a roll coming off two wins. Could be a let down candidate if they don't respond after a big Missouri victory but this team is more experienced than prior teams. Prediction: W (6-3)
Nov 14th - @ Iowa St. Cyclones: Last time the Buffs went to Ames, they laid an egg which once again makes predicting any road games as a win a risky prospect. Trust me, Buff fans won't be laying a lot of action on the first road game to Toledo. Hawkins will remind his team of how poorly they played a year ago at Folsom and the bad loss two years ago. Colorado has a chance to win four in a row heading into the last two weeks of the season. Prediction: W (7-3)
Nov 19th - @ Oklahoma St. Cowboys: Even if the Buffs did have a full week's rest, this would be a loss but on the road with a short week against a top 10 contender, the Buffs' win streak ends here. Prediction: L (7-4)
Nov 27th - Nebraska Cornhuskers:
Eight wins sounds like paradise with the potential for nine in a bowl game. The Buffs will get more rest than the Huskers due to playing on a Thursday night against Oklahoma State and the Huskers have to travel to Boulder. Right now, this game is a toss-up but it is hard for me to see this Buffs team finishing with eight wins and it is equally hard to see the Huskers as a top 25 team. That being said, seven wins was my number for the Buffs all along. Eight is do-able as you can tell, nine is a stretch. You can also make a case for five or six wins. Prediction: L (7-5)

SB NATION BIG 12 BLOGGER'S ROUNDTABLE Q&A

1) Predicted Finish

Big 12 North

Kansas

Nebraska

Colorado

Missouri

Kansas State

Iowa State

Big 12 South

Oklahoma

Texas

Oklahoma State

Baylor

Texas Tech

Texas A&M

2) Who wins the Big 12 North?

Colorado Buffaloes Nebraska Cornhuskers The Kansas Jayhawks...who knows, its wide open? Go get'em Buffs!

3) Who wins the Big 12 South?

The Oklahoma Sooners

4) How many Big 12 teams will be bowl eligible?

7 - Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State

5) Which conference team do you think will show the most improvement from last season (in record only)?

Baylor

6) Who is your Non-QB conference player of the year?

DL Gerald McCoy

7) Do you believe any Big 12 coaches will be gone (fired or hired elsewhere) after this season?

The ones I could see happening are Coach Hawk or Mike Gundy (but only with 5 wins or less and that won't happen for either.

8) What would you prefer as the Big 12's 3rd "best" bowl game? The Holiday or Alamo Bowl?

Holiday - San Diego is better than San Antonio in every way imaginable

9) Better D-Lineman, Suh or McCoy?

Gerald McCoy

10) Better Wide Receiver, Bryant or Briscoe?

Dez Bryant

11) Predict the worst non-conference loss (an upset) that the Big 12 will suffer.

Have to say Nevada upsetting Mizzou.

12) Predict the MNC participants and champion.

Florida def. Penn State (an embarrassment of a schedule)