November 18th, 2018 is a day that will be forever etched in Colorado Buffaloes football history, but not for positive reasons. Mike MacIntyre’s roller coaster tenure came to an end, one day after the Buffaloes looked helpless in the snow at Folsom Field in a 30-7 loss against the Utah Utes. Athletic Director Rick George spoke to the media about his desire for more consistency in winning seasons and goal of putting a jolt of energy into the program before their last chance at bowl eligibility next week against the Cal Golden Bears. I do not have any kind of inside information, so I don’t want to speculate about the next head coach to lead the Buffaloes, but I do want to provide some personal thoughts about the most famous position on the field, quarterback of course. What does the future for the Buffs look like under center?
The Starter: Steven Montez
The most pressing (and to me, troubling) impact of the weekend’s developments for the Buffaloes regards Steven Montez. Montez got off to a roaring start for the Buffs this year, but has cooled off in Pac-12 play. This has not been entirely his fault, as poor offensive line play, questionable play calling, and injuries to key wide receivers have put the offense in a hole that Montez can not dig them out of alone. He hasn’t been quite as sharp as at the beginning of the season, but Montez is still in the midst of a strong Junior campaign for the Buffs. Disaster struck on Saturday when Montez got up with a limp in the midst of an abysmal third quarter for CU; he would stay in for one more play then hobble to the sideline to end his afternoon for good. Interim head coach Kurt Roper announced on Sunday that Montez was considered day-to-day.
A healthy Steven Montez dramatically increases the Buffs chances at winning Saturday and advancing to a bowl game. When the offense gets rolling, as it was earlier in the season, Montez is firmly in the conversation as the Pac-12’s best quarterback. Many were discussing his NFL Draft prospects in the early season, since Montez finally had the numbers to back his NFL-caliber size and arm. That talk cooled down during the 6 game skid, but it could ramp back up now that MacIntyre is out. With the coach who recruited him fired and the idea of running a third offensive system in three years looming, as well as risking injury behind a shaky offensive line, it is easy to see why Montez might take his shot at the NFL rather than stay for his Redshirt Senior season in Boulder. A main priority for the CU football staff has to be convincing him otherwise.
The promotion of Kurt Roper to Interim Head Coach bodes well for Montez, it is known that Montez likes Roper and clearly has gotten a lot better this season under his tutelage, from preparation and leadership to accuracy and mechanics. If Montez is healthy enough to play against Cal, it is up to Roper and play caller Darrin Chiaverini to come up with an imaginative and creative game plan to use his skill set appropriately. This includes stretching the field with more deep passes (please!!!) and using Steven’s legs to keep the defense guessing. The next CU head coach should badly want Montez to stay, not all first year head coaches get the opportunity to work with an electric, professional-caliber talent like Montez right from the start. A key task for the new HC will be doing whatever it takes, from personnel moves to personal conversations, to keep Montez a Buff for one more year.
The Backups: Tyler Lytle and Sam Noyer
On a few occasions during the Montez era, fans have called for one of the backup quarterbacks to take the reigns. In each case, neither Tyler Lytle nor Sam Noyer have done much to warrant the calls of those fans. Noyer relieved Montez at halftime of the nightmarish Washington State game in 2017, going 7/18 for 53 yards. Montez won the starting quarterback competition the following week and had one of his best performances at home in his next start against Cal, and Noyer returned to the bench. In mop-up duty so far in 2018, Noyer has not looked very sharp, going 8/14 for 60 yards with two bad interceptions, one of which was a pick-six. Tyler Lytle came in for Montez after the injury against Utah and delivered a beautiful strike on 4th down to Juwann Winfree. However, he fumbled without being hit later on the same drive and threw a interception later in the game to finish his first collegiate appearance with 55 yards and two turnovers on 4 completions.
Mop-up duty in the wake of major blowouts is not easy, nor is being thrust into the game for an injured player as a quarterback. I think both Lytle and Noyer have the potential to be great players and their recent performances in difficult game situations don’t mean there is a low ceiling on their potential in Boulder. I see Noyer, with his athleticism, leading a fast paced RPO offense and Lytle at the helm of a more traditional aerial attack where he can put up big numbers in the Pac-12. Roper’s difficult job in the next week will be to pick either Noyer or Lytle to be the next man up if it is decided that Montez is unavailable and prepare them for their first start in adverse circumstances, the kind of circumstances that can shatter a quarterback’s confidence if handled the wrong way. CU’s next head coach will have to develop these two to become future starters, whether that is immediately for 2019 or further away in 2020. Noyer and Lytle both have bright futures in a Colorado uniform, but the next several weeks will be key to their development.
The Prospects: Blake Stenstrom and Ty Evans
Ty Evans is the most hyped Buffs quarterback recruit in quite some time, sparring SEC offers from Arkansas and Alabama (!!!) to stay home at CU while also participating in the Elite 11 finals for high school quarterback prospects. Although he came to the Buffs with less hype, I like Blake Stenstrom a lot as well. Stenstrom only started one year in high school (current Michigan quarterback Dylan McCaffrey was ahead of him on the depth chart) and I think he has the athleticism to be really exciting in the Pac-12 given some more time and experience in the program. Stenstrom is currently in his redshirt season while Evans is set to graduate high school in December. The next CU head coach will need to get off to a strong start with both players, to ensure that Evans remains with the program and that Stenstrom buys in to playing his entire career for a coach that didn’t recruit him. The Colorado connection (both Stenstrom and Evans went to high school in Colorado) should help with this, but it will nevertheless be an important task for the new coach to ensure that the young talent in the quarterback room is fully on board with the new leadership.
Best Case Scenario: Montez recovers for the Cal game and creates a defining moment for himself by leading to the Buffs to victory against the Golden Bears, aided by an inspired and aggressive play calling effort from Chiaverini and Roper. The Buffs ride the momentum to a narrow bowl game victory and Montez returns to a rejuvenated program for his Senior year. The Buffs enter 2019 with a two-year starter at quarterback, a splashy new head coach, and a host of weapons at receiver to storm back into national prominence. Montez breaks several CU career records and emerges as a potential first rounder. The quarterback competition going into 2020 is tight between Noyer, Lytle, Stenstrom, and even Evans (who stays at CU) as the Buffs are revealed to have one of the nation’s deepest quarterback rooms.
Worst Case Scenario: Montez is unable to go against Cal and the combination of Noyer and Lytle struggle mightily in a big loss. Shortly after the new coaching hire, Montez declares for the draft and is selected in the later rounds (5th to 7th). Evans decommits and switches over to another Pac-12 school (Washington State and Arizona State come to mind) and haunts the Buffs for their missed opportunity in a Max Borghi-esque fashion. The new head coach decides to bring in a graduate transfer QB for 2019 rather than ride with Lytle or Noyer, and one of those two subsequently transfers out of the program midseason. Laviska Shenault stars while catching passes from a total of 4 different signal callers throughout the season, but the inconsistency leads the Buffs to miss out on a bowl game once again. CU enters 2020 with one of the most uncertain quarterback situations in the country, hoping the Redshirt Sophomore Stenstrom will be the answer despite having seen minimal action at that point in his career.
To close this out, I really hope Montez will stay. I think he has exciting potential and with a new coach and exceptional returning group of receivers, could have a really special season. Montez can etch his name among the greats in CU history, as well as elevate his draft stock, with a decent year in 2019. That said, I would not be surprised if he decided to leave. He has given the Buffs a lot over his CU career and deserves nothing but love and support from us fans if he decides to move on. I personally have great respect for his leadership and perseverance through the Buffs recent slide. If Montez does decide to go, the quarterback room for the Buffs can still be a strong point on the team and the new head coach should have a lot to work with. Please comment any thoughts you have, should be interesting to hear what Buffs fans have to say on all of this. Thanks for reading!