It's safe to say that the Colorado Buffaloes as a whole have improved since last season. It's not yet evident in the win column, and they started very slowly, but the uptick in offensive production and defensive pressure is real. Within that improvement there have been numerous individual highs and lows, and some have been rather unexpected.
Let's start with the guys who've had a rough go of it through six games. Whether due to injuries, sophomore slumps, or just plain poor play, these three players haven't quite lived up to preseason expectations. The good news is that they've got half of a season to turn it around.
It would be difficult for a player at 100% to follow up the stellar freshman season that Gillam turned in last year. Unfortunately, Addison has been far from fully healthy. He picked up a nagging shoulder injury in fall camp and has since suffered through two concussions, which have combined to limit him significantly. He's uncharacteristically missing tackles in the second level, most glaringly against Cal, often taking poor lines and getting beat to the spot. But, he still leads the Buffs in takedowns and has come up with some stops in the 328 snaps he's seen. Fortunately, the defense surrounding him is playing measurably better and he has tackles being made in front of him and help arriving quickly from the backfield. If he's able to play for any amount of time in the six remaining games (now that he's had two concussions I'm pretty nervous) I expect he'll continue to be a steady force, if not the all-out playmaker that he was a year ago.
Michael Adkins II
At this point last year Adkins looked like the tailback of the future, showing flashes of both speed and power. After racking up 137 yards and 4 touchdowns against Charleston Southern it seemed he would emerge as the feature back this team sorely needed. He finished that campaign, in which he played 9 games, with 558 yards gained, good for a 5.4 per carry average, and 6 touchdowns. Through 6 games this year he's only amassed 167 yards on the ground with one touchdown. This is partially due to CU featuring multiple backs, which is fine, but many expected Adkins to become the go-to threat on the ground. Instead he's been unable to break off the big play and has dropped numerous passes out of the backfield. After coughing up a game-swinging fumble just before halftime against ASU he was given some time on the bench and has since begun to steadily improve his play. With Christian Powell suffering from a concussion, Adkins was called upon to carry the load against Oregon State and he answered the bell, rushing for 79 yards and 1 touchdown at a 6.1 per carry clip. If the Buffs are to spring an upset or two this offense will need bigger contributions from its tailbacks and that's largely going to begin with Michael Adkins, who may finally be finding his footing.
Last season Oliver was 11-12 on field goals kicked from 39 yards and in, as well as 4-7 from 40-49 yard range. He was clearly the steadiest kicker CU has trotted out since Mason Crosby last graced Folsom Field. He's off to a rougher start this season, missing two from the 30-39 yard range and two more from the 40-49 yard mark. Crucially, he missed what were three very makeable kicks in Berkeley; two were from the right hashmarks and the third was more towards the middle but he overcorrected and hooked it across the uprights. He's also having trouble consistently getting kickoffs out of the end zone, even at home, which has given opponents some additional yardage. The 44-yard make against OSU late was an encouraging sign and Oliver does have the physical tools to rebound from his slow start. Kicking is all mental and he'll have plenty more opportunities come his way in the final 6 games of his collegiate career. His team may want to help him out a bit by getting the ball on the left hash whenever possible as well.
On a more positive note, the following three guys have stepped up and shown out. They represent an important piece of the future and if they can keep improving the foundation that Mike MacIntyre is building will become even stronger. (Important Note: Nelson Spruce and Sefo Liufau have obviously been two of the most impressive players on this team and have exceeded everyone's expectations but I wanted to take a look at a few other younger players, and really it was hard to whittle it down to three.)
Coming into this season, Thompson had already gained some valuable experience playing in 9 games as a freshman. It looked like he would again come in off the bench to provide fresh legs this year, but when Jered Bell cruelly suffered another torn ACL he was called upon to assume a starting role. Since, we've found out that Tedric just makes plays. He owns the team's only three interceptions through six games and leads the secondary in tackles with 43. He seems to always find a way to occupy the right spots and his open-field tackling is fundamentally sound. After he was forced to leave the Cal game early with a bruised sternum, the Bears took advantage and the defense noticeably opened up in his absence which is the biggest testament to how important he's become. The secondary as a whole has emerged as a real bright spot through the first half of the season, with Kenneth Crawley, Chidobe Awuzie, and John Walker all contributing effectively. This unit will be pushed to the brink in the final six games but if he's healthy I expect Tedric to continue making impact plays, maybe even forcing a crucial turnover or two.
It's not often that a freshman receiver comes in and immediately makes plays like he's been there before. Right off the bat against CSU Shay was targeted early and often, mostly on screens, coming up with 8 grabs for 46 yards. He found his first touchdown a week later against UMass, compiling 93 yards on 6 catches and is currently second behind Spruce with 33 grabs for 257 yards on the season. Fields possesses explosive acceleration and quickness, as well as sure hands as he's had to make more than a few awkward grabs on Sefo throws this season. Shay has shown a nose for the first down and is effective at picking up the hard yards after the catch. While Nelson draws the majority of the opposition's attention, Fields has become the perfect complement proving to be adept at slipping underneath coverages and bursting out of screens. He'll continue to be a primary target for Sefo and his role in this offense will only expand from here.
The defensive line has been much maligned this year, and rightfully so following the debacle at Mile High. Expectations weren't high but the rotating crew of linemen were getting severely gashed on the ground. However, since the second half started against UMass they've steadily improved and a large part of that has been the play of redshirt freshman Derek McCartney. He's seen 208 snaps thus far and has recorded 11 tackles with a team-high 4 sacks. After ranking last in the Pac-12 in sacks last year, the Buffs are now tied for 5th with 13 total sacks through 6 games. They've also accumulated 30 recorded quarterback hurries to this point after finishing with 36 on the entire season in 2013. Pressuring the quarterback more effectively has been a huge factor in the defense's advancement and one reason that CU has found itself in better positions late in games. McCartney has shown both flashes of speed off the edge and the strength to get by bigger offensive linemen. To truly compete in the Pac-12 you need a dangerous defensive line and it's beginning to look like McCartney will be a key cog in the construction of this critical unit.