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Season in Review: The Tailbacks and Receivers

The third, and penultimate, portion of our Season In Review series taking a look back at each position group's performance in 2014 and peering forward to make some early projections for the 2015 campaign.

If Nelson Spruce decides to come back next season, we'll get to see more of this.
If Nelson Spruce decides to come back next season, we'll get to see more of this.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

One of the major concerns heading into the 2014 football season for CU was the supporting cast on offense, the skill positions that made it work. It's safe to say that the running backs and wide receivers (one receiver in particular) exceeded all hopes and dreams of even the coaches. There were some downsides, though. The Buffs still don't have a pass-catching tight end it seems and no running back distinguished himself from the rest of the committee. Surprises and disappointments, revelations and return men, we cover it all in this review of the backs and receivers!

JB: Let's get the big one out of the way first. Nelson Spruce blew up this year. What makes him so good, and do you see him staying for his senior year?

PG: First and foremost, Nelson puts in the work. He and wide receivers coach Troy Walters spent hours upon hours in the off-season working on every possible technical detail and accumulating those precious reps, with tennis balls as well as footballs. Nelson is so well drilled, having seen every possible ball in every type of coverage, that the ridiculous grabs such as the sliding one-hander against CSU and the over-the-helmet snag against Cal come as second nature to him. He isn't thinking, he's simply doing and reacting because all of the thinking has been done beforehand. He's already made those catches many times over and being in a live game situation changes nothing for him. His success this season stemmed directly from his work ethic, which has allowed him to maximize his physical gifts, chief among which are his incredibly sure hands. If the ball was anywhere near Nelson, it wasn't likely to hit the turf, even when he was tightly covered. He's also deceptively agile and quick. His precise and confident route running often removed any chance the defensive back had at making a play before the ball was even in the air.

So of course, as a fan, I really want him to stay. If he ends up being projected to go as high as the 3rd round, I think he has to take his shot. But, most places I've looked currently have him going in the 4-6 range. If he comes back he'll almost certainly put up similar numbers, if not better, and would be a hugely critical piece to any success this team has in 2015. He'd also wind up owning most every significant Colorado receiving record. I think another year, one that hopefully includes a few more wins, would elevate his potential further and could put him in position to go as high as the 2nd round in 2016's draft. He's put in too much work to not be there to see this program take the next step and his draft prospects aren't substantial enough yet. I see him staying and doing everything he can to help this team to a 6-7 win season. Aside from Nelson, the Buffaloes found a new scoring threat in speedy Shay Fields. How would you rate his freshman campaign and how bright does the future look for him? (Puts on SPF 100 and shades.) We also can't forget the contributions from Tyler McCulloch and D.D. Goodson. Who moves into their roles going forward?

JB: Shay Fields is already one of my favorite Buffs. Everyone knew the 4-star would make an immediate contribution, but I never thought 50 catches and 5 touchdowns were in order. His speed put pressure on PAC-12 defenses in a manner reminiscent of a certain Number 6 and he proved to be a reliable possession threat as well. Polished with unlimited potential, Fields looks to be the heir apparent ro P-Rich that we the fanbase unfairly christened him as. The Utah game was a fantastic example of what he can do for this offense. Tough catches, ridiculous open field moves, and field-stretching were all in his arsenal that day and Mr. Fields should look to be an even bigger part of the offense in his sophomore year. Moving on to those leaving their respective roles, it seems as if there is already a replacement in line for McCulloch and Goodson. While no one can replace Gucci Ty's personality, Justin Jan, 2015 recruit, looks like he can replace his production. Another big body receiver with fluid route-running and sticky hands creates a mismatch for this CU offense that we must exploit. Jan comes from Chandler High School, who knocked off Valor Christian this year, so the level of competition is not a question for him, and he should assimilate well right off the bat. Goodson's role as a utility man on offense seems well suited for Donovan Lee, who has almost the same resume that D.D. had. A former defensive back who played both ways throughout high school, Lee has the quickness and route-running required for the slot position as well the open field vision for reverses and the occasional handoff. Lee gives Brian Lindgren some creative freedom in this offense and should be counted on going into his sophmore year. Overall, this receiving corps is very young, with one true upperclassman going into next year. The same youth is evident in the running backs, with Adkins and Powell being the two upperclassmen. Who are some of your budding stars in the WR, RB, and possibly TE positions?

PG: I've been hyped on Bryce Bobo from Day 1 and I still think he'll become a game-changing target. Whether that happens early next season, or later on, remains to be seen but he has the potential to be a real difference maker, as evidenced by his late touchdown grab in Berkeley. However he obviously still has work to do as well, evidenced by his crucial drop against UCLA and his numerous no-shows throughout the season, but I believe Walters will get him there. By the way, how lucky are we to have Troy on staff? We've seen every CU receiver improve under his tutelage, the man knows what he's doing. I agree with you in thinking that we'll see a lot more from Donovan Lee in a greater amount of varied packages this coming season.

As for the tailbacks, we're still waiting on a consistent attack from the group of them. Game to game you were never sure who would come out and take the lead role. Many times this past season that guy was Tony Jones, who certainly had his share of highs and lows as a Buff. I'm sure the last overtime possession against Cal will always sting for him, while his performance in the UCLA game was a huge positive factor as he and Michael Adkins combined for 183 yards and two touchdowns. In the end it feels like he never truly lived up to his potential, and maybe it was always unfair to expect him to become another Rodney Stewart. Moving into next year, I think we'll continue to see a lot of Phillip Lindsay, no one on the team runs harder, and Christian Powell will likely continue to split carries with Adkins. At this point we pretty much know who those two are. If healthy Adkins can give this team solid gains with the occasional big, broken tackles everywhere play down the field and Powell provides a power running look while occasionally being able to break up the middle for a big gain. I think he should be utilized more than he was on short yardage situations, Lindsay runs hard but more often than not gets shut down in those instances. I think big George Frazier should continue to get looks in those instances as well, he is a wrecking ball and was a hugely pleasant surprise midway through the season. He acted as kind of a tight end/fullback hybrid in the red zone and I think can be even more effective on the ground going forward. Whether he continues to play both ways or lands on one side of the ball, he'll continue to make an impact.

Continuing to look forward, I am really high on Donald Gordon, I think he comes in and contributes this year, with the potential to become a real gamebreaker. As for the tight end position, I still miss Klop and Syp. Kyle Slavin did some nice things this season and was serviceable as a blocking end but it would be really nice to have an offensive threat at that position. I really like Sean Irwin but I'm not sure he's the answer to that question, he too provides more value blocking than he does running routes. Maybe if 2015 commit Chris Bounds out of Chaminade, CA doesn't land on the defensive line he can be the receiving option we're looking for, as he appears to have the hands needed and the size to be a force on offense. We'll have to wait and see with him. It's clear the Buffs will need more consistency out of their running game to keep defenses honest as the passing game will continue to be the way this team gets its crucial yards. How do you feel about the running back situation going into 2015? Do you see any change in the role of the tight end position in the near future? And do you think Bobo can take his game to a higher level and become a more regular contributor this coming year?

JB: I agree with you on Gordon, I think he could be a big difference maker in his career here. He has a bit of Melvin Gordon in him, which might be setting the bar too high, but dammit, I'm excited. The running back position looks like the deepest it has been in some time, with Gordon, Adkins, Lindsay, and Powell all looking to get play. As a side note, those four in that order are freshmen, sophomore, junior, and senior. Anyways, all four backs have their own distinct styles and strengths. Powell brings the hammer, Adkins brings fluidity and explosiveness, Lindsay brings a spark plug and an indomitable will, and Gordon brings superb athleticism and a prototypical running back's body. Together, that stable of backs is, dare I say, top half in the PAC-12 and a good running mate to an already humming passing attack. Tony Jones will be missed, but he has set a foundation for the reclamation of CU football. As for tight ends, I'm surprised you didn't mention Dylan Keeney, he was pegged as the next pass catching tight end for the Buffs. He has a long stride, a big body, and can get up there for the catch. If he can recover from his foot injury, he should make an impact in 2015 as a redshirt freshman. As for Bobo, he is one of few receivers on this team that has size and speed at a PAC-12 level. That UCLA game is a great representation of his season last year. He saved the game by making a great run after the catch for the touchdown, but then he possibly doomed CU by dropping that third down pass. He has all the talent in the world, and if he can put it all together in his head, he has a bright future. Bobo, Fields, Spruce, and possibly Tony Brown. Wow, that is a force is to be reckoned with. Going way back, all of that talent and development speaks to the work Troy Walters has done on the recruiting trail and on the practice field. He is a budding star that I hope Coach Mac can keep in Boulder. Like many other Buff fans, I have also been clamoring for a dedicated RB coach on staff that can also recruits lights out. Do you think that not having a dedicated coach has hurt the running backs development? Do you think that a RB coach would help this team?

PG: I completely forgot about Dylan Keeney there, I do remember watching his tape and thinking that he has the potential to be an effective target that can complement the deep receiving corps. It would just be so nice to see tight ends involved in the passing game beyond throwing blocks, that aspect of the offense has been completely missing since 2005. As for your question, it probably hasn't helped that the Buffs don't have a dedicated running backs coach but I'm not sure that it's the reason the running game has only progressed in fits and starts. It does slightly concern me that we don't necessarily have someone dedicated to developing a talent like Gordon but for the most part I trust this staff with the player development plans they currently have and it's probably not even feasible to add an assistant solely focused on running backs at the moment. As with most areas of this team I expect the ground game to improve next year, at least incrementally, and if that doesn't happen they may need to look at making a change but right now it's not a major issue.

I think we're at that point again Jack, this time I'll throw the pressing question at you. Would you rather be able to fly, but with normal fatigue involved, or be able to breath under water with no physical limitations?

JB: Breathe underwater all day. Well, hold on, maybe not. There is some scary stuff down there. I guess I would choose flying, less chance of injury or death, and the commute would be easy anywhere that I work. The problem would be the normal fatigue thing because with the shape I'm in, I'd need to bring a change of clothes to the office after flying. This is a tough one. I think I'll stick with flying.

PG: Even though being able to commute via air would be perhaps the greatest thing in the world, (36 is the bane of my existence) I think I might go with being able to swim long distances instead. Travel would be infinitely more interesting, you could island hop simply by swimming and so much of the ocean is still unexplored. The drawback is definitely the health risks posed by various ocean-going creatures but I envision befriending a pod of Orcas Free Willy-style. You know what though? I can't turn down the ease of air travel, give me flying and I'll never set rubber on I-25 or US 36 again.