It's only February but the start of a new football season has begun in Boulder with spring practices in full swing for head coach Mike MacIntyre and the Colorado Buffaloes. The excitement is evident for the Buffs, who enter their fifth season as members of the Pac-12 conference although questions still remain for the program. Can this be the year CU turns a corner and becomes competitive in conference games? Three short years ago, MacIntyre started rebuilding from rock bottom after taking over for Jon Embree and has done the best job possible with the talent provided to him. Lack of experience was a huge factor for CU's troubles on the field last season, as they were the third youngest football team in the FBS and youngest among teams in the "power 5" conferences.
Being inexperienced is something that MacIntyre has recognized during the off-season, saying "I definitely think our team has matured, last year we were a JV football team. We played mainly freshman and sophomores, this year we'll play mainly juniors and sophomores. We only have 10 seniors who are a valuable part of our football team." It hasn't been an easy transition for coach Mac with a 1-17 record in conference play over the past two season; the only win almost two years ago (November 16th, 2013) vs. the Cal Bears. Despite no conference wins last season, the Buffs showed progress from MacIntyre's first to second season by cutting the margin of defeat by opponents from 29 points per game down to 13 points per game.
There were only two games, both on the road last season, (USC and Oregon) in which the Buffs were outscored quickly and never effective in. MacIntyre echoed this by saying, "On the road, the USC game started out with a ball tipped and an interception that along with a roughing the punter call got us in a hole quick. After that we matched them and the game ended up being 56-28. We gave them too much of a start. Oregon we played as well as anyone played them all year in the first quarter at their place, but then Marcus Mariota made a couple plays." He added, "We were very competitive in the Pac-12 last year and this year we'll win a lot of those close games. It's part of maturity and being there and they'll (The players) understand how to finish some of those games."
The growing pains have been apparent, but progress is being made for Colorado. One of the keys for CU this season is continuing toward being a contender, and that starts on the defensive side of the ball. Last season, the Buffs were ranked 112th on defense and struggled by giving up 39 points per game to opponents. Missed tackles, blown coverages and bad technique hampered CU on defense during inopportune moments of games. Athletic Director Rick George made a huge decision last month toward the future of the Buffs by hiring new defense coordinator Jim Leavitt, who was previously the linebackers coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Leavitt became the highest paid assistant in Colorado history with the move and is expected to have an immediate impact. He gives a physical nature to the Buffs' defense that has been non-existent in quite some time. Even in practice, quarterback Sefo Liufau is surprised by the changes on defense that have been established in a short time with Leavitt. "This defense is a lot different with coach Leavitt and being able to read it all, it's a strong point that I'm working on and getting better at", Lifufau said. "Last year, I think it was a lot more basic. A lot more just quarters defense. They're moving a lot more this year in terms of secondary and linebackers, moving a lot quicker and harder to read. It's good for us as an offense to read that and learn. It's exciting for the season."
MacIntyre believes Leavitt will complement his coaching style. "Jim brings a great energy and a great enthusiasm. When you're around him, you can see he always thinks the cup is running over. Not half-empty or half-full but running over. So he brings a tremendous amount of energy to our defense." The improvements to the defense will help both sides of the ball and having the experience of Leavitt guiding those efforts gives the Buffs a new outlook. "He's coached the 4-3 and 3-4, so he understands the schemes. Right now, we're doing a lot of things trying to see exactly how we fit everything together with the talent we have," coach Mac added. "The teams we play, their offenses are so diverse and with the spread offense. Thirteen teams we play run a true spread, so we have to be prepared for that. Our staff is working hard to get a good scheme going and we're excited about seeing where that's going."
It's not only the defense that has gone through significant changes but the offense feels them as well. Wide receiver Nelson Spruce decided to return to CU for his senior season after breaking numerous school records in receiving. When asked about the differences this season from ones past he said "As far as the team goes, we're just so far ahead from past springs. As an offense, now that we've had two full years with Mac's playbook, the first install was super thick we've gotten into a lot of stuff that would have taken a couple practices to get into." Spruce looks to improve the chemistry with Liufau and help fellow receivers Shay Fields and Bryce Bobo in his final season. CU was ranked 59th in total offense last season and 20th in passing yards, giving room for improvement to both aspects. Spruce thinks the record breaking pace that was set last year could be done again this year. "No question, obviously whatever we did last year we want to build off that and there's no reason why we can't. We've built a great chemistry and just the more we play together we can pick out little things in our game. There's no reason why we can be more effective going into this season." Spruce wants to finish off his career at CU in the right way and could have another record-breaking season.
A major contributing factor to the success will be the play at quarterback from Liufau, who became the school's most prolific passer in just his sophomore season. He threw for a school record 3,200 yards, breaking the previous mark of 3,156 set by Koy Detmer in 1996. MacIntyre has confidence in Liufau as the starting quarterback and seen much progress in his game. "Offensively we need to keep improving like we did last year and Sefo has kept improving which is excellent", MacIntyre said. The same sentiment is shared by Liufau himself, saying "I've notice a lot of progression in this off-season on the mental aspect side of the game with being able to read coverages and my mechanics. I'm not where I want to be but I'm getting there." Another factor to the Buffs' offense that will help Liufau is having depth at the running back position. Going into spring camp, the buffs will have six running backs on their roster including incoming recruits Patrick Carr, Donald Gordon and Aaron Baltazar.
MacIntyre is preparing the Buffs to be contenders and understands the process of making a successful team. It's the patience and perseverance for CU that will show through. During his tenure at San Jose State, MacIntyre didn't establish a winning program until his third season with the Spartans and turned a 1-11 record in 2010 into a 10-2 record in 2012. Having success in coaching is something in the MacIntyre bloodline. Mike's father, George, was successful in turning around the football programs at Tennessee-Martin from 1975-77 and Vanderbilt from 1979-85. In both instances, He was able to turn both from worst to first. Mike is grateful for the philosophies that his father gave him in life on and off the field. "The one thing that he taught me is to make sure that you don't put the cart before the horse", Mac said. "That if you develop the people and the success will come. And then you will have a foundation to build. That's something I do." The Buffs motto last season was to go 1-0 in every game and they hope to adopt that motto of success with reconstructive changes, new staff and another year of experience under MacIntyre. Under this philosophy, the Buffs are taking steps in the right direction and the goal of winning conference games will become more obtainable this season.