The season snuck up on me this year, and it was around the beginning of August where I realized that I got to write season previews again, and it was around the second week when I actually started. After splitting the preview into three parts last year, it has merged into a neater two part series this year -- the schedule and the players. Basically, we’re looking at other team’s rosters and then our own. There’s a lot to be excited about in 2015, more so than in recent years, so let’s dig in!
This position is the easiest to project in 2015 for the Buffs, and there may not be a more firmly entrenched starter in the country than Sefo Liufau. The third year player, and two and a half year starter, comes into the season after a record-setting sophomore campaign. He led CU's offense to levels it hasn’t seen in quite some time, averaging 28.5 points per game. Sefo throws a nice mid-range ball, has the ability to run, and has really mastered Lindgren’s offense. Throwing wise, there’s not much he can’t do (though he does like to sail long balls).
Liufau, for all of his strengths, has not done himself any favors. His strengths are mostly intangibles, and his weaknesses are just so… tangible. I don’t know if there was another quarterback who had a worse ratio of picks to pick-6s, and at such back-breaking times, too. The last one, a bad throw against Utah that Dominique Hatfield was more than happy to take all the way back, left a bad taste in the fans’ mouths, and I’m sure Sefo isn’t too happy about it either. Much like the rest of the team, he put on some major muscle this offseason, to the point where he had to slim down for fall camp. He has everything you want in not only your quarterback, but your program leader: toughness, a short memory, and an indomitable will. For all of his mistakes, he willed this team to play that we haven’t seen from CU in quite a long time, and no one will work harder to get better than him.
Behind No. 13, the depth is questionable, at best. Jordan Gehrke has good legs and a good arm, but as I’ve said before, he just can’t quite seem to put it all together. Given that he’s the same year as Sefo, I doubt that he’ll ever see meaningful snaps on the field, unless God forbid something happens to the "Throwin Samoan" Part II. Gehrke may even be in danger of losing his back-up spot to the two young guns coming up. Cade Apsay, while seemingly disappointing in the weight room, impressed at the scrimmage and seems like he has a few money balls up his sleeve. He has some wheels, too, and his accuracy has proven to be his biggest selling point thus far. Behind him is the well-regarded true frosh Steven Montez. The gunslinger from El Paso has great building blocks, and like any freshman, he needs to work on his technique. Sefo hosted Montez during his official recruiting visit to CU, and the two became friends. The competitive nature of both will keep the Buffs great in practice. But as I’m sure you’ve heard from countless other news outlets, Montez can sling it. It’s been a while since a quarterback in a CU jersey has been this fun to watch, maybe going all the way back to Joel Klatt. You can dress up a Wal-Mart steak with all the spices in the world, but it still tastes like it came from Wal-Mart. Montez is a New York Strip, he just needs a little spice. In fact, his high school coaches regard him as SEC quality, but couldn't get the best look being in El Paso, TX.
Starter - Sefo Liufau
Breakout Player - None (yet again, stay tuned)
Question Mark - Depth and inexperience
I was going to say that this is one of the most exciting position groups for the Buffs. But then I looked at the rest of the offense. I can’t say that this group is better than wide receivers or the o-line, which shouldn’t depress your optimism for the backs, but should show just how improved the entire offense will be. And that should scare the rest of the Pac-12. This group loses Tony Jones, who was a warrior in his time at CU and played well last year. However, there is no question that this group has gotten better in the past year.
Another thing to note: Aaron Baltazar was expected to join CU, but some academic issues have pushed his enrollment back. The original Boise State recruit is waiting in the wings when everything lines up correctly. However, Coach MacIntyre expects him to join in the winter. Anyways, back to the active roster. Let’s start with seniority. Christian Powell has plodded his way to lead the Buffs in rushing for three years in the row. The past two years, it seems as if he would concede his rushing title, but he always seems to be more effective than people think. He has a way of always finding yards where there seems to be none. He looks to have slimmed down to a comfortable 225 pound mark this year, and the big back will have some wiggle. Powell is pretty much the only back over 5’11, so all of his backfield mates have so more speed.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the next back, junior Michael Adkins. Ever since the Charleston Southern game, I’m infatuated with his explosiveness and his speed. I mean, he’s even from the same high school as Reggie Bush, c’mon. The problem is, he’s been nicked up for about two years. If Adkins can finally stay healthy for a full season, I think it’s no question that he can get 1,000 yards and lead the team.
As much as I love Adkins, it seems like the fan base loves Phillip Lindsay more, and it’s not hard to see why. No one embodies the Buffalo spirit more than the prodigal son of Colorado. He has state pride, he plays angry, and he always hits more than he’s hit. He’s just so passionate, it’s hard not to root for him. While he doesn’t have much in the way of lateral agility, he hits the hole hard, he knows how to accelerate, and the first contact never gets him down. His slight frame may not last up a whole season, so we’ll see.
Now we get to the incoming freshmen. Donald Gordon (hopefully) will be redshirted, seeing as he was an at-risk recruit coming in and he could use some more seasoning. He is a big, fast athlete and he has an opportunity to be a complete back. To get some more carries, Gordon will have to beat out his freshman mate, Patrick Carr. As with Montez, Carr has had CU fans abuzz about his future. Patrick, to me, represents two things: a symbol of the re-commitment to Texas by CU football, and where I expect the Buffs to consistently recruit. A high 3-star with plenty of offers, Carr chose to come to Boulder in part because of persistence. An Arkansas commit for a long time in the process, he took an unexpected visit and was the first signee on signing day. He has the total package with the ball in his hands, and he isn’t a bad blocker for a freshman. Once again, this has been documented all offseason, but it will be hard to keep him off the field.
Starter - Christian Powell (until proven otherwise)
Breakout Player - Phillip Lindsay (easy choice)
Question Mark - Someone is going to steal carries- who gets left out?
Ah, the sweet smell of Kool-Aid in the morning. I’ve been swept up in the wave. This offense just does it for me. There’s play makers everywhere, and this is the deepest the Buffs have been in the while. Other than the defensive backfield, the receivers group may showcase that the most. CU has supreme talent at the top of the group with Nelson Spruce. There may be better wideouts around the country (debatable), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more reliable option anywhere. The Liufau to Spruce connection is possibly the most underrated duo in the country, and the receiving end looks to build on his breakout year. Open when he’s covered, and a problem even without the ball in his hands, SPRUUUUUUUUCE just finds a way to impact the game. His numbers will probably go down this year, but he still should top the record books when it’s all said and done and hear his name called in the Draft. Now that he’s going to get double-teamed with regularity, the young guns are going to have to step up.
Shay Fields already showed what he can do last year as a skinny true freshman, setting the record for first-year receptions with 50. The speedster put on around 10 pounds and he definitely looks like a college receiver now. One of the more frustrating things about the beginning of last season was the coach’s obsession with using Fields on bubble screens, and it seemed like he wouldn’t get the ball otherwise. In the heat of conference play, they started running him a lot more, and I remember thinking right after the long TD to start the Arizona game, "this guy is going to be fun for 3 more years". Let’s hope he builds on those performances. Behind him is the best stable of depth we’ve seen in the Coach Mac era. Bryce Bobo is big, fast, and mean, Devin Ross has been hyped since P-Rich said Ross is just as fast as him, and Donovan Lee and Jay MacIntyre (yes, Hawkins flashbacks, blah blah blah) look like they can make plays out of the slot. As I keep saying, every player I just mentioned can make plays, and I left out Lee Walker (who I think should be KR) and tall frosh Justin Jan. This is a PAC-12 caliber squad, plain and simple.
The tight ends, however, are much more in flux. Sean Irwin is the lead returning contributor with 9 catches and a whole lot of blocking. He looks to be a traditional in-line tight end, but don’t underestimate him in the passing game, he knows how to "box out" and create space, and he can easily overpower any linebackers or safeties. Dylan Keeney takes over the "Gucci Ty" role, a big body split wide that takes the middle of the field. Coach MacIntyre has been very coy with Dylan’s progress this fall camp, which makes me think one of two things: either he’s been terrible, or too good for others to know. And based on what we’ve seen as fans at practice, I’m more inclined to believe the latter. Keeney is 6’6, and while still slight of build, he brings some speed to that position. His high school tape should more than excite you. He can do damage from that position. Hayden Jones is also looking good, but he slots more where Sean Irwin is now. This unit is not nearly as bad as people make it out to be, though in the context of the offense, it is the weakest link in the chain. Someone has to be, right?
Starters - Spruce, Fields, Irwin, and Lee in the slot
Breakout Players - Dylan Keeney & Devin Ross
Question Mark - Will TE's become a part of the offense, rather than an afterthought?
Another deep, deep unit on a team that used to have those few and far between. The offensive line loses two multi-year starters, but returns three great linemen and huge potential in both guard spots. Yup, I said great on the offensive line, blame the kool-aid. Jeromey Irwin anchors the left tackle after fighting off some injuries. He’s finally healthy for an extended period of time, and he looks bigger than ever. Going left to right, Alex Kelley is a Rimington watch list candidate, who just looks like a hoss. He’s slimmed down this offseason, but he’s one of the strongest Buffs in recent history. Then, manning the right tackle is Stephane Nembot, the darling of the Pac-12 this offseason. He was picked to go to media days by Coach Mac, and boy did he deliver. A great interview, a scary man, and an intelligent mind combined into a compelling story for Stephane, as well as a great football player. Last year, he stopped lunging and flipped a switch, and dominated his matchup after that. It seems as if his senior year is set up to jump him a few rounds in the NFL, because he definitely has the measurables. 6’7 and around 330 pounds of pure muscle, Stephane is a man you’d want at your side in a dark alley or a lecture. Look for some All-Pac mentions for this man.
Filling those gaps in between the experience are some big boys. Daniel Munyer and Kaiwi Crabb were good for four years, despite being undersized and a little slow. It seems as if this next wave is neither undersized nor lacking for mobility. Gerrard Kough has a stranglehold on the LG spot. Kough plays with a mean streak and he outweighs both Crabb and Munyer by a good amount. Expect some pancakes in the near future. On the other side, a hotly-contested battle is waging for the right guard spot. MacIntyre recently said that he expects that battle to continue throughout the season. While I’m not the biggest fan of switching out guards in a spot where chemistry is key, I’m also not an O-line coach, so I’ll leave it to the experts. Shane Callahan, the lauded transfer from Auburn, and Jonathan Huckins, the third year gargantuan, are expected to rotate at that spot. No matter who’s there, that right side of the line should blast some linemen back. Kelley is a great anchor, Callahan and Huckins both have the size and strength to push (though pulling might be a struggle), and Nembot is already a bulldozer. Methinks that running might be a bit easier this year. Behind those guys, juco transfer Sully Wiefels can back up all three interior spots, Sam Kronshage has experience at both tackle spots, and John Lisella has some major weight finally. This unit is looking the biggest it has in some time. Time to get back to the Colorado ways of old.
Starters - Irwin, Kough, Kelley, Huckins/ Callahan, Nembot
Breakout Player - Jonathan Huckins
Question Mark - Can the interior of the line gel quickly enough to give Sefo a pocket?
Perhaps no other group of players have turned over personnel as much as the defensive linemen, despite having only one graduating senior who started. Three junior college players, a returning wayward son in Samson Kafovalu, and a defensive scheme switch means that there’s a lot of new faces to cover, and lest we forget that Josh Tupou has to sit out this season.
Overall, the faces you’ll see most often weren’t there last year, and that may be a good thing given how many yards per run CU gave up. Justin Solis steps up to fill Tupou’s void, and while he isn’t the best at penetration, he should be just as stout at the point of attack. In a 3-4 look, which the Buffs are transitioning to, Solis just has to occupy two blockers, and he is wide enough and strong enough to do just that. Flanking him in the starting lineup are (most likely) Jordan Carrell and Samson Kafovalu, neither of whom were on the roster last year. Carrell comes in as a JuCo All-American, with a nose for the ball and the penchant to get into the backfield. He knifes through blocks, and he’s big enough to hold the edge against some big tackles in the conference of champions. The extent of his impact is largely unknown, as he is a first year division one football player, but expectations are high.
Kafovalu, on the other hand, gave us fans a taste of what to expect in his freshman year. He slowly grew that season, culminating in an almost dominant performance at USC. Eventually, Samson took a year off, focusing on getting his mind right and making sure he’s free to go for the next part of his career. The depth at these position offers even more change and not a whole lot of experience. Eddy Lopez, the true sophomore, is behind Justin Solis, and he looks to get plenty of reps this season, as the big bodies wear out the quickest. Lopez has been preiased for the offseason he had, "transforming his body" according to Coach MacIntyre. Clay Norgard also looks to get some inside snaps on passing downs, and his motor is a huge asset, as shown last season. On the ends, Leo Jackson and Blake Robbins, both junior college transfers as well, provide big bodies and good motors (although the pass rush is suspect) to lock down the edges. For a bit of perspective, I would put money on the fact that Jackson weighs more than Juda Parker, the previous starting DT who played inside.
The complete physical transformation in this group is impressive. Jase Franke also looks to factor in somewhere along the line, most likely at multiple spots, and Michael Matthewes looks to be another year away from taking quarterback’s heads off. I still love the way that guy plays. Both freshmen slot very well at nose guard, and at least one should redshirt, though Frank Umu looks more ready than Lyle Tuiloma at this point. This group is deep, young, and unheralded, and while there is tons of potential, it’s not a guarantee that the DL does well.
Starters - Carrell, Solis, Kafovalu
Breakout Player - Jase Franke is going to turn some heads this year.
Question Mark - Biggest one since the Hawkins days: Can they stop the run consistently?
This group has been singled out by fans as one of the biggest areas of concern. Last year, they were thin, small, and young. They overran holes and reacted slowly. Personally, I attribute that a lot to coaching. Kent Baer, while experienced, had a very basic defense with basic schemes and a bend, don’t break system. Not my favorite. Enter Jim Leavitt. His scheme, and the unit he’s responsible for (linebackers) should match his personality - aggressive and energetic. I’m in love.
Another big boost to this corps is the golden boy from California coming back full strength, Addison Gillam. Coach Mac has talked a lot about Gillam losing his love for football, and gaining it back again this summer after some lengthy, daily conversations. I’ve rarely seen the coach as worked up as he was when discussing helping Addison, eventually saying, "that is why I coach, period." The Buffs and Addison stand to gain from a more focused and prepared season out of the freshman All-American, and if he’s back to his old self, he should be free to fly around in this 3-4. Lining up next to him is Kenneth Olugbode, the man who made the biggest improvement from the beginning of the season to the end. He’s packed on 15 more pounds on his frame, and looks to be a bundle of pain. He’s always had the speed, but his slightness of frame has worried fans since he’s been here, and it’s nice to know he’s put on some pounds.
Going into camp, depth at the middle spots were worrisome, given that no names had popped up as standouts. Suddenly, it looks as if the rotation will be pretty solid. Rick Gamboa has shed some pounds and has been impressing coaches physically (he’s always had the right stuff mentally), N.J. Falo was moved inside and made the instant impact expected of such a mature freshman, and Christian Shaver and Deaysean Rippy provide some size and athleticism behind them. Don’t forget Grant Watanabe, the heralded grayshirt freshman who has overcome a broken foot to make some plays this camp. An injury won’t doom this corps, and the young guns might surprise the rest of the conference.
Bending the pocket at the OLB positions are plenty of converted DE’s, plenty of youth, and a ridiculous amount of athleticism. Slated to start, Derek McCartney and Jimmie Gilbert reprise their roles as the outermost front 7 members, though this time they’re not on the ground and they aren’t undersized for their position. McCartney, who led the team in sacks in 2014, is a 4th, yes 4th, year sophomore who looks to be a terror off the edge once again. Derek is technically sound, agile, and has great bend, and now that he doesn’t necessarily have to set the edge against the run, he can pin his ears back and go. Gilbert on the other side might be even faster. Leading the team in hurries, Jimmie is much more of a pass rush specialist, though the limited experience he has as a coverage linebacker in college has returned great dividends. Gilbert has the perfect body for a rush linebacker - spindly and explosive. His long arms ensure he gets first crack at the contact, and his shoulder bend doesn’t give the OL much room for recovery. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m very excited for this duo at their current spot. Their tweener roles are perfect for this 3-4/hybrid scheme, and it really accentuates their strengths.
Behind them is a whole myriad of options. Timothy Coleman should be the main backup to McCartney. Coleman is a big body who has unnatural athleticism at his size, and while his career has been sidetracked by injuries, he has tons of potential as a redshirt sophomore. Jaleel Awini made the switch from QB to NB/OLB, and his athleticism seems to paying off at that spot. Awini certainly has the potential to go to work there. He has elite speed in and out of cuts, the really big question is how quickly he can grasp the mental aspect of being the hitter, not the hittee. De’Jon Wilson brings some heft to the position, and while he may be the odd man out in terms of snaps, I expect him to get some run in goal line situation and obvious running plays. The poor guy has played 3 different positions in his time here, and each one has a different weight requirement. Terran Hasselbach has major speed off the edge, but he may be a year away size-wise from contributing. Another wrinkle that I think we could have fun with: Jered Bell, Afolabi Laguda, and Evan White are all big enough to creep up in the box and move from the 5th or 6th defensive back to a linebacker. It would be a lot of fun to see those guys flying in on blitzes to confuse the defense a bit. But hey, I’m not here to tell my man JL how to do his job.
Starters - McCartney, Gillam, Olugbode, Gilbert
Breakout Player - Tim Coleman will find a way to take snaps from somebody.
Question Mark - Will the new scheme force more bad throws/sacks/hurries from the opposing quarterback?
I know I’ve gushed about a lot of these guys, but this group is legitimately the best on the roster, with exception to maybe the wide receivers and safeties. Iron sharpens iron, and it’s a good thing that these units push each other so hard. Much like the wide receivers, this group has elite talent at the top and some great depth throughout. The difference is the amount of elite talent.
I would say that Kenneth Crawley and Chidobe Awuzie are great Pac-12 players, whereas Spruce is the only one that has proven to be great in the wide-outs, if you ask me. Crawley headlines this group. A great ambassador for the University of Colorado who has more swag than he knows what to do with. Kenneth can stay with anybody on the field, and he’s long enough to disrupt passes he has no business getting to. Ball skills have always been his biggest detraction, and he’s been working hard this offseason to turn those bat-downs into turnovers, as has the rest of the secondary.
Likely lining up on the other boundary is Ahkello Witherspoon, who’s even longer than KC. The 6’3 junior was hampered by a back injury in his first season for the Buffs after transferring, and it seems like he’s going from backstage directly to the spot. He got burned pretty badly against UMass near the beginning of 2014, and after resting his back for a while, he played well near the end of conference play. He plays mean and definitely isn’t afraid of contact. The nickel back should have plenty of options at play.
The safe bet is the aforementioned Chido, who excelled in that role as a freshman in 2013, before switching to safety out of necessity last season. Awuzie has elite short-area coverage skills, a nose for the ball, and enough ferocity to scare ball-carriers coming his way. Quite simply, he belong near the line of scrimmage where he can affect the play as much as possible, and I’m in love with his athleticism and body control.
John Walker performed admirably in the nickel last year, but he goes from an average starter to fantastic depth, the goal for any team. Walker plays like a junkyard dog, and refuses to give any yards up, though he is a little slim. The first person backing up the outside corners should something happen will most likely be Awuzie, who also has experience out there. Next up would probably be Walker, and then after that Afolabi Laguda, a safety by trade. Yuri Wright is quickly becoming a cautionary tale, and it would be shocking for him to get serious snaps. Both incoming frosh corners, Nick Fisher and Isiah Oliver, look ready to play soon physically, though my preference would be to redshirt at least one. It’s more likely that Oliver will play this year, seeing as he has world-class speed and experience on special teams. However, I have faith in both for the secondary, and Fisher is quite possibly my favorite player in the 2015 class, as he has great breaks on the ball and can hit like a truck.
Starters - Crawley, Witherspoon, Awuzie (nickel)
Breakout Player - Ahkello Witherspoon is the only real candidate here (Most improved on the team).
Question Mark - Who wins the nickel back spot, Awuzie or Moeller?
Another very strong position group on the Buffs. Combined with the CB’s, the safeties comprise half of the best secondary in a long time in Boulder. While this group may not have the firepower of the corners, they have extremely good depth, partly because they somehow ran through everybody last year. Injuries decimated the unit, so everyone got some playing time, and that turns into value this season.
The only person with a locked down starting spot is Tedric Thompson, a proven play maker that should play on Sundays. Thompson lays the wood, has great ball skills, and fantastic range, and the junior was a big reason we were in some games, and he practically won the Cal game for CU (that was a fumble, Pac-12 refs). Whoever lines up to Thompson has his job made infinitely easier. Who that is, however, is a bit of a mystery. There’s reason to give the starting spot to all three leading candidates.
Jered Bell, the rare 6th year senior, provides experience, ball-hawking, and a big body to a spot that relies a lot on mental ability. Plus, it would feel bad to deny him a spot on his last year. But if he’s not the best, then someone else deserves that spot. Evan White is my personal favorite. A crazy athlete (as evidenced by his special team play last year), White is big enough to be a S/LB hybrid, CU’s version of Su’a Cravens. Plus, he’s a local sophomore from CO and it’s always fun to root for those guys. Ryan Moeller also fits that mold. The former walk-on just got put on scholarship, and his performance against Oregon proved that he deserves it. Moeller fits the bill physically, and he seems to grasp the safety position well and has since been named the starter at the position.
Behind those four, Afolabi Laguda, the secondary’s jack of all trades, looks to get a lot of snaps in a few different roles. Laguda is a well-put together man who might not be fast, but he’s long enough to cover 10 yards in a hurry. Also expected to get some play is redshirt freshman Jaisen Sanchez, a lanky body from St. Louis High School in Hawaii who has good short area quickness. No one else should expect to see playing time. This unit is pretty deep and has some pieces to compete.
Starters - Bell and Thompson
Breakout Player - Evan White. I expect big things
Question Mark - Can they stave off injury and make big plays?
Fair warning - I know almost nothing about special teams, so this will be short and quick. The long snapper, Wyatt Smith, did fine last year, and that trend should continue into this year. Punting duties fall to Alex Kinney, the frosh who has the unenviable position of taking over for perhaps the best CU player for four years, Darragh O’Neil. Kinney was rated high coming in as a punter, whatever that means, and he has a lot on his shoulders. Kicking should be split between Diego Gonzales, the much maligned leg from Mexico who has a cannon, and Chris Graham, the accurate former-walk on. That’s two scholarships and a coaching slot spent on kicking, so expectations are rightfully high, but they are both replacing another four year starter in Will Oliver, so expect some bumps. Plenty of fans are worried about special teams this year, and rightfully so. They have the potential to lose the Buffs games this year. Here’s to hoping that Kinney adapts well to the college game and Diego can find consistent accuracy. The #FireNeinas hate will be strong if they don’t.
Starters - Gonzales, Graham, Kinney
Breakout Player - None
Question Mark - Simple question: Can the special teams not lose games this year?
Offensive Star - Nelson Spruce
Defensive Star - Chidobe Awuzie
Offensive Sleeper - Donovan Lee
Defensive Sleeper - Clay Norgard
That should do it for me and my long-winded rundown. Let me know who some of your favorite players are in the comments. Single-digit days to the season, time to get excited!