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Colorado Buffaloes 2018 Season Preview: Offense

New coordinator. New faces. New result?

Ron Chenoy - USA Today

Stop me if you heard this before, but this year’s offense rests on the QB. There is no Phillip Lindsay to sit on if you need a guaranteed yard or 5. There are no proven receivers to chuck it to if the offense stagnates. In 2018, there is a whole lot of talent that hasn’t been proven, and then there’s Steven Montez. Which presents an interesting quandary, because after 15 starts from Montez, I’m still not convinced we know much about the type of player he can be. The questions extend past the players, too. There’s a new play caller in Darrin Chiaverini. There’s a new run game coordinator, whatever that means, in Klayton Adams. How fast will the Buffs play? How often will they run? Who is John Galt? All of these are legitimate questions entering into the 2018 season. There’s a lot of intrigue around the scoring side of the ball, and I’m going to try my best to parse through it.

Let’s start where everything starts on offense – the line. Adams returns as the line coach after a disappointing 2017, and after shuffling the line plenty of times last year (due to injuries and underperformance), there appears to be some stability. From left to right, the starters appear to be: Kaiser/Moretti/Sherman, Tonz/Sherman, Pursell, Lynott, Haigler. Actually, I know I just said there was some stability, but the left side of the line is in a period of self-discovery. If Moretti is healthy enough to play every snap of every game, there is no debate who starts at LT. Unfortunately for him and the Buffs, but mostly for him, he is still dealing with a nasty ACL tear and there’s no way the coaches rush him back to a full workload. The other side of the coin is that Moretti is so talented, he can’t afford to sit out entirely if he can handle a certain amount of snaps.

So now Adams has an interesting puzzle to solve: When does he play Moretti? When does he play Kaiser? When does he play Sherman? I’m willing to bet that Sherman takes the lion’s share of the snaps, which should be concerning for everybody. We here at the Ralphie Report are huge believers in Sherman’s talent (Allen High School, stand up), but he’s an underweight redshirt freshman who is a more natural fit at guard with his 6’3 height. Yes, he has the athleticism and long arms to handle some guys, but everybody, including Sherman, should be more comfortable is he wasn’t forced to play outside. But I digress. The point of this is, the left side of the line is something to watch. The hope is that someone steps up and takes control of both the tackle and guard spots.

The other side of the line, however, is a beauty. Lynott is the Colorado Buffaloes’ most proven lineman, and after fully rehabbing from a torn Achilles (miraculously), he’s ready to go again. Next to him is another seasoned vet in Aaron Haigler. Those two should be solid Pac-12 players. It’s a shame Montez isn’t left-handed. In the middle sits redshirt-greyshirt freshman Colby Pursell. I hesitate to call him uproven because he’s now two years into the program and coaches have done nothing but sing his praises. He’s physically ready for the job and he’s supposedly whip smart. Let’s see what happens with him, but if he can be a positive or even a neutral, that is a huge improvement. A push from the middle of the line of scrimmage makes running easier and passing easier. It just helps everything. There’s not much to look at here. Pursell appears to be solid, and the depth behind him is semi-suspect. We’ll need to see him play before we judge.

It seems like an easy jump to me to go to the running backs from here. And folks, let me tell you, I miss Phillip Lindsay every day. I think it’s safe to say that it doesn’t matter who the Buffs line up in the backfield, they can’t possibly try to fill the shoes of #23. Luckily, I don’t think they have to. The offensive paradigm has shifted, partially due to scheme and partially due to the fact that Lindsay is gone.

The Buffs immediately replaced a senior RB with another senior RB with Travon McMillian. The transfer from Virginia Tech has over 2,000 confirmed yards at the FBS, Power 5 level. He’s big, athletic, and is a much better fit for the CU offense than the new VT offense. Fuente requires cutback lanes and extreme patience. McMillian fits better in CU’s simple shotgun trap game style runs. He can attack the line of scrimmage with the aggression needed.

Assuming Travon grabs the starting job, Kyle Evans will most likely be spelling him. Evans is a fantastic story, coming all the way back from a dislocated hip to be a big contributor for CU this year. It’s nearly impossible to get a clean hit on him, and his shimmy and shake is useful out of the backfield or in the flat.

The next most experienced guy is Beau Bisharat, a proven short yardage back that can block well. He’s been in Boulder long enough now to be an upperclassman, and he has yet to show anything other than mediocrity carrying the ball. His frame (6’2) is the biggest of the group, but he runs high and stiff at times, and that mitigates his effectiveness at breaking tackles. He will need to show a little more this year when called upon because behind him are a bunch of unproven horses.

Alex Fontenot has plenty of physical gifts, but some injuries and inconsistency has hampered his progress this fall camp. His balance and speed are superb, but he needs a little more weight on his bones before he can be called a bell cow. Deion Smith and Jarek Broussard are both true freshman from Texas, and while they have different skill sets (Smith is pure speed and Broussard is all shiftiness), they are more talented than previous CU backfield cohorts. Other than the offensive line, this is the most worrisome group on offense. There are less questions here, but the drop-off may be steeper, going from one of the best backs in CU history to an average to above-average RB like McMillian. Like I said, he doesn’t have to be Lindsay. He just has to move the ball consistently forward and the scheme will do the rest.

Alright, everybody, we’ve reached the WR group (and tight ends, I guess) and this is where the Kool-Aid gets mainlined. The optimism, already pulsing under the surface of everything I just spit on the page, is now geysering skyward the force of ten Nelson Spruces. The Colorado Buffaloes are trying to replace three historic WRs in Bryce Bobo, Devin Ross, and Shay Fields. All three rank in the top 10 in a few receiving categories. That is true. It’s also true that this year’s group is set up to be even better. The physical talent is upgraded completely, the depth is the best we’ve seen in Boulder since the 90s, and the attitude of the group seems to be exactly what’s needed. The one thing that’s missing is proven production.

Juwann Winfree is probably the most proven of the group, and he realistically has two great games in a Buffalo uniform. His gigantic frame makes him an easy target for Montez to find, and his crisp routes and consistent ability to beat cornerbacks off the line of scrimmage makes him a great option for the quick passing game that CU is sure to utilize.

The other likely star in this unit is Laviska Shenault. Number one, that’s a name made for stardom. But we here at the Ralphie Report dig past the names. Shenault is also the most physically gifted player on the team who combines those gifts with an aggressive, shall I say destructive, attitude. Laviska is not playing just to play football, he’s there to dissuade those across from him to do the same. He does not block, he runs people out of plays. He does not make contested catches, he embarrasses defenders. Every play is a showcase. This year, with way more volume, Buff fans get to truly see what he can do. And we should all be very excited, and frankly, a little scared.

It’s a little dismissive that we have come this far into the WR preview without mentioning the most productive and consistent player catching passes. And he’s a captain. Jay MacIntyre returns for a fifth year, and it seems as if he’s finally shed some of the negative connotations that comes with being raised by the head coach. He is now recognized at what he is: A consistent inside weapon that will catch everything thrown his way and get you enough for a first down. He will be counted on this year for a quick five or ten yards.

After those three, there is a smattering, smorgasboard, plethora of talented options. Tony Brown, the Texas Tech transfer, has been impressing in camp as a consistent catcher that can stretch the field. Kabion Ento, who redshirted last year in order to guarantee more playing time, is an explosive leaper with some rare agility for his size. Jaylon Jackson has made an improbable comeback from two straight ACL injuries to force his way on the field. K.D. Nixon is an explosive Swiss Army Knife. Maruice Bell is a smooth operator that runs nice routes.

Not everyone will play meaningful snaps this year, but there is plenty of talent there to step in for injury or other reasons. With the offense opening up a bit more, there’s a good chance that three or four of these players will be on the field every play. That shouldn’t be a problem, and frankly, you’ll have to go all the way to the true freshmen to hit a point where I’m uncomfortable with the group on the field.

I’ll put the tight ends at the end of the group here as an afterthought, which reflects their recent involvement in the offense. The news that Jared Poplawski had shoulder surgery and is out for the year means that this group loses a dynamic receiving threat, hurting an already thin group. Ostensibly starting is Chris Bounds, who is the definition of solid. He can block well, he’ll catch balls and he’ll run the routes given. But he’s not as dynamic or explosive as some might want. Backing him is Brady Russell, the emerging former walk-on and nephew of CU great Matt Russell. He’s physical and more athletic than you would expect. Behind him is recent JuCo transfer Darrion Jones, who is everything you want from an athletic standpoint, but needs to figure out how to play football. A 6’6 jumper who can move is always welcome, but right now he doesn’t know where to go on the field.

We finally reach the quarterbacks, which is where I said the offensive effectiveness rested 2,000 words ago. For what seems like the 5th year in a row, the Buffs have an entrenched starter at QB in Steven Montez. The redshirt junior had a deceptively average year statistically in 2017 in a season marked by ups and downs. Montez has been covered extensively this offseason, by national outlets and by local media. The outlook seems remarkably similar across all sources, including coaches: Montez has everything he needs to be one of the best QBs in the country, but he needs to figure out the mental side of quarterbacking.

It seems that the Buffs took one of the best steps possible to accelerate that mental development by adding Kurt Roper as QB coach. As an offensive coordinator, Roper has had mixed results. But as a signal calling guru, his CFB resume is right up there with some of the best in the country. Obviously, Eli Manning is the biggest name on his list, but his coaching of Thad Lewis at Duke is just as impressive. With Roper in tow, the hope is that Montez is now thinking the game better and progressing through his reads. If that’s true, if that progress shows up, Montez has a chance to carry this team to wins. He can take this team from bordering a bowl to comfortably in the upper echelon of the Pac-12.

Early returns are promising. Coaches have said he’s more consistent in fall camp, and based on the two open scrimmages, he is going through reads much faster than he was. It needs to show up in games. It helps the Buffs that the backup spot is hotly contested and pushing the incumbent. Sam Noyer has experience on his side, and he has not conceded his spot to Tyler Lytle, who was more highly recruited coming into Boulder. Noyer throws on the run well and seems to have tightened his accuracy. The ball whips off of Lytle’s hands, and he has some nice athleticism to go with a prototypical frame. It’s only good news that Noyer and Lytle are pushing each other, and both are pushing Montez every day. Something tells me that Montez performs better when something’s on the line.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the change in offensive philosophy for 2018. For the first time in the Mike MacIntyre era in Boulder, there was a change in play-callers, with Brian Lindgren leaving for Oregon State and Darrin Chiaverini taking his place in the booth. I don’t expect wholesale changes in scheme or feel, but I do expect a few things that should make the offense easier. If you had to ask me the weakest spots on offense this year, I would tell you the offensive line and the run game (which are very connected). It’s safe to expect that the Buffs are going to go faster this year, and consistently faster, and spread the ball out a bit more through the air. Both of those changes help mitigate the troubles. A quicker pace means quicker plays, and quicker plays means that the offensive line has to block for less time and against more tired defensive linemen. Quicker plays also means that the passing game takes a larger share of the snaps, which helps soften the loss of Phillip Lindsay. In general, CU is opening it up a bit more and going faster than last year, and given the weapons at the skill positions, more points should going up on the board.