I have often used a phrase when watching the Colorado Buffaloes for the last 10 years: it can’t get worse. This phrase was immediately weighed in the cosmic karma scales and it was proven, time and again, that it can get worse. However, this time, THIS TIME, it actually cannot get worse for the Buffs offense in 2022. We have new faces, on the coaching staff and on the field, and anything they do will be an improvement over last year’s offense. It’s practically guaranteed.
The opening paragraph of jinxing aside, we will walk through what this unit looks like for the Buffs in 2022, from the quarterback to the offensive line, as well as the new-look coaching staff.
We start, traditionally, with the quarterback. We at the Ralphie Report continue to be pro-Brendon Lewis, but he has some stiff competition this year. Lewis, who started as a freshman last year, endured an up-and-down (mostly down) season.
Behind a shaky o-line, he ran for his life often and his play was definitely frenetic. It didn’t help that he was often faced with 3rd-and-longs after two runs up the middle called by former OC Darrin Chiaverini. As a whole, Lewis had an unproductive season. He passed for 1500 yards on a 58% completion percentage, with 10 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He averaged only 6.0 yards per attempt, which is a product of the offense he was placed in. We at the Ralphie Report saw what we needed to see from him. As a freshman, he was a great leader for the offense and took A LOT of hits without complaining. He made plays with his legs when possible and showed some nice passing ability while on the rollout. In general, I feel confident that if he was put into a better situation, Lewis would have been an average to above-average college QB as a freshman.
However, he is now playing for a new quarterbacks coach, as Danny Langsdorf has left town. Mike Sanford is the new quarterbacks coach, and he has another QB candidate to look at - J.T. Shrout. Shrout, a former California prep player, played his freshman season at Tennessee before transferring a little closer to home last year. Unfortunately, during the preseason, he suffered a major knee injury and was out for the whole year. This year, it’s been a long journey to get back to health, but he is finally cleared for full contact and ready to play this year. And he has a CANNON. Shrout can move a little bit, but his clear strength is his arm talent. J.T. will be able to sling it around the yard. Some of the players have already mentioned his ability to get the ball there on time and on target, and isn’t that the whole ballgame with quarterbacking? I am betting that we see both quarterbacks this year, but I don’t think either option will be the WD-40 this offense needs.
The running back room will look very different in 2022. Jarek Broussard, as much as we love him, had enough suffering behind bad offensive lines and transferred to Michigan State to join Mel Tucker. With him goes any real returning production from the 2021 backs. After potentially grabbing transfers, the Buffs settled on two incoming freshmen that have some giddy-up. In the end, that leads to a weird unbalanced room of two upperclassmen in Alex Fontenot and Deion Smith and two freshmen in Anthony Hankerson and Victor Venn. Fontenot is a known quantity at this point. Alex has been around the program for a while and is up over 200 pounds. He’s going to average 4-5 yards per carry, he’s going to be hard to bring down and he’s going to lack the top end explosion to really take the top off of the defense. He is a known quantity. Smith is a little more interesting. We haven’t seen much from him in his four years in Boulder, but he emerged near the end of last year and he has some burst to get to the edge. Deion is a great athlete who has also bulked up under Shannon Turkey and he will share plenty of the main running load this year. Smith is a bit faster than Fontenot, but I have yet to see the wiggle that Fontenot has from him.
Venn and Hankers are interesting pieces. Hankers has been injured in fall camp, so it’s hard to expect anything from him this year, but Victor Venn is one of the highest-rated freshmen in this class. A star in 6A Georgia football and a track athlete, he has plenty of speed to work with, and is in Darian Hagan’s preferred build of short and stout. Hagan tends to play it slow with freshmen in his room, so don’t expect them to start Venn on week one, but he absolutely has the ability to force himself onto the field.
We get to the wide receiver unit. Out of the entire offense, THIS unit changed the most from 2021 to 2022. The coach has changed from Darrin Chiaverini (who is now at UCLA) to Phil McGeoghan, who has experience in the college and NFL as a WR coach.
There weren’t many catches to go around last season, but some of the pass catchers find themselves elsewhere this year. Brenden Rice and Dimitri Stanley both transferred to USC and Iowa State, respectively, leaving a pretty big whole in returning production. Much of that production is covered by Daniel Arias and Montana Lemonious-Craig. Arias has been around in Boulder for a while now, going into his 4th season. He has always had the physical goods, but it just seems like he drops the balls that he needs to catch the most. We’ve heard good things about him in camp and how he’s matured, but we’ll see if that actually shows up on the field. Arias is over 200 pounds and 6’3, so if he can bring a level of consistency to his game, he is one of the few on the roster that could rise to All-Pac-12 level.
Montana Lemonious-Craig is another interesting option. I REALLY liked what I saw from him out of his freshman season. He has a smoothness to his game that allows him to get open often, and he seemed to have a good connection with Brendon Lewis. I expect that we will see plenty of MLC in 2022. One thing that he and Arias have in common is that they are both very good blockers.
Past those two, expect a heavy dose of RJ Sneed (the transfer from Baylor), who will likely start when he’s fully healthy. Sneed is a big body who has proven to be an effective possession receiver at the P5 level. He will get a lot of balls thrown his way. Chase Penry is a freshman who showed up last year and had some flashes as an inside receiver, and we will likely see the same from his this year. I’ve LOVED Maurice Bell since he committed to CU six years ago, and I hope that he finally has the health needed to show out on the field. Bell is a smooth operator who gets open early and can speed down the field. We STUMP FOR BELL IN 2022.
We now turn our attention to the tight end room, our shortest section of the preview. This thing has written itself for the last four-ish years - it’s the Brady Russell show once again. BACK FOR THE 6TH TIME.
Russell’s victory lap will have him as the focal point of the room. He is the best blocker in the room, acting as a 6th lineman at times, and he has continued to work on his pass catching throughout his career. Russell actually had the most catches on last year’s team, with 25. At 6’3 on a good day, Russell may not have the best frame for a tight end, but he has worked his way into an upper-tier player in this conference. It is honestly a huge presence to have on an offense faced with massive upheaval everywhere else. Expect Brady to see the field on every offensive snap.
Behind him is an exciting group of young tight ends that are FINALLY healthy enough to get out there. Caleb Fauria is a name that many Buff fans may recognize (his dad was pretty good, if I recall). He is a receiving weapon that will be used in this new offense, and I think he has the potential to be one of the biggest breakout players in this offense. Fauria is a natural receiver who can gallop downfield, which is something CU has not had at tight end in quite some time. Joining Fauria is Erik Olsen and Austin Smith, who are also huge frames with receiving upside.
We finally get to the much-maligned offensive line. A coaching change here is sure to generate some improvement for this group, who added some top end talent. Going left to right, we have
LT: Jake Wiley
LG: Casey Roddick
C: Austin Johnson
RG: Tommy Brown
RT: Frank Filip
That’s a pretty experienced group of guys, especially on the interior. I am not worried about the middle of this offensive line. Roddick and Brown (the transfer from Alabama) are a great guard tandem. The outside of the line is worrisome. Wiley and Filip are a holdover tackle duo from last year, which gave up plenty of pressure. The most concerning thing about the tackles is the lack of depth. There are no PROVEN options behind Wiley and Filip, so a single injury will really mess this up.
Overall, this unit can only improve year over year. A new offensive coordinator in Mike Sanford will lead to a more pro-style offense, and the exodus of skill position talent may be mitigated by the projected improvement up front. All of this is moot if the QB play is similar to last season. Whether it’s Lewis or Shrout, improvement needs to come, in a big way.