Kudos to @ChantelJennings for that analysis ** -- BuffsIn2019 07/10/2019 3:53PM
From the Athletic.
Part of a continuing series examining the Power 5 and top Group of 5 teams for the 2019 college football season.
There was a point in Boulder during spring practice that first-year coach Mel Tucker looked around at his staff, many of whom didn’t know one another before these jobs, and his players, the large majority of whom had met only him a few months earlier, and had a realization: Everything was happening more smoothly than he had anticipated.
“Everything was really organized and efficient,” Tucker said. “And I thought that we got better pretty much every day we were out there.”
Which was a good sign for Tucker, because his biggest priority this spring was getting the nuances to operate the way he wanted (and that would be nearly impossible if the largest systems weren’t acting efficiently).
“Winning and losing games … it comes down to the little things in terms of being disciplined, and obviously you have to have talent, but also, being conditioned, how hard you play, how smart you play, playing together as a team,” Tucker said. “All of those things are really what make the difference between being able to win the game … or falling short.”
In his past four years — the previous three of which were spent at Georgia, and before that, a season at Alabama — he had seen how important it was to execute in those close games. In those four seasons, he had coached 15 games that were decided by a score or less, and his teams had gone 8-7. (In the other 42 games with Georgia and Alabama, Tucker was 38-4.)
And now, he comes to Colorado, where the Buffs have been far less successful than Tucker’s squads in Athens and Tuscaloosa. Though Colorado had a similar number of close games in the past four seasons (16 games decided by a score or less, going 8-8), in the other 35 games over that span, the Buffaloes went 16-19.
So, Tucker wanted to make sure that his first spring at Colorado was spent emphasizing the big and little things. Because while the big things will help the Buffs get close — which they haven’t done often in recent history — the little things will help them win once they get there.
Biggest on-field question
With arguably the best offensive playmaker in the Pac-12 in junior wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. and a veteran quarterback in senior Steven Montez, it seems fair to say that the strength of this team in Year 1 under Tucker is going to be the pass game. Though Colorado might not secure all of its wins by simply outscoring opponents, it does feel as though this year could be one when the offense is leaned on more heavily (and within that, the passing game).
But for Montez and Shenault to connect, the rest of the offense needs to function at a high level.
Despite playing only nine games, Laviska Shenault Jr. still led the Pac-12 with 86 receptions last season. (Joe Mahoney / Getty Images)
Everything starts with the offensive line, and that group is going to be ushering in several new faces after the departures of Aaron Haigler (27 career starts), Josh Kaiser (15 career starts) and Brett Tonz (six career starts). Those departures hurt more considering Haigler and Tonz departed before exhausting their eligibility.
At running back, the Buffs lose their two top backs from 2018 and don’t return a single running back with more than 12 career rushes (Beau Bisharat, who has 57 career rushes, has moved to tight end).
The tight end position, which Tucker has pledged to use far more in the offense, will be a new piece within this unit, one that complements the wide receivers well (though the most productive pass-catching tight end in Minnesota’s offense — the last time CU offensive coordinator Jay Johnson coordinated an offense — caught an average of just one pass per game).
Shenault is surrounded by talented wide receivers. Senior Tony Brown and junior K.D. Nixon, a former high school teammate of Shenault’s who can be almost as dangerous, could be huge weapons against Pac-12 defenses. Tucker thought that both redshirt freshman Dimitri Stanley and sophomore Jaylon Jackson had really good spring practices.
In 2018, no Pac-12 South team finished among the FBS top 50 in pass defense. Montez, Shenault and Co. could be a unit that exposes those groups in 2019, but their success depends largely on whether the other position groups that surround them — full of less-experienced and lesser-known players — can live up to the expectations Tucker is trying to establish.
Depth chart analysis
Quarterback: Senior Steven Montez has 27 career starts under his belt, and in 2018 he completed 65 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,849 yards, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. While there is no question about the starter here, the backup position is where this battle becomes more intriguing, as the 2019 backup will likely be the future face of this program. Junior Sam Noyer and sophomore Tyler Lytle competed through spring ball, but the wild card here is redshirt freshman Blake Stenstrom. The son of former NFL quarterback Steve Stenstrom, Blake Stenstrom was injured this spring but will be back this fall. If he were able to push his way into the backup position, he could be the next three-year starter in Boulder.
Running back: Sophomore Alex Fontenot looked solid through spring as the Buffs searched for their lead back after losing their top two ballcarriers from a season ago — Travon McMillian (201 carries) and Kyle Evans (69 carries). Freshman early enrollees Jaren Mangham and Joe Davis had terrific spring practices. Redshirt freshmen Deion Smith and Jarek Broussard are also in competition for carries. This is a position group that could employ a by-committee approach.
Wide receiver: This is the deepest position group on the Buffs’ roster, but make no mistake, the headliner here is junior Laviska Shenault Jr. Despite playing in only nine games in 2018, he finished with 86 catches (tied for the 13th most among FBS receivers) and his 112 receiving yards per game were the fourth-most among FBS receivers. Shenault leads a deep group of outside receivers like junior K.D. Nixon, senior Tony Brown, sophomore Maurice Bell and sophomore Daniel Arias on the outside. At slot receiver, redshirt freshman Dimitri Stanley, who preserved his redshirt last season after appearing in just two games in 2018, and sophomore Jaylon Jackson will be targets for Montez.
Tight end: Tucker wants to involve the tight end more often this season. Auburn grad transfer Jalen Harris played in 42 games for the Tigers, instantly making him one of Colorado’s most experienced players. He’ll be used more as a blocking tight end while redshirt sophomore Brady Russell will be more of a pass catcher. Senior Beau Bisharat, who was the Buffs’ top recruit in the 2016 class, switched from running back to H-back this spring and will contribute here.
Offensive line: Last season the Buffs’ offensive line used eight starting lineups in 12 games. This year, don’t expect nearly as much rotation simply because there just aren’t enough bodies. At left tackle, Oklahoma State grad transfer Arlington Hambright should slot in, kicking sophomore William Sherman — who made eight starts at left tackle in 2018 — over to right tackle. On the interior, expect the starters to be junior left guard Kary Kutsch (who made one start at right guard in 2018), senior center Tim Lynott Jr. (who made seven starts at guard positions in 2018) and sophomore right guard Colby Pursell (who started all 12 games at center a season ago). The Buffs will miss Brett Tonz, who had a year of eligibility remaining but retired because of injury. However, the three Buffs who played the most downs on the O-line a season ago (Pursell, Sherman and Lynott) will provide important leadership as this group grows together. Providing depth along the line will be sophomore Frank Fillip at the tackle spots and redshirt freshman Casey Roddick, sophomore Heston Paige and freshman Austin Johnson on the inside.
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Defensive line: Junior Mustafa Johnson led the Buffs with 8.5 sacks a season ago and he’ll anchor one side of the defensive line. With 673 snaps played in 2018, he’s the most experienced player in the Buffs’ front seven. On the other end, sophomore Terrance Lang, who played in 11 games a season ago, will step into departed transfer Israel Antwine’s spot. At 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, redshirt freshman nose tackle Jalen Sami is the largest defender for the Buffs, and he’ll anchor the middle of the line. Sophomore junior college transfer Jeremiah Doss was around for spring ball and will provide key experience on the end. But this position group was low on numbers this spring, so fall camp should provide more clarity, especially in terms of the two-deep. Keep an eye on junior college transfer Janaz Jordan as well as true freshmen Lloyd Murray Jr., Austin Williams and Na’im Rodman because first-year guys will play here.
Linebacker: At outside linebacker, sophomore Carson Wells and senior Nu’umotu Falo Jr. should start. Wells had six starts a season ago and was active as a pass-rusher, finishing the 2018 season with 4.5 sacks (second-most among Colorado defenders). Behind those two, redshirt sophomore Jacob Callier and senior Alex Tchangam should get some reps. As a part of Tucker’s hope for an aggressive defense, he also plans to use senior Davion Taylor — who played 641 downs a season ago — as a hybrid outside linebacker/nickel/safety-type position that would give him the opportunity to make plays all over the field. Last season, Taylor was third on the team with 75 tackles and led the unit with 11 tackles for a loss. On the inside, the Buffs return junior Nathan Landman, who was the leading tackler on the 2018 team (104). Junior college transfer Jash Allen, who has two seasons of eligibility in Boulder, should step into the spot that was vacated by Rick Gamboa. Depth at the inside linebacker positions will be provided by junior Akil Jones and sophomore Jonathan Van Diest.
Defensive backfield: At corner, sophomore Chris Miller and senior Delrick Abrams Jr. return. Miller made three starts in 2018, while Abrams started eight games. They’ll be backed up by junior Mekhi Blackmon and freshman K.J. Trujillo. Dante Wigley, who started seven games at cornerback a season ago, won’t return for his final year of eligibility. At safety, juniors Aaron Maddox and Trey Udoffia ended the spring atop the depth chart, but SMU grad transfer Mikial Onu — who started 20 games (appearing in 36) for the Mustangs in his three-year career there — could come in and provide an instant talent and experience infusion into this secondary.
Special teams: At punter, there will be an open competition between redshirt senior Alex Kinney, who played only four games last season due to a collarbone injury (and also had one of the strongest mullets in college football), and the player who replaced Kinney after his injury, senior Davis Price. At kicker, Aussie junior James Stefanou returns. Last season, he was perfect on extra points (30-of-30) and was brought in only eight times to attempt a field goal (he made five of those, including 2-of-3 from 40-plus yards). Ronnie Blackmon, who handled most kick and punt returns during the 2018 season, is gone, and because the Buffs didn’t do live returns during spring ball, it’s tough to say who is going to get the call here. But it’s fair to assume these two spots will come down to wide receivers Dimitri Stanley and K.D. Nixon.
How the Buffaloes recruited from 2016-19
Using 247Sports’ Composite rankings, here is how Colorado’s recruiting classes have fared nationally and within the Pac-12 over the past four years:
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Upon Tucker’s arrival, he was given a benefit that his predecessors never had (or, it’s probably better to say that a roadblock that his predecessors had to deal with was no longer is in his way).
In the mid-’90s, the Colorado state legislature eliminated all multi-year contracts at public universities, meaning that no coach in any sport at Colorado or Colorado State had more than a single year on their contracts. By the late ’90s, it had been amended, allowing first three, then six multi-year contracts to be approved at a single institution, and even though a majority of those contracts at Colorado went to football, it still left the athletic department with several contract negotiations every offseason and little job security for the coaches.
And up until two years ago, that was the reality for the Buffs and it hurt them in recruiting players and coaches. But in March 2017, then Colorado governor (and current Democratic presidential nominee hopeful) John Hickenlooper signed a bill into law that allowed an exemption to both Colorado and Colorado State’s athletic departments, finally putting these two schools on level ground with the rest of college football. (At that point, only five of the Colorado coaches had been on multi-year contracts.)
As a first-year coach, Tucker said, this matters. The question of job security comes up a lot on the recruiting trail. For a long time, some Colorado coaches weren’t able to really give a great answer to that question. But now, with all of the Buff coaches on multi-year contracts under Tucker, they’re able to discuss longevity and job security far better with recruits and families.
“The prospects and the parents, they’re all trying to figure out ‘Where’s a place that I can go that offers me the best environment with the coaching staff and the team? Where am I going to be comfortable? Where am I going to have certainty and continuity?’ They don’t want instability,” Tucker said. “With that, the terms of the coaching contract do come up quite a bit.”
That factor certainly isn’t the only reason why the Buffs have averaged the Pac-12’s 10th-best recruiting class since joining the conference in 2011. But, it was a handcuff that was on the Buffs that wasn’t on other teams in the league as they joined a new conference.
Now, on an even playing field (at least in terms of contracts), Tucker said he feels confident that the multi-year contracts show the commitment level of the athletic department to the coaching staff, and he knows that matters to recruits and their parents.
“It shows commitment to the coaching staff,” Tucker said. “And that’s what the other schools are doing also so you’re not putting yourself at a disadvantage because of a contract situation. … I think people would try to use that against you in recruiting, but we don’t have to worry about that now.”
Even with a late start, Tucker ultimately signed the nation’s 44th-ranked class in 2019 thanks to a host of talented junior college transfers like four-star inside linebacker Jashua Allen, the No. 11 junior college prospect in the country.
Impact of coaching changes
Since the turn of the century, every head coach at Colorado has either had ties to the Buffs or had established a successful program in the West.
But neither Tucker nor his coordinators — Jay Johnson on offense and Tyson Summers on defense — have been West Coast coaches prior to their tenures in Boulder. The farthest West any of them had ever been was the University of Kansas (Johnson, 1997-2001), so Tucker knew that when it came to institutional knowledge with his hiring, he would need a bit of help.
Tucker wanted to have some coaches on staff who had those kinds of Western ties, and he found a few from the previous staff:
Running backs coach Darian Hagan: A California native and four-year member of the Buffs, Hagan finished his Colorado career with almost 4,000 passing yards and more than 2,000 rushing yards. He has also spent every year of his coaching career in Boulder (2005: offensive assistant; 2006-10: running backs coach; 2016-present: running backs coach)
Wide receivers coach Darrin Chiaverini: A fifth-round NFL Draft selection in 1999, Chiaverini left Boulder as the Buffs’ No. 7 all-time receiver. After his four-year NFL career, Chiaverini became a coach and over his 13-year career has spent all of it in Texas, California and Colorado.
Inside linebackers coach/special teams coordinator Ross Els: Though he spent most of his coaching career in the Midwest, Els came to Colorado in the same capacity in 2017 under Mike MacIntyre. In both of his years on staff, an inside linebacker has finished as the leading or second-leading tackler on the team.
Those coaches, in addition to the ones that Tucker brought to Boulder who don’t have as much history here, have created a nice blend of styles and perspectives.
“Each one of those guys really wanted to be here,” Tucker said of his coaching staff. “When I hired the staff and interviewed guys and talked to guys, I never wanted to feel like I had to talk anyone into staying or coming. All of our guys really wanted to be here.”
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No Pac-12 team will play all three of its nonconference games at home this season, but Colorado comes close with two home games and its annual matchup with Colorado State being played in Denver, just 28 miles southeast of Boulder. Between that rivalry game and home games against Nebraska and Air Force, the Buffs have an opportunity not only to build momentum early but also to generate optimism among the fan base.
“It’s always important to win at home, and it’s important to get off to a fast start,” Tucker said. “Our schedule will give us an opportunity to do both of those things.”
The Buffs get well-placed idle Saturdays during Weeks 5 and 12 ahead of matchups against Arizona and Washington.
They also face two short weeks during the season — in October, their Saturday game against Arizona is followed up by a Friday road trip to Oregon on Oct. 11, and later that month a road game at Washington State on a Saturday is followed up by a Friday home game against USC.
The least-fortunate part of Colorado’s schedule is that the Buffs miss the two weakest opponents in the cross-divisional rotation (Cal and Oregon State). Instead, they face Oregon and Washington State on the road in October and Stanford and Washington at home in November.
As long as USC continues to get in its own way, it won’t be able to take advantage of its recruiting reach and inherent edge in dominating its division. That means, for the foreseeable future (and thus far in the Pac-12), the Pac-12 South is wide open and ripe for the picking.
So, why not Colorado?
Tucker has already shown an ability to extend Colorado’s reach on the recruiting trail, bringing in a class with players outside of the typical Colorado footprint (two players from Michigan, two players from Mississippi, and one each from Kansas and Georgia). On top of that, he attracted five transfers, including four from Power 5 institutions.
It takes a few years to build a program and there wasn’t a ton of depth — especially on the lines — left in Boulder when he arrived, so the process could take a bit longer. But if Tucker is able to supplement the roster with junior college players and grad transfers, guys who are a bit further along in terms of experience, he could try to pull even with the rest of the conference until he builds what he really believes could become the go-to school in the Pac-12 South.
In terms of what to expect in 2019, it’s hard to say exactly. Montez is one of the better quarterbacks in the conference and should be surrounded by playmakers (specifically, in Shenault, one of the best in the nation), which could make this offense really fun to watch if the offensive line can provide enough time for him in the pocket. Defensively, this unit is lacking on experienced talent and will likely turn to a lot of transfers and first-year guys, which could be hit or miss off the bat.
A bowl trip would be a great first step in Year 1 of the Tucker era. With an explosive player like Shenault on the roster, it seems like a decent bet.
(Top photo of Mel Tucker: Andy Schlichting / Colorado Athletics)
Posted: 07/10/2019 at 10:12AM
From the Athletic. -- HooYahBUFF 07/10/2019 10:12AM
Now that’s in depth analysis -- Visionary Buff 07/10/2019 11:34AM
Key will be staying healthy at OL, DB, DL, QB and Shenault** -- 241Volcano 07/10/2019 10:49AM
That's a lot of positions. Says how thin we are across the board. -- EBN 07/10/2019 3:46PM
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