Thursday, August 27, 2015

Colorado Buffaloes 2015 Season Preview

Nine years of losing seasons has worn thin on the Buffs faithful.  The history is too painful to re-live, so it's time to move onward and upward, like Folsom Field has.  The 2014 season brought on new seating on the North end of Folsom field with the Touchdown Club and Champions Club level seating.  In fact, nails, concrete dust, forms amongst other things were evident in CU's first home game last season.  The work that was seen for that first home game against Arizona State was just part of a work in progress for the bigger picture and similar to how 2014 went.  The Buffs went into 2014 with very few expectations and that's exactly what Buffs fans got, but like the Champions Center, improvements to Dal Ward and Indoor Practice Facility, Buffs fans saw progress and better things to come during the 2014 season.  After losing six conference games by over 22 points (and as much as 52 points) in 2013 and average margin of defeat in all conference games of nearly 24 points, the Buffs average margin of defeat was just under 14 points in conference play in 2014.  The Buffs only lost two games by over 15 points in 2014 and lost four games by 5 points or fewer.  So while their 2-10 record and winless conference record look abysmal, you have to look a little deeper to see the Buffs were a much better 2-10 team in 2014 than the 4-8 team of 2013.

In 2015 Colorado Football fans will see a Champions Center and updated Dal Ward that are completed but the overall project will still have the completion of the Indoor Practice Facility and Underground Parking Garage to be completed Early 2016.  Colorado football fans will also most likely see an incomplete product on the field, but near completion of the turnaround Head Coach Mike MacIntyre and CU fans envisioned when Rick George was brought on board as Athletic Director and helped to change the culture of Colorado Athletics.  But this isn't about how amazing Rick George is, since that is a blog in itself (coming soon), but about the 2015 Colorado Football Season.

So we start our journey in to the 2015 season by breaking down the team:

Colorado's most significant losses on offense were the departure of two senior offensive lineman Daniel Munyer and Kaiwi Crabb.   The two were the most consistent players on the offensive line in 2014 and didn't do anything to wow you or have you pulling your hair, they were solid.  Fortunately, the Buffs have recruited well and have a trio of replacements looking to fill the two spots.  In years past, the Buffs may have looked to incoming 4-star Tim Lynott Jr. to fill the void but Shane Callahan, Sam Kronshage and Gerrad Kough should see the majority of those snaps and the Buffs should be able to redshirt Lynott.  The Buffs OL is anchored by returning starters, LT-Jeromy Irwin, C-Alex Kelley and RT-Stephane Nembot.  Nembot is the only Senior and appears to be the size of a pickup truck.  Nembot has NFL size and ability and his play at season's end provided some hope that 2015 would be a special year for him.

The Buffs two offensive line departures were not their only losses as running back Tony Jones, slot receiver DD Goodson and hybrid wide receiver Tyler McCulloch  (aka TyGucci) eligibility ended.  The positive is the RB corp was already deep and have added two talented freshman in Patrick Carr and Dino Gordon to the mix.  Right now the way the rock will be shared is a question with Christian Powell back for his senior year after leading the Buffs in rushing over the last 3 seasons, Phillip Lindsay adding some mass to his frame and Michael Adkins II hoping to stay healthy for a season and show some of the flashes from his freshman season.  The best thing of this group is it got better even after losing it's second leading rusher in Jones.

While the departures of the 3rd and 4th leading receiver would typically hurt, the amount of talent and speed that are available in 2015 will allow the Buffs to not miss a beat.  Nelson Spruce, owner of too many accolades to list, returns for his final season with the Buffs after setting numerous receiving records in 2014.  Shay Fields returns off a Buffs freshman record, 50 catch season, and will be a key benefactor in any teams trying to prevent Spruce from getting his catches.  The group behind them are Bryce Bobo, Devin Ross and Donovan Lee.  All bring something different with Bobo being the tallest of the group but having strength and speed combination to go with it.  It's not fair to compare but having seen Bobo as a true freshman to this year, the way he cuts on a dime and turns it upfield and the way he can contort his body is reminiscent of former Buff great Paul Richardson.  Bobo played injured in 2014 and a healthy 2015 could spell difficult for opposing secondary's.  Devin Ross played his true freshman season sparingly and took last year to redshirt and trust his hands a little more.  All signs point to 2015 being a solid season for him.  Donovan Lee showed some flashes in 2014 when he filled the slot position while Goodson took a break.  Lee should be that 5-8 yard quick slant/flat that the slot receiver has become vital for.

Colorado had very limited production from the Tight End role in 2014 with the position only accounting for 18 catches.  The Buffs have junior tight end Sean Irwin that will fill the role he did last year of added blocking/limited pass catching and two redshirt freshman in Hayden Jones and Dylan Keeney that will look to make the tight end more than just an afterthought.  Keeney is built a lot like McCulloch and may fill that slot Tight End role, while Jones is a taller version or Irwin and will most likely spell Irwin.  Both Keeney and Jones have the height you want in a tight end making it impossible for  the shorter LBs/secondary to keep from making that catch in that seam splitting corner/post route or at the sticks comeback route.  Having this group be productive may be the key in keeping the offense from having those momentum killing 3 and outs.

The Buffs are set at quarterback as far as having a starter in his third season in Sefo Liufau.  Liufau was very productive in 2014 but his game killing turnovers have to be minimized this year after being part of the problem in losses versus half a dozen teams.  Liufau must be the dagger in 2015 by sustaining drives and limiting those turnovers.  He has a full cupboard of options with a solid running game, wide receiving corp with the most speed CU has had since their Big XII title run in 2001.  Behind Liufau are Jordan Gehrke, Cade Apsay and Steven Montez.  The hope is none of them have to see the field in anything but clean up duty.  Montez is intriguing in 2017, but a redshirt year and chomping at the bit in 2016 is what CU fans need to see in order for 2015 to show signs of success.  #13 can no longer be unlucky for the Buffs.

The key component to the offense is a staff that has not lost anyone from this group with Troy Walters showing his coaching ability may be as good or better than his play making ability as a former Biletnikoff winner at Stanford and 9-year NFL veteran.  Klayton Adams has motivated a RB/TE group with his engaging personality and enthusiasm as a coach, Gary Bernardi (Michael Douglas' long lost cousin) has improved the offensive line play and Offensive Coordinator/QB coach Brian Lindgren has made the Buffs offense look dynamic at times.  Of course you are going to question a guys play calling as a fan but other than that damn 2 yard flat route when the Buffs need 8 yards, Lindgren will be tough to keep on staff with smaller FBS/FCS schools probably kicking his tires to take over if the Buffs again show improvement.

The Buffs lost DT Josh Tupou to a season long suspension due to his involvement in a fight at a party as spring camp was about to begin along with the graduation of Juda Parker.  The other key losses are limited to mainly Greg Henderson and Brady Daigh.  Henderson was CUs most consistent corner over his 4-year career, but a changing of the guard happened in 2014 with Kenneth Crawley proving to be his equal much of 2014.  Daigh was a back-up but filled in admirably when Addison Gillam's injuries got the most out of him.  Daigh was a great run stopping LB but teams took advantage of his limited pass defending ability at times.  Gillam is a better all over the field player, but he has to be healthy and keep weight on to be that player.

The Buffs defense most likely will be a Hybrid 3-4 with the changing of the guard, gone is Kent Baer's vanilla defense that did little improvement from what Buff fans have been used to seeing for far too long in giving up an atrocious amount of yards and points.  Andy LaRussa left with him but the Buffs improved as a staff adding Jim Leavitt and Joe Tumpkin.  The energy, persona and positivity out of Jim Leavitt is electrifying and it's tough not to get excited about what he brings to the table.  He is a coach that turned around a defense at Kansas State into the nation's top defense and made the University of Southern Florida go from Division I-AA average team to a Top 25 program D-1A team leading USF to a 95-57 record in his tenure.  Tumpkin goes from defensive coordinator at Central Michigan to safeties coach at Colorado.  The Buffs fans hate the term home run hire but Leavitt was the guy in left field that no one expected to be named Defensive Coordinator and Buff fans have had a smile on their face since.  Hopefully that smile isn't wiped off until at least Oregon in 2015 or the Buffs dreams of a bowl game could be wiped away, but we'll get to that later.

On the defensive line, there are a lot of ability but not the most experience.  Samson Kafovalu returns after a year away from the team and showed a ton of promise to end 2013.  A 5-technique in a 3-4 is a great fit for his added bulk.  Senior Justin Solis should anchor the Defensive Line and will need to go from rotation player to main contributor at Nose Tackle.  The other 5-technique will most likely be JUCO transfers Jordan Carrell and Leo Jackson with hybrid OLB/DEs contributing as well.  Jase Franke is a large young man that may have seen the field as true freshman in years past but a redshirt will help his first contributions be greater.  He will be part of that rotation as well.  Eddy Lopez got some playing time in 2014 as a true freshman and will be Solis' main back-up.  Blake Robbins is also intriguing a junior college transfer that is intriguing coming off a 3-4 type defense.  He may take a little longer to contribute but he has good talent for a player in only his fourth year of football and he will move between DE and OLB in this system.   The group will have to grow up quickly with an experienced Hawaii offensive line off the bat and in-state rival CSU having a solid offensive line over the past few seasons.

At Linebacker, the Buffs bring back plenty of experience but must take over this team in the 3-4.  Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode return as the Buffs leading tacklers.  Gillam's numbers were deflated by missing large chunks of time and his health (recovering from mono, concussions and injuries).  Both were undersized but have put on enough weight to have that be less of an issue.  Both can play 3 downs and help all over the field.  The concern is how will players transition to their new positions on the outside and how deep or thin is this group?

The positive is the Buffs had a great deal of 3-4 Rush OLB type prospects that were playing Defensive End.  Both Derek McCartney and Jimmie Gilbert should see a bump in sack production with the transition to being on their feet rather than 3 point stance every play.  Some intriguing OLB players are QB turned OLB Jaleel Awini and transfer Deaysean Rippy who is a former 4-star prospect that has not seen the field much.  Terran Hasselbach, a rested Timothy Coleman and  In the middle the Buffs will need contributions from first year players Grant Watanbe (greyshirt) and NJ Falo.  Both are built like seniors instead of freshman but how they play in the speed of the college game should be interesting. Rick Gamboa and Christian Shaver are two other inside guys that will get reps and push the guys ahead of them.  It is an interesting mix that will have to get acclimated to their new roles quickly.  The health of Gillam is the key to whether this defense can take the next step or is left spinning its wheels.

The secondary may be the deepest it has been since the early 2000s, much like the Wide Receiving corp.  Cornerback has returning starters in Chidobe Awuzie and Kenneth Crawley.  Their back-ups in John Walker and Ahkello Witherspoon have good Pac 12 game experience and will see regular playing time during Nickel/Dime packages.  Newcomer JUCO transfer Afolabi Laguda is good depth to have to play either corner or safety.  There is little talk and hope of former 4-start prospect Yuri Wright contributing.  The main thing fans and staff would like to see is the cornerback group contributing via Turnovers.  The Buffs have not had much success over the past 3 seasons in causing interceptions.

At Safety the Buffs have a group of Tedric Thompson, Evan White, Jered Bell, former walk-on Ryan Moeller and Laguda competing for 4 spots.  Thompson was the heart of the secondary it seemed.  The teams performance declined heavily when he wasn't on the field.  The Cal game and Arizona games are both very showing of that.  Bringing Bell back for his 6th year is huge for this team.  In 2013 he was CUs best safety and is a strong presence in the locker room and on the field.  The depth and experience from this group can weather an injury where it was a dagger in years past that required RBs and WRs to switch positions late in the season under other regimes.  This staff knows secondary is key to success in a pass heavy Pac 12.

Special Teams
This is the Achilles heel that all Buffs fans are cringing even thinking about.  The Buffs lose their Punter and Kicker in Darragh O'Neil and Will Oliver and replace them with a kicker from Mexico that has never kicked at the big level, a former walk-on and a true freshman that was raised in Rams country with Nebraska red but chose to challenge himself and go to a real school in CU.  Diego Gonzalez, Chris Graham and Alex Kinney will have to grow up quickly and adjust to the Pac 12 level quickly.  Early season foes Hawaii and CSU use special teams to turn the tide in games against more talented teams often.  The coverage units for the Buffs return a ton of experience but they will have to be better early in the season than they have been under Toby Neinas.  The return duties could go to anyone.  Nelson Spruce is sure handed but not dynamic in punt return, while Shay Fields can be more dynamic with his speed but didn't show too much.  Lee Walker is intriguing if healthy with his electric speed.  Kickoff Return was improved last year but the Buffs must not have costly turnovers.  Phillip Lindsay and Patrick Carr would make for the most exciting guys along with Walker.

Season Outlook
The Buffs should be improved on offense from an already solid unit.  Eliminating turnovers and  short drives will be what makes that improvement be either minor or major.  On defense there is no way but up and the experience returning in the key area of secondary (ask the past 2 NFL champs how key a deep secondary is) and a reinvigorated coaching staff should see a defense that is in the 70s-80s ranking which can still spell bowl game for a team that puts up points like the Buffs can.  Special Teams is nerve racking but the Buffs have not had to replace two starters in one season.  Kinney has to get rid of his punts faster than the high school and practice speed he is used to and the kickers need to be automatic on PATs and be able to make 9 out of 10 inside 40 yards or there will be more pressure put on the offense.

at Hawaii-W
Hawaii loses both coordinators and the strength of their defense in their defensive line.  Their offense should be improved.  Still, Hawaii doesn't have the talent or team speed to compete against Power 5 conference teams. 
UMass has a very solid offense and made the Buffs pay for coming out flat.  Their travel to Boulder will not allow them the same advantages and while UMass is a better team in 2015, it's not as much as CU is. 
I respect what CSU has done, but it is a two year window with one of those years having a loss to CU.   The Rams are 4-5 against the Buffs in their worse 9 year stretch ever.  The Rams have an extremely talented and one of the nations top playmakers in Rashard Higgins.  They lose their top two tacklers... and their now SEC head coach and NFL Left Tackle and Quarterback.  Their coach has been at the same school and coached under the same coach for the majority of his coaching career and their quarterback.  He may be a damn good coach but it will not be a seamless transition.  Buffs win and cover whatever the spread will be.
Bring on the Ducks at 4-0.
Buffs will not be boat raced but the excitement and buzz is met by realizing the Buffs still need another year at least.
at Arizona State-L
Probably the most arrogant head coach there is in the Pac 12.  Buffs had a shot and wasted it last year.  It will be nice to see them play Arizona State tough on the road but no win in the desert.
CU has been on the cusp against the Wildcats and Arizona was just like a fly that wouldn't die and worked their magic to take a Pac 12 South that beat each other up.  Arizona State and USC won't falter this year.  The Wildcats will and CU will shock the world getting to 5-2.
at Oregon State-W
Even if the Buffs end up losing against Arizona, they face an OSU team that is scrambling after Mike Riley left them void of talent.  Anderson is a hell of a coach but it won't matter.  Buffs get a road win in the Pac 12!
This is a tough call since CU had UCLA down but didn't make the most of their chance in 2014.  UCLA starts a true freshman that may be great but it won't matter with the talent Mora has recruited.  Mora is not a great coach and at home, CU would push UCLA and actually keep them down.
Kevin Hogan is in what seems his 5th year as Stanford's starting QB.  David Shaw is a solid coach but his team is slowly declining without a true magician like Jim Harbaugh.  2016 the Buffs will get them back at their home.  Buffs shake the tree but can't knock it down.
USC has Kessler and while Sarkisian has a bottle of that "Smooth as Silk" Whiskey in his desk, his QB is all USC needs.  USC has finally got off probation and will use it do their full advantage.  Similar loss to Oregon, not pretty but not a blow out.
at Washington State-W
Mike Leach will be fired after this game because his curse against CU (and Colorado schools in general) leads him to lock the AD in the closet.
at Utah-W
The Buffs cause another coach to get canned with Kyle Whittingham's constant revolving door of coordinators finally biting him in the ass and his AD has decided he has worn out his welcome with the Utes going 4-8 on the season.

Buffs somehow go 8-5 and CSU fans are quiet another year.  Order is being restored on the Front Range for college football.   Honestly, I am not sure about 8-5.  I see 4 Wins, 4.5 Maybes and 3.5 Sure Losses, so the Buffs could only be 5-8.  Either way, the improvement continues.  Those that believe the Buffs should be content with four wins are expecting the same results and no improvement.  From Rick George to Mike MacIntyre to the team and coaches and beyond, the expectations can no longer be getting better but getting Wins.  After seeing that culture change/change of tune from the team, a bowl game is a real possibility in 2015.