Brooks: OL’s Debut Decent, But Bernardi Expects More
BOULDER – Connor Wood had nothing but praise for Colorado’s offensive line after Sunday’s season-opening win over Colorado State. Of course he did; Wood is CU’s quarterback, and his buddies up front kept him standing tall and off the lawn for the entire game.
Gary Bernardi concurred that the Buffs’ O-line turned in a credible first-game performance in pass protection. But then Bernardi – he’s the O-line coach – added a qualifier: “God forbid that from the first game they don’t have the chance to get better.”
That’s this week’s across-the-board objective for the Buffs: make the first-to-second game improvement that most football coaches point to as the most dramatic of the season. In Bernardi’s area, getting better means continuing to keep Wood upright, relatively untouched and effective. Ant then there's the running game . . .
Wood’s 33 completions accounted for 400 yards and three touchdowns in the 41-27 victory against the Rams, and Bernardi noted, “Considering it was the first game and a team that wanted to put pressure on us, I think (his O-line) responded pretty well. But there’s obviously a lot of things we need to get better doing.”
After what was close to a total rebuild up front, Bernardi opened with center Gus Handler, guards Kaiwi Crabb (left) and Daniel Munyer and tackles Jack Harris (left) and Stephane Nembot. Crabb, a junior making his first career start, said the O-line communicated well and was mostly efficient for a first game: “I felt good, felt we played well and were prepared.”
Crabb, said Bernardi, “did an excellent job preparing. I thought he carried it over into the game as well as anybody.”
All the other O-line starters came in with more game experience, although in Harris’ case it was on the right side (guard and tackle) in his junior season rather than on the left. Munyer, a junior, had started at both guard and center over the past two seasons but was coming off a spring leg injury that limited his August practice time. Nembot opened seven games at right tackle last season while Handler saw his junior season abbreviated by a pair of injuries but started at center in five games.
Bernardi said Nembot continues to make progress and called the opener “an eye-opener” for the 6-7, 305-pound sophomore because of his significant number of plays (83) over four quarters. “He’s never played that many consecutive plays in his life,” Bernardi said. “He didn’t get to play 100 plays in Pop Warner football.
“I don’t want to say he survived, but the fact he was able to play all of those plays and compete without it being a massacre (was good). It’s still a little bit of a roller coaster with him, but the valleys aren’t as deep – I guess that would be the best way to put it.”
Nembot wasn’t alone in having a high number of total plays. Handler, Handler and Munyer also were in on all 83 snaps, while Crabb played 82 of the 83.
But Nembot was more pleased with the win than his performance. “It was a good beginning with a ‘W’ but I have a lot of work to do,” he said, pointing specifically to his pass protection. “I need better technique and footwork.”
He said his run blocking “is a little better compared to (pass protection). I’m required now to use a lot of technique in run blocking. I used to just go down and knock people down. But (now) it might be the wrong guy.”
CU’s switch to the pistol offense, said Nembot, has created “very different” blocking assignments than last season. Targeting who to block often changes on the fly, or as Nembot said: “The guy that you see first might go away and then you have to find a new guy. I have to learn to use my footwork and find the new guy that I need to block . . . that’s going to be more difficult and technique-based.”
It’s all part of what Bernardi calls “recognition on the run” – and that applies specifically to the run game, which netted 113 total yards in the opener. Bernardi wants his linemen to “strain to finish our blocks and be a little more aware of what the running back is looking at. Block the second level players, the linebackers. We need to see that a little better.”
He spent extra time at the conclusion of Wednesday’s practice reinforcing that idea of “understanding where the back is going, what he’s seeing. We’ve been doing it (in practice) and seeing the second-level players. It’s just a matter of the game, with bullets flying, everything you try and practice against the defense and then that defense isn’t lined up exactly the way we practiced it. And obviously it’s going a heck of a lot faster than it is with the scout team.”
The Buffs are preparing this week for Saturday’s home opener at Folsom Field (6 p.m., Pac-12 Network) against the University of Central Arkansas, a FCS opponent currently ranked No. 5 in that subdivision of college football. The Bears’ defensive front has the full attention of Bernardi and his group. The defensive ends are 6-6, 271-pound sophomore Johanthan Woodard and 6-0, 265-pound senior Markeith Gaines. Playing inside are 6-2, 281-pound senior tackle Matt Hornbuckle and 6-3, 291-pound junior nose man T.J. Randall. The Bears averaged 2.5 quarterback sacks last season and had a pair in last week’s blowout win (58-7) against Incarnate Word.
“They are very good, very athletic,” Nembot said. “I have to prepare myself for that. They’re very sound and know exactly what to do.”
Crabb echoed that: “They’re very athletic and big. They’re big on the inside, the play low and fire off the ball well. It’ll take good technique and hard work to keep them under control.”
Bernardi agrees with all of the above, but believes what makes the Bears especially formidable is their experience – specifically their experience at winning. “The thing I really respect about them is they have a lot of guys who have played a lot of games and have won a lot of games. That’s what I really respect,” he said. “Their front seven plays hard and tough. But they’ve won a lot of games. I don’t care what level you’re on, when you’ve won a lot of games you usually play pretty confident.”
The Bears finished 9-3 last season, but enjoyed winning streaks of three and six games before losing in the second round of the NCAA Division I playoffs to eventual runner-up Georgia Southern. UCA is 25-11 over the past three seasons.