Brooks: Buffs’ Spring QB Competition Has Heated Up
BOULDER – This might sound like the usual spring song and resemble the usual spring dance, but the quarterback competition at the University of Colorado will run through the summer and possibly well into August camp.
Ho-hum? April business as usual, no QB surprises come September? Maybe, but maybe not . . . it’s best to stay tuned.
No, incumbent Sefo Liufau doesn’t have a lock on the starting job. Yes, Jordan Gehrke is providing the precise brand of spring competition that coaches envisioned when Gehrke signed on last May.
“And I think Sefo sees it,” offensive coordinator/QB coach Brian Lindgren told me on Monday. “Jordan’s an athletic guy. When things break down he’s done a nice job of making plays with his feet or keeping his options and finding somebody downfield. I’ve been really pleased with how he’s picked up the offense. Coming out of the first 11 practices I think he’s definitely pushing Sefo on a daily basis.”
Liufau agreed: “There’s a lot of competition; he’s pushing me every day. (Gehrke) has improved a lot since last fall in every aspect. If I look over my shoulder, I know he’s there.”
Does that mean the competition will be kept open after Saturday’s spring game and for the foreseeable future? Perhaps predictably but certainly truthfully, Lindgren answered, “Yeah . . . with us, that’s the way (coach Mike MacIntyre) wants it. The competition is always going at every position. We’re trying to bring Jordan along and give him reps with the ‘ones’ . . . I’m excited; I think he’s still got a lot of room to develop between now and fall camp, with the work he can do this summer on his own.”
If you’ve followed the three-ring circus that has been the CU QB position for the last several seasons, you’ll remember that last spring saw starting candidates Connor Wood and Nick Hirschman emerge from the spring game in what was described as a dead heat – with redshirt freshman Shane Dillon expected to challenge at some point.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED on the way to Denver and the opener against Colorado State. Instead of the competition being a dead heat, Hirschman sensed he was dead meat. Wood suddenly found himself as the last man standing. Hirschman and Dillon pulled out of the race (school, too) and transferred. (Also eventually waving goodbye was reserve Stevie Joe Dorman, leaving the Buffs somewhere south of slim in QB depth entering spring ball.)
Wood was lights out against CSU (33-of-46, 400 yards, three touchdowns) and kept the starting job through the Oct. 12th trip to Arizona State. But coaches believed a decline had begun. With Wood’s productivity dropping off, Liufau shed his redshirt in Tempe and went on to start the next seven games.
In retrospect, that mid-stream shuffle should offer insight into MacIntyre and his willingness to change – in-season, pre-season, whenever – if the offense stalls or perhaps if one QB is coming on faster than another. That’s why it’s called competition, and it’s why Gehrke is feeling pretty good about the spring he’s had.
“I’ve been competing every single day,” he said. “I think I’m right there with (Liufau). I’ve been doing some really good things and I’m going to keep it up and let things take care of themselves.”
Gehrke, who transferred from Scottsdale Community College and was the next-to-last signee in MacIntyre’s first recruiting class, says a redshirt season in 2013 enabled him to “dive into the playbook and make sure now I know every single answer in every coverage. Out here this spring it seems a lot easier; I’m not thinking I’m just playing. My knowledge of the game is much improved.”
Furthering his on-field advancement, last spring’s glut of QBs has dwindled to three – Liufau, Gehrke and walk-on Trent Sessions, a former manager who played the position in high school and answered the call for an extra spring arm. CU signed one quarterback in its 2014 recruiting class – Cade Apsay of Canyon Country, Calif. – and Lindgren expects another one or two QB walk-ons in August.
But two is not a bad spring number. The quality “reps” have been shared evenly by Liufau and Gehrke, which Lindgren calls “great . . . they’ve both grown so much. The plan right now is to keep (the competition) going, get them a lot of ‘reps’ and get them ready for game one.”
As for edges one might have on the other, Lindgren gives Gehrke a check in the athleticism column. Liufau, he said, “is not as gifted athletically, but Sefo is a sharp guy who anticipates things really well. We’re trying to get him to be able to do some of that stuff when things break down – but that’s hard to teach.”
Gehrke said his mobility – specifically his ability to keep plays alive – has become more refined: “Last year I just kind of moved because I didn’t know what was going on. This year, if people aren’t open, I’m stepping up in the pocket or backing up and scrambling to make plays.”
But in the all-important game-day experience column, the checkmark goes to Liufau. “That starting experience, being a young guy last year, I think he learned a tremendous amount every week and developed a lot,” Lindgren said. “That experience is really invaluable. To have a guy coming back who’s been in games and has had the live bullets coming at him, that’s an advantage.”
Liufau’s most noticeable spring improvement, noted Lindgren, likely is in the running component of CU’s pistol offense in “carrying out fakes and being a threat as a runner in some situations. He’s doing a better job there and in just identifying packages and seeing what the defense is giving him. That’s allowed him to anticipate some things in the pass game.”
IF GEHRKE BELIEVES HIS spring has been productive, Liufau assures that he hasn’t been spinning his wheels. He says his footwork in dropping back has improved, his running game reads – particularly in the zone read and knowing when to keep – have gotten sharper, his awareness of blitzes is better and his ability to realign out-of-position players before the snap is keener.
“Basically, I’m just more comfortable in the offense,” said Liufau, who completed 149-of-251 passes last season for 1,779 yards and 12 touchdowns (eight interceptions). “I’ve made a lot of improvement from when I was last on the field in November. I think it’s been a very good spring.”
MacIntyre and Lindgren put a premium on accuracy in the passing game, and Liufau’s 59.4 completion percentage last fall was near the minimum of what is expected. Gehrke and Liufau believe their accuracy has been acceptable through 11 spring drills, but both expect improvement. In three major scrimmages, Liufau is 29-of-53 (54.7 percent) for 392 yards and eight TDs, Gehrke is 31-of-51 (60.8 percent) for 383 yards and three TDs. Neither has thrown an interception. Liufau has been sacked four times, Gehrke 11. Liufau’s QB rating is 166.7, Gehrke’s 143.3.
The receivers, said Lindgren, always factor into the completion percentage. And, he added, “Our defense has done a nice job of challenging us on the outside and making us earn things. It’s been a good experience. Our (QBs) are progressing, but definitely not where we want to be as far as accuracy and timing go. Over the summer as the receivers and our quarterbacks get on the same page, that’s going to be huge.”
Both players’ knowledge of the offense is comparable, said Liufau, adding, “I don’t think the offense misses a beat with either one of us.”
Gehrke believes at the conclusion of spring drills the QB picture will have cleared a little for MacIntyre and Lindgren. “Or maybe it will go through fall camp,” he said. “To me, the job is open and I’m going to fight every single day like I’m the starting quarterback. I came here and the only thing on my mind was playing. That’s what I’m gunning for.”
Based on spring performances, the Buffs appear to be better (or at least getting better) at QB than they’ve been in recent years. And based on last fall, MacIntyre most assuredly won’t hesitate to make a move when he thinks it’s necessary.
NOTEWORTHY: Tailback Josh Ford, a Mullen High School product who missed last season with a foot injury and has not practiced this spring, is finished after an appeal for an extra year of eligibility didn’t go through . . . . MacIntyre said the formula for splitting up the squad for Saturday’s spring game (noon, Folsom Field) is still being determined. Coaches and players likely will have a say in the breakdown. “We’ve got to make sure the teams are slightly even because we’ve got some injuries and people out,” he said. . . . Players/positions that MacIntyre has a keen spring game interest in include wide receivers and defensive end. He would like to see a couple of players at each position who have had eye-catching practices duplicate that work on Saturday “on the big show, so to speak.”