Buffs Open Spring Football Drills Wednesday
BOULDER - Colorado won its third Big 12 North Division title in four years last November, but was systematically dismantled in the conference's title game by No. 2 Oklahoma. It was only natural for frustration and disappointment to set in, and the coaches had some work to do in getting the team prepared for its bowl game.
Solution: head coach Gary Barnett and his coaches adopted and conveyed the attitude that the EV1.net Houston Bowl would be the first game of the 2005 season. After all, the Buffs were graduating just 11 seniors, only five of whom were starters. The end result? The underclassmen-dominated Buffaloes defeated an up-and-coming Texas-El Paso team by 33-28 in come-from-behind fashion, finishing off a tumultuous season on a satisfying note.
The North Division appears to be up for grabs again, and compelling arguments for all six teams could be made at this point; the conference is entering its 10th year of existence, and CU, Kansas State and Nebraska each have three titles, though only the Buffs and K-State have crowns this decade. So the race is on for either the first four-time champion or for Iowa State, Kansas or Missouri to breakthrough for their first title.
And for Colorado, that race officially begins Wednesday with the first of 15 spring football practices, which conclude April 23 with the annual spring game. All practices are open to the general public, as CU is opening up the drills to reach out to its fans and supporters to allow an up-close and personal look at this year's Buffaloes.
The focus this spring for the coaches will be to shore up both the passing offense and defense, as well as to sift through intense battles at nearly every position on the team.
"Developing in the pass game on both offense and defense is a top priority this spring," Barnett emphasized. "After that, figuring out who are running back is going to be, whether it will be one guy or be by committee, will be crucial since establishing the ground game is so pivotal in laying the foundation for what we want to do on offense.
"There's a number of spots that are wide open, I don't think you can narrow it to one," he added. "Running back, wide receiver, offensive line, linebackers, secondary, defensive line; all those positions are going to have competition for several of the starting spots, but that's good to expect at every position. We're deep at quarterback and veteran tested there. It should make for a good spring. I can tell you we're set at punter and placekicker with two All-American candidates there."
CU returns 50 lettermen and 17 starters from 2004, when the Buffs finished with an 8-5 record after starting 3-0 and surviving an October which saw the Buffaloes go just 1-4 and seemingly fall out of the division race. But adhering to the old clich? of the "the games they remember are played in November," the Buffs posted three straight wins and had everything fall into place for them to win the North.
Offensively, quarterback Joel Klatt is probably the most secure in his starting role, though Barnett indicated only two spots on the team are locked up for sure. But Klatt, CU's starter the last two seasons, overcame some struggles early last season to take command down the stretch. He is in position to become the holder of every major CU career passing record.
Who he's handing off to as well as throwing to is up for grabs. There's no clear cut favorite at tailback, though Lawrence Vickers showed how versatile he was playing both tailback and fullback last year; it could be the spring's most intriguing battle. Vickers and tight ends Joe Klopfenstein and Quinn Sypniewski are fine targets in the passing game, with the receivers needing to sort themselves out. But there are plenty of veteran candidates to emerge as favorite options, including Evan Judge, last year's leading receiver, Blake Mackey and Dusty Sprague, along with several others who at this juncture simply lack game experience. Whoever winds up in the rotation, the focus will be on eliminating drops. "We had 39 dropped passes last year, and that is way too many," Barnett said. "So the ball will be in the air a lot this spring."
As for the offensive line, the goal will be to become more physical in pass protection. Not that CU gave up an inordinate amount of sacks (20), but it did allow 62 pressures and a slew of batted balls at or behind the line of scrimmage. Juniors Brian Daniels (tight guard) and Mark Fenton (center) along with senior Clint O'Neal (tight tackle) are returning starters who are expected to anchor the line; they were three members of the same quintet that started every game in 2004.
On defense, 10 starters return on a defense that improved as the season progressed, along with another five players with three or more career starts under their belts. That has the coaches excited since so many return to a unit that underwent a transformation from the 4-2-5 scheme on defense in 2003 to a 4-3 base last season.
Linebacker appears to be the most well-stocked unit on this year's team, led by a trio that figures to be in there on a rotating basis simply because how can you keep off Akarika Dawn, Jordon Dizon or Thaddaeus Washington. They were three of CU's top five tacklers last season, with Washington second on the squad with 93 while Dizon set a true freshman record with 82. And that's not including outside linebacker Brian Iwuh, the team leader in stops with 98 as well as a team-high 14 tackles for losses.
The defensive front should be stronger, with James Garee moving inside which should enable both ends, Alex Ligon and Abraham Wright, to be in the lineup at the same time. Vaka Manupuna is a rock at nose tackle and thrives on inhibiting the run.
The secondary returns almost intact from last season, with the anchors come fall likely to be cornerbacks Terrence Wheatley and Lorenzo Sims; at safety, there's a lot of competition expected, led by three returning veterans, Tom Hubbard, Tyrone Henderson and Dominique Brooks. Wheatley, however, will miss the spring with a wrist injury.
The two spots Barnett knows are locked up belong to CU's kicking duo of placekicker Mason Crosby, the nation's leader with six 50-plus yard field goals last year and a 2005 preseason Playboy All-American, and punter John Torp, who finished second individually but helped Colorado win its fifth net punting title. How good are these two? Last year, opponents started 80 of 159 drives at or inside the 20, thanks to the legs of the aforementioned gentlemen who help form perhaps what will be the nation's top special teams unit from top to bottom.
Colorado has played one of the nation's top 15 toughest schedules for five straight years. The Buffs will see the same eight conference opponents, while Miami, Fla., and New Mexico State replace Washington State and North Texas in the non-league slate. This could be the last 11-game regular season in NCAA history, and legislation is expected to pass that would permanently add a 12th regular season contest.
Repeating last year's 7-4 regular season record won't be an easy task, considering the five road trips that loom ahead (Miami, Fla., Oklahoma State, Texas, Kansas State and Iowa State), but the Buffaloes have proved resilient when adversity has flown in their faces. Colorado proved last fall what can truly happen when teams take games one-at-a-time.
And besides, CU is already 1-0 in 2005; the Buffs are just in the middle of the longest bye week in its history.
Spring Practice Schedule
# 1 Wednesday March 30 3:25 p.m.
# 2 Friday April 1 3:25 p.m.
# 3 Saturday April 2 10:00 a.m.
# 4 Monday April 4 3:25 p.m.
# 5 Wednesday April 6 3:25 p.m.
# 6 Friday April 8 3:25 p.m.
# 7 *Saturday April 9 tba
# 8 Monday April 11 3:25 p.m.
# 9 Wednesday April 13 3:25 p.m.
#10 Friday April 15 3:25 p.m.
#11 Saturday April 16 tba
#12 Monday April 18 3:25 p.m.
#13 Wednesday April 20 3:25 p.m.
#14 Friday April 22 3:25 p.m.
#15 *Saturday April 23 1:00 p.m.
(*?scrimmage dates, one TBA; practices generally run two hours and 20 minutes). Prior to the spring game on April 23, CU will host its second annual Healthy Kids Day at Folsom Field between 10:30-Noon. This is intended for Boulder/Denver metro area kids between the ages of 6 and 13 for the purpose of educating and promoting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and how sports contributes to that goal. "Fun" stations are set all around the stadium floor with basic sports skills and conditioning/fitness exercises.
(Full spring football information can be found on the football home page here on CUBuffs.com.)