Brooks: Vets Abound At TE/FB
BOULDER - Football coaches live in the moment, and Kent Riddle is among them. For the moment (read: the 2009 season), the Buffaloes' tight ends/fullbacks coach is as well-stocked at both positions as he's been at Colorado.
At tight end, he can call on five primary players, four of whom are seniors. At fullback, there's a senior whom Riddle says over the last three years might have improved more than anyone in the Colorado program.
Fast forward to 2010 . . . then again, let's not go there. Right now, there's no need. Remember your mantra: live (and play) in the moment.
"There's good and bad, because they're (practically) all seniors," Riddle said. "They're all real good guys, they're playing well, working hard - those are all the things you ask of them."
But there's likely to be just a little more asked of the Buffs' tight ends and fullbacks this season - and that's OK with everyone involved.
CU's offense is trying to strike a new pose, seeking to flex its considerable running game muscles under new offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau and offensive line coach Denver Johnson.
Riddle's bunch factors in there, too - in a very big way. This season, the only way CU doesn't employ multiple tight end sets is if the NCAA comes out with legislation against it.
"We'd already made a conscious decision (this spring) that we were going to get back to a little more of a power-type offense," Riddle said. "And having those guys made that a lot easier; it gives you a lot more options.
"But I think we'd still working that way, finding tight ends even if we didn't have the guys we have now."
Riddle's players are enthused about the philosophical shift for a couple of reasons. First, they can play to their strengths. Second, on more than one occasion, last season's spread attack didn't foster loads of crunch-time confidence among its young practitioners.
"When we were running the spread, it just seemed like we could do some things, but if we had a little trouble we were stuck," sophomore Ryan Deehan said.
"Now, we can rely on the running game to get us going if we need it to. Yeah, we were pretty frustrated (at times last season) because we knew we could do stuff.
"But if certain things weren't working, then we were kind of stuck with the plays we had. I think (the power run game) will help us out because we'll be able to control what's going on."
With big tight ends, a big O-line and a sturdy, experienced fullback, that should be possible. But there's another reason the TE/FB positions might loom large in what the Buffs want to accomplish offensively.
For a variety of reasons, CU's receiver position continues to be a work in progress - and that work could run into October. The passing game will rely weekly on whatever the TE/FB position can offer in terms of receptions.
Senior Riar Geer said whatever is required of the tight ends, the group is prepared to deliver.
"We love it," Geer said. "We've embraced that role and know what we have to do. We have a lot of seniors playing tight end and Jake at fullback; we're an experienced group.
"The offense is looking at us to help be the playmakers . . . it's awesome that we have that opportunity. It's awesome that we have so many good players. It makes competition at practice very high and in turn makes us all better."
Geer also believes the new offensive philosophy plays right into his hands, shoulders, legs, etc.: "All we're trying to do is run the ball and be a physical football team . . . in order to do that, we have to get bigger guys in there - more tight ends and fullbacks - to do that.
"But it does benefit us because we're an experienced group of guys. We've been on the field before, we know what it's like to play in big-time games, and we need to get those players on the field."
Senior Patrick Devenny is a former high school quarterback who outgrew that role and settled in at tight end. Early in his career, he blocked like, well, like a quarterback. Not so much now.
With an assist from Geer and Riddle, Devenny worked on his footwork for blocking during spring drills.
"Now, it's just a matter of getting the mental edge going," Devenny said. "It's a matter of me now knowing I've got to bring it to them (defense), and I'm coming along, feeling lot more comfortable doing it. And being a senior, at this point I have to do it."
Like his teammates and their coach, Devenny knows tight end is a critical position in this offense.
"Yeah it is, and anybody at our position can come in and play," he said. "(Riddle) has told us that no matter who's in, he feels comfortable with it.
"That inspires confidence from the coaches. They know they can count on us. They know we're not going to be running a deep out on the sidelines or returning punts, but we're going to be a solid group that does what's within our means.
Retooling his game to become more physical took an effort from Devenny, but doing it wasn't so much a suggestion as a requirement.
"It's something I tell myself: if I want to see playing time, I'd better improve my blocking and not just try to rely on getting in for pass plays," he said.
"I know the philosophy of our team has changed, and it's forced my mentality to change. But that's what we're here to do."
Although he's three years younger, Deehan's improvement has been on a scale similar to Devenny's. When he arrived on campus last summer he was a typical freshman - eyes wide and head spinning.
Now, somewhat of a comfort level has been achieved.
"I feel a lot more comfortable when I'm out there because I get to the line and I don't have to memorize every single thing I have to do," he said. "I've thought through the plays and understand the concept."
Plus, Deehan is about 10 pounds heavier and stronger. He said all of his prescribed lifts went up "by about 40 pounds in 'reps' for my maximum lifts."
"I put a lot of hard work in the off-season and it's definitely paying off on the field in getting guys to go where I want them to go when I block," he said. "I've got the strength I need to do that."
Deehan and his colleagues believe "we're an extension of the O-line. We've got to pick it up and push, too. We (tight ends) help set the tone in there.
"I think we're going to try and go a little heavier - just because we want to pound the ball. We want the guys in there who can move people. We've got some tailbacks who can move."
And there's a fullback who can move people, and do a lot more.
Riddle says senior Jake Behrens has "improved as much as anybody in the program over the last three years. He's a reliable receiver, a good blocker and we can hand him the ball on occasion.
"He's in tune with the offense and what we're trying to get done, and he's really improved his physicality on the field. That's good stuff."
Behrens might be part of a disappearing breed of football players - true fullbacks. With the advent of the spread offense, even at the high school level, fullbacks are close to being added to the endangered species list.
Riddle says they're out there, but finding them takes work.
"Definitely . . . they're harder and harder to find, but they're out there," he said. "You just have to keep looking and looking . . . they could be playing linebacker or defensive line.
"Maybe people think they're little undersized to be a defensive tackle, but they're 250 pounds and can bring it. And maybe you see them on the goal line - just fewer plays (using) them.
"They're out there; we've just got to be diligent and look a little longer."
Behrens "bought in" to what Riddle & Co. taught for him for the past three seasons, and the philosophical change in the offense couldn't please him more.
"Being a fullback, you just love to get the chance to put your hand in the dirt and go hit somebody," Behrens said. "That's basically the job description.
"So the more of that, the more I get to be involved . . . I've been just loving it."
THE LOWDOWN ON . . .
Tight ends, fullbacks
Coach: Kent Riddle
Returning starters: TE - Riar Geer, Ryan Deehan, Pat Devenny; FB - Jake Behrens.
Returnees: TE - Devin Shanahan, Luke Walters; FB - Trace Adams.
Newcomers: TE - DaVaughn Thornton, Alex Wood.
Key losses: None.
Stat line: Devenny (14 catches, 116 yards, 2 touchdowns), Geer (13-183, 2) and Deehan (5-61, 1) had productive seasons in 2008, but their numbers could go up in 2009. So could those of Behrens (12-75, 2).
Bottom line: With the direction CU is leaning in its offense - towards a power running game - the tight ends/fullbacks will be counted on to be major contributors in blocking and probably as receivers. Fortunately for the Buffs, both positions are stocked with experienced players who can be counted on.
NEXT: Offensive line