Brooks: Walters Can Lend Stability To Young TE Corps
BOULDER - If Luke Walters feels like the grand old man of Colorado's tight end corps, there's a reason: He's about to enter a rare sixth year of eligibility. And if ever there was a season when a team needed, even begged, for veteran leadership at a particular position, 2010 is it.
No stranger to ailments ranging from fractures in his back to stress fractures in his lower leg to a collapsed lung and even a bout with the swine flu, Walters is the oak surrounded by saplings. Eight of the 10 players listed on the roster at his position still are awaiting their first college snaps as a tight end/H-back/fullback.
Only Walters and junior Ryan Deehan, one of 32 candidates appearing on the prestigious Mackey Award watch list, have significant experience at a position that is vital to the Buffaloes offense in both the passing and running games.
After losing three tight ends to graduation, CU restocked by signing three freshmen. But unless one of that trio emerges during the last two weeks preceding the opener, position coach Kent Riddle will enter the season counting on Walters, Deehan and promising redshirt freshman DaVaughn Thornton for the bulk of the work.
Former interior linemen Scott Fernandez and Matt Bahr have moved into short-yardage/goal line blocking roles, adding some heft to the position.
"It's a little early to say who might contribute (among the freshmen)," Riddle said. "All things being equal, we wouldn't have to play any of them. If one shows he's ready and could help us, we'd do it. But I think all have physical development to make to be a full-time tight end at this level."
That leaves Walters (6-foot-3, 235 pounds), Deehan (6-5, 245) and Thornton (6-4, 225) as the threesome most likely to be called on, with Fernandez (6-3, 275) and Bahr (6-4, 290) the short-yardage, goal-line grunts. Don't discount either as a receiver, though: After lining up in the backfield, Fernandez caught a short touchdown pass in the first fall scrimmage.
A walk-on from Legacy High School in Broomfield, Fernandez is becoming more comfortable in his new role. "But I still need to learn a lot," he said. "I like it, although I've never played it. The biggest adjustment for fullbacks is having more distance between us and a linebacker or safety. We don't break down as much. You just try and run through them, and if they have to go around you, that's OK, too."
In spring drills, CU employed a pair of linebackers - Derrick Webb and Tyler Ahles - in blocking back roles. But upon further review, which included gauging the interest of Fernandez and Bahr, the move to the big-boy option was made.
"Both of those guys' attitudes have been great," offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau said. "They're willing to do whatever it takes. I think it'll work out well for us."
Walters, a 2007 transfer from New Mexico, knows a little about maintaining the right attitude. Lower leg surgeries over a two-year period kept him on crutches for about eight months total and made him think hard about continuing his career.
In the end, though, his heart overrode the considerable pain elsewhere in his body.
"I definitely asked myself the question (is it worth it?), and there were times when I was out of surgery and incapable of anything athletic," he said. "Then when I got through my rehab and got back to being healthy, I realized I still had it in me to contribute to the team. Each time I came back and said it's worth giving it another shot.
"As a player, I think I have the respect of my teammates in that they trust me to go out and get the job done because I've been around a long time; they know I've been dedicated to it and have been working for it."
Walters, of Lakewood, claimed his health now rivals what it was at ThunderRidge High School so very long ago.
"Honestly, I feel like a completely new player," he said. "I'm not having anything in my subconscious to worry about - am I going to hurt myself or anything like that. I feel like I did back when I was 100 percent healthy. It's really nice to have that confidence to go out there and getting my job done."
If numbers are needed to verify his claims about rediscovered health and total rejuvenation, try these: Walters topped all tight ends in off-season strength and conditioning work in the power clean (342 pounds), hang clean (370) and bench press (355). He also had the best 40-yard dash timing at his position (4.6 seconds).
Thornton, whom Riddle says "brings a unique athleticism to the position," was half an inch better than Walters in the vertical jump. Predictably, Walters attributed that to Thornton being "younger, having fresh legs and being a pretty good basketball player. He had just a little more leap . . . but I don't feel like I'm weak in any lifts and that helps me be confident on the field."
Walters entered his final fall camp focused on sharpening his blocking skills, which might have proved a bit detrimental to his receiving.
"I think I might have taken away some of my focus in the pass game, which in the past I've always been confident with," he said. "Uncharacteristically, I've dropped a couple of balls I feel like I should have caught. Now, my blocking is improving and I feel like I can focus on all areas instead of leaving something out. I'm balancing out everything in my arsenal."
Riddle also has counted on him to help mentor CU's trio of young tight ends - Harold Mobley, Henley Griffon and Kyle Slavin.
"We've got three new guys who are coming in trying to learn a three-inch (thick) playbook," Walters said. "I feel like I've given them the opportunity to learn faster and learn from someone who's been in the system for a long time. I definitely have been able to help them."
Of that threesome, Riddle said Slavin, of Littleton (Chatfield), might be a shade ahead, simply because of his proximity to CU.
"He was around some during the spring and got an idea of what's going on, then got into it during the summer," Riddle said. "He might be a little ahead mentally, but they're all where they need to be and show great promise."
In replacing graduated Riar Geer and Patrick Devenny in the passing game, Riddle believes Deehan "will be a big part of that . . . he's in his third year and knows what he's doing. He's got excellent hands and understands how to run routes."
When fall camp opened, Riddle said his priority list was topped by offering Thornton a crash course, "getting him honed in on assignments and techniques, the speed at which things happen. We're progressing at that. We knew Luke and Ryan would be solid at that and know what they're doing. But we also wanted to help them become better technicians - and they are."
It has taken Walters, whole at last, six years to reach the cusp of making a major contribution. Believe him when he says he's savoring every snap.
"I'm excited, pumped up," he said. "I've been blessed to have this opportunity again and I want to enjoy it. It's definitely where I want to be and what I want to be doing instead of trying to find a job right now."
Plenty of time for that - after this job is finished.
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Kent Riddle, fifth season at CU.
Returning starters: TE Ryan Deehan, Jr.
Returnees: TE Luke Walters, Sr.
Newcomers: TE DaVaughn Thornton, Fr-RS; TE Alex Wood, Fr.-RS; TE Matt Allen, Fr.; TE Harold Mobley, Fr.; TE Henley Griffon, Fr.; TE Kyle Slavin, Fr.; TE/FB Matt Bahr, Jr.; TE/FB Scott Fernandez, Fr-RS.
Key losses: TE Riar Geer, TE Patrick Devenny, TE Devin Shannahan, TE Clark Evans (transferred).
Stat line: Last season, the tight ends accounted for 49 receptions, good for 556 yards and seven touchdowns. Geer (36 catches, 402 yards, 4 TDs) was the team's third-leading receiver. Deehan made 10 receptions (91 yards, no TDs) last season and Walters is anticipating his first game-day catch at CU.
Bottom line: Somebody (or bodies) must compensate for Geer's and Devenny's absence as receivers. Deehan, Thornton and Walters are all capable. The position as a whole, though, needs to step up with a more solid contribution in a run game still waiting to develop. Coaches hope the addition of broad beamers Bahr and Fernandez will help in short-yardage situations and on the goal line.