Buffs Conclude Productive Spring Under Embree
BOULDER - His team was a long, long way from entering Saturday's spring game injury-free, but when the night was complete the injury list hadn't grown. That was a small victory for Jon Embree at the conclusion of his first set of spring drills as Colorado's new football coach - and at this point victories of any size are important.
Embree walked away from the 105-play scrimmage at Folsom Field feeling good about what the Buffaloes had accomplished in their 15 spring practices.
"I'm happy with the guys who are going to be here," he said. "We know how to hit, we know how to throw a punch . . . we just need more guys. We can't do nothing about that; we have what we have. We'll have to try to stay healthy as best we can. But I'm happy with where we are . . . we just need to keep working and improving."
His assessment of Saturday, which saw his defense allow 44 points in the controlled scrimmage: "We moved the ball early well, but stalled out. I wish our kicking game had been a little better. (Justin Castor) was OK, but we need him to be great. We've got to improve there.
"I thought the defense played well early; I was happy with their tackling, but they got a little shoddy at the end . . . That's OK, I understand that situation."
That would be the absence of numerous key players whom Embree said would have to work their way back into their positions on the depth chart: "The injured guys are going to have to come back in and compete - no one's getting a job; you have to earn your job here."
Several players appeared to make significant headway in that on Saturday night. Embree and his staff will meet Sunday and Monday to evaluate Saturday's work and the overall spring work, then announce a starting quarterback on Tuesday. And if your money's on Tyler Hansen, it's probably in the right place.
Hansen, a senior learning a new system, displayed accuracy and a command of the offense - but not from spring's Day One. Still, it was Hansen's finish, not his start, that impressed Embree.
"I wouldn't say from Day One (he was impressed), but I am happy with his productivity," Embree said. "He's done a good with his command of the offense, getting them in and out of the huddle. We need to get better with our tempo . . . at times with him he's thinking a little (too much) when he's getting to the line of scrimmage. But overall, I am pleased with how he's competed."
Hansen, who was 8-for-15 for 124 yards and a touchdown Saturday night, said he just wanted to be efficient and now was "night-and-day" more comfortable with the new pro-style offense than when spring drills started.
"The coaching staff really helped me out a lot," Hansen said. "I feel really comfortable as a player and this offense is really good . . . (accuracy) was my goal and I've been working on my mechanics with coach (Rip) Scherer. I feel I'm getting a lot more accurate."
As for the overall spring progress under Embree and his staff, Hansen said the majority of the Buffs have "bought in and we're going to figure out the guys who haven't bought in and they're not going to be with us anymore. But the majority has bought in."
Sophomore walk-on Josh Ford, a Mullen High School product who transferred from Barton (Kan.) Community College, was Saturday's most productive rusher. He ran 17 times for 164 yards, including a scrimmage-long 56-yard touchdown run.
"I just tried to do my part," Ford said. "I've been working hard . . . I'm just trying to impress my coach (Eric Bieniemy) and do my part in the system. It feels great to have success today, but I owe it to my O-line and my fullbacks blocking for me."
With Bieniemy's help, Ford said he picked up the offense quickly: "I picked up things pretty fast because I've got a good teacher in Eric Bieniemy. He knows how to break things down; he should be a school teacher . . . he just breaks it down for us. We weren't perfect every day, but we worked hard."
Senior Rodney "Speedy" Stewart (14 carries, 55 yards) remains the No. 1 tailback, but Ford's performance might earn him a longer look in August. Asked if he believed he might have done that, he said, "I hope I did. I'm just trying to come out every day and work hard, contribute to the team, win and help bring this team back. I trust everything Coach Embree says about bringing the tradition back."
Sophomore Paul Richardson was the night's leading receiver, catching four passes for 61 yards and a touchdown. But redshirt freshman tight end Kyle Slavin caught three passes for 50 yards and a pair of TDs. Embree said Slavin had made strides in the final two weeks of spring drills. Slavin noted he entered the spring "just wanting to get back on the field as soon as possible. The year off (as a redshirt) was tough. I felt like I improved in my routes, my blocking, everything."
But Embree wants more improvement from him in snapping. Slavin hasn't snapped since he was a high school sophomore, but he's now backing up sophomore Ryan Iverson. And Embree said that mechanical part of the kicking game must improve for Castor to show the necessary improvement.
Castor's placekicking was hit-and-miss in Saturday's first half, but fairly impressive in the second. In the first half, he made a conventional PAT, a 37-yard PAT and a 49-yard field goal, but missed on three other lengthy extra point attempts. He rallied in the second half, hitting PAT tries from 41, 49 and 51 yards.
Embree's off-season advice to the sophomore: "Just keep working. You're right there . . . continue to work with the snapper and holder and get the whole operation down. He definitely has the leg and is now getting the ball up quicker, which he was struggling with early in camp. It's a work in progress with him. He just has to continue to improve because we're bringing in a guy to compete with him (Will Oliver). He has to make sure when the competition starts he's ready to go."
The large number of players who missed Saturday's work - the morning medical report showed 15 definitely out with another eight questionable - offered reserves the chance to move forward. One of them might have been redshirt freshman defensive back Jordan Marquez, a walk-on whose father Mike was Buffs tailback in the Bill McCartney Era. Jordan Marquez picked off No. 3 QB Brent Burnette's first pass attempt and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. It was the first interception of the spring in a controlled scrimmage.
Embree reiterated that the Buffs play 13 consecutive weeks next fall without a break. "We're going to have games where not have everybody (healthy)," he said. "It's important that people got opportunities show they can do that on a Saturday for us."
The Buffs' defensive depth, he said, is going to have to come from "some of the freshmen, some from injured guys. It is what it is; I can't draft anybody or get anybody off the waiver wire. We have to learn to play like that; it's going to have to be our rallying cry on defense."
He said throughout spring drills the defense rallied from a questionable start and "has continued to build on what they've done in the last three or four situational scrimmages. They've asserted themselves. I think we're getting to the point where we're understanding that it's about the next play . . . our ultimately our goal is to make them kick it."
Junior linebacker Jon Major believed Saturday's work "was a huge improvement from the past scrimmages. We were able to stop the run pretty well - at least the first team - and made them pass a lot. That's where most of their success was. We'll just continue to get more comfortable and playing fast."
CU LINEBACKER WALL OF FAME DEDICATION: Veteran linebackers coach Brian Cabral invited a number of prominent players and coaches back Saturday for the dedication of a wall honoring them (and Cabral) in the Dal Ward Athletics Center. This spring marks the start of Cabral's 23rd season at CU.
Adjacent to the linebackers' meeting room, the wall is a collage-type mural featuring Barry Remington and Chad Brown at either end, with Butkus Award winner Alfred Williams in the center. Pictures and brief biographical information of other prominent CU players, including Joe Romig (1959-61), are interspersed throughout the full-color collage.
Also featured is a list of the school's Top 19 career tacklers, with the No. 20 slot asking, "Who's Next?" CU's top three tacklers: No. 1 - Remington (493 tackles, 1982-86); No. 2 - Matt Russell (446, 1993-96); No. 3 - Greg Biekert (441, 1989-92). No. 11 is Cabral (297, 1974-77).
Of the 18 players (excluding Cabral) comprising CU's career tackle leaders, 10 played under Cabral.
Brown, who played 15 seasons in the NFL, said he "owed my opportunity in the NFL to Coach Cabral . . . you can't do what he's done for this long without love. Sometimes it was tough love, but it was love for everybody in the room."
Added Sean Tufts, a Buffs linebacker from 2000-03: "Cabral has been here for most of those guys on the wall . . . he's been an amazing part of my life."
Cabral introduced four of his current linebackers - Derrick Webb, Doug Rippy, Liloa Nobriga and Patrick Mahnke - and incoming freshman Brady Daigh to former CU Coach Bill McCartney. Also present were former Buffs Head Coach Gary Barnett and former CU assistant Bob Simmons, whose former players included Brown, Williams and current Buffs assistant Kanavis McGhee.
Of the LB Wall of Fame Mahnke, a senior, said, "There's some pretty ridiculous numbers up there - especially Chad Brown's. Fifteen seasons in the NFL? He was playing in the pros as long as I've been playing football."
Former linebacker Eric McCarty (1983-87), now one of CU's team physicians, didn't play for Cabral but said Cabral "has had a tremendous impact on a number of people . . . I've watched him over the years - the way he lives, the way he goes about life."
Remington said it was a privilege to be among those featured on the LB Wall of Fame: "That's a bunch of tough, talented guys . . . I feel honored to be up there."
BUFF BITS: Saturday's attendance was 15,655 - the second-biggest spring crowd in CU history . . . . McCartney and Barnett coached an alumni flag football game prior to the Spring Game. Asked how it felt to be coaching again at Folsom Field, Barnett said he didn't believe he would be as "pumped" as he was prior to the flag contest, which featured former quarterbacks Joel Klatt (Barnett) and Charles Johnson (McCartney) as team captains. Of the Embree Era, Barnett said, "I'm excited for Jon, I also understand how hard it is. He's going to have to be patient with himself and his guys, but he'll do fine. He's got a little learning curve, but he's learning it fast. The whole staff will be fine." . . . . Prior to the flag football contest, McCartney spoke at a luncheon attended mostly by former and current players.