Brooks: Embree Mostly Pleased With First Scrimmage
BOULDER - Football coaches can be cantankerous and tough to please in mid-August, but Colorado's first scrimmage of preseason camp on Saturday left first-year coach Jon Embree "overall happy."
The reasons: Start with the two-plus hours of physical pounding producing no injuries. Except for tending to hydration needs, CU's medical staff might have been able to take the sun-drenched afternoon off.
"We weren't as sharp as I would have liked, but we came out healthy - that's the main thing," Embree said. "I'm happy with where we are after the first week."
But let's get back to the physical part - which Embree and his staff will never stray too far from as they prepare for CU's Sept. 3 opener at Hawaii. If there's a single identity Embree wants to establish in everything the 2011 Buffaloes do, it's being physical. If that's not the way you play, you don't play for Embree.
Embree saw that from his team on both sides of the ball. "We ran the ball well, we were physical and the defense was hitting people," he said, and that tended to override other mistakes that might be typical of a first major preseason scrimmage.
After a slow start, quarterback Tyler Hansen and the No. 1 offense settled themselves for most of the remainder of the afternoon. Embree didn't see a massive amount of mistakes from his guys not knowing the playbook, but he did see five illegal procedure calls - "And we can't have that," he said.
Some of those penalties were the result of mixing and matching, due to previous injuries in the offensive line. That personnel shuffling, he noted, "is always going to be different - but that's no excuse. Whoever's in there, we have to be dialed in. That's probably the biggest disappointment coming out of the scrimmage."
The center position might have suffered the most from the shuffling. Senior Shawn Daniels is out indefinitely with a calf strain, leaving redshirt freshman Daniel Munyer and sophomore Gus Handler to share work with the first and second offensive units. To add another body to the mix in the middle, redshirt freshman Kaiwi Crabb - normally a guard - also is working at center.
And the exploratory movement in Steve Marshall's O-line doesn't stop there. Senior Sione Tau is playing tackle and guard, and freshman Paulay Asiata is getting work at left guard.
That experimentation might have been a factor in about five quarterback sacks - that was Embree's unofficial count without having benefit of viewing the scrimmage tape. But more than likely, the sack total was attributable to the play of the defensive line, which Embree said "has had a very good camp . . . it's probably more D-line than our (offensive) guys. Off the top of my head, there were probably five or six sacks."
All quarterbacks wore green over-jerseys and were "hands off" for tacklers, so in some cases it was difficult to tell what might have been a sack. Said Embree: "I just tell the officials to let it go because we need to see the ball thrown. We need to see the guys on the back end . . . our defense is giving us a lot of different looks. It's going to help us and make us better."
No scrimmage stats were made public, but tailback Rodney "Speedy" Stewart probably was the afternoon's leading rusher. Embree singled out the senior for his running, but also noted, "He's got to learn that all I need is four yards. We don't have to try and get 30 or 40 yards every carry - just get us four."
Embree also said Hansen needs to become a more vocal leader: "I want him to get more aggressive with his leadership, with his teammates. I want him to be a little more vocal than he's been."
That doesn't come as a surprise to Hansen. "I'm trying to do that," he said. "I'm not the most vocal guy; I'm not going to yell at people. But he's been telling me this is a good time to go do this; he's been helping me out. As a leader, that's not my style, but I've got to change."
SOMETIMES IT'S NOT WHO YOU KNOW: Freshman walk-on quarterback John Schrock continues to take full advantage of the absence of backup Nick Hirschman (strained left foot).
Schrock, said Embree, currently has a pretty sold hold on the No. 3 QB spot, moving past junior college transfer Brent Burnette and freshman scholarship signee Stevie Joe Dorman.
"He's done great," Embree said of the 6-4, 215-pound Schrock. "I've been very hard on him because he's made some mistakes that you can't make at that position, and at the same time I've to remember he's just a freshman. But he's got a good awareness of where to go with the ball, he's got a good feel for the offense and the verbiage."
Embree said if Schrock would have been utilized differently in high school (Shawnee Mission East, Kan.), "we wouldn't have gotten as a walk-on. The nature of what he did in high school didn't really highlight his skills."
But what Schrock has done thus far must be kept in perspective. Asked if there was a possibility of Schrock moving into a back-up role, Embree laughed and answered with a question: "As a back-up to who? . . . I've got to see the tape, but he's probably entrenched himself as the No. 3 guy. I think it would be safe to say that."
CU had a leg up in landing Schrock. He was familiar with the state and CU because he's the grandson of long-time Boulder agent Jack Mills, who just happens to represent Embree.
"Jack used to come out in Kansas City (when Embree coached the Chiefs tight ends) and watch him play," Embree said. "So I was aware of (Schrock) of him when I was with the Chiefs."
Schrock's dream was to play Division-I football, but he got no offers. He grew up a Buffs fan - his mother (Mary) grew up in Boulder - and was going to enroll at CU even if he didn't play football. When the coaching change occurred last winter, Schrock sent Embree a highlight tape and followed it up with a telephone call.
He'd been to Colorado skiing countless times and spent this summer with his grandparents during summer conditioning work. He said he feels as much like a Colorado resident than a Kansan: "I'm almost more proud to say I'm from Colorado than Kansas."
Schrock said every day he's in camp "it gets easier and easier. The first eight practices were 'install' every day, brand new plays, new concepts. Since then I've caught up and gone back over details."
Schrock's high school career didn't get him noticed. He split time starting as a junior, and his senior season didn't produce stellar numbers. But it did yield eight wins - "the best record in 50 years," Schrock said. Plus, his high school wasn't exactly a hotbed for college QBs: "It's a school not very well known for football . . . it's a country club school - golf, swimming and tennis. I knew I wasn't going to get that much of a look from that standpoint."
He attended a couple of football camps prior to his junior and senior seasons, but didn't produce as well as he wanted. Still, that "turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because this is the school I really wanted to come to," he said.
"Coming in I didn't really have high expectations for myself . . . I was wondering if I was going to be playing. But with Nick going down for a few days, coach told me I had an opportunity if I took advantage of it."
So far, he has.
THE WORD FROM ABOVE: Offensive coordinator/running backs coach Eric Bieniemy worked Saturday's scrimmage from atop a "scissors lift" on the east sidelines of the lower practice field. The reason: Bieniemy will call the plays this season, and Embree wanted this to be the first dress rehearsal.
Embree's first response to a question about Bieniemy's elevated position: "Did he make it down? He's not a guy for heights . . . that's one of his weaknesses."
Embree said Bieniemy will be in the press box for the second scrimmage next Friday (closed to the public) and for several more team periods that will be conducted in Folsom Field.
"That's probably the last piece as a staff that we need to do, without the players involved - kind of get that to where everyone's comfortable and the timing and everything," Embree said, adding that he will wear a headset on gameday on the sidelines "just so I can hear and stay out of it . . . but they'll probably give me one that the mic doesn't work."
GOOD FIRST IMPRESSIONS: First scrimmages are of big-time importance for first-year players, and Embree's list of freshmen who caught his eye included: Receivers Tyler McCulloch and Nelson Spruce, tailback D.D. Goodson and defensive backs Kyle Washington, Will Harlos and Greg Henderson.
Embree said Spruce "could make the travel squad . . . we'll see what he can do on special team." McCulloch showed well, although he missed one reception. "But he caught a good ball across the middle, being physical and using his size (6-5, 215)," Embree added. "Those two freshmen receivers right now have put themselves in position to have a chance to contribute."
Of Goodson, Embree said, "D.D. ran well. We'll see how that looks on tape, see what the running backs guy (Bieniemy) thinks about him. But my initial impression of him was that he did run well."
In addition to Washington and Henderson, both cornerbacks, Embree liked the corner play of sophomores Ayodeji Olatoye and Paul Vigo and senior Travis Sandersfeld.
"I'm pleased; I may be the only one, but I'm pleased," he said of the project to replace Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown. "I know we need corners. I just feel like some guys will emerge. I think are starting to feel more comfortable with what we're asking them to do. And it helps that our guys are getting pressure, so we're not covering all day long."
KICKING GAME UPDATE: The punting field has been reduced to walk-on Darragh O'Neill and incumbent Zach Grossnickle, and Embree said Saturday's work wasn't telling enough for a winner to emerge.
"Those guys have to keep competing and I have to put more pressure on them., put them in more situations," he said.
Embree stressed the value of good hang time, given the nature of the spread punt formation. "If you get good hang time, you're just not going to get that much good return yardage," he said. "I just want a guy who can kick it 40 yards and make the (returner) fair catch it. I don't need Superman; it would be great if we could get him, but let's just start there and build off of that."
Freshman Will Oliver was named the starting placekicker earlier in the week, but Embree said both Oliver and sophomore Justin Castor kicked well Saturday. By Embree's quick count, Oliver had one missed field goal, Castor two.
He encouraged Castor to continue "doing what he's doing. Between the two of them we can have two good kickers," noting Castor could be the team's long-range placekicker. "That could be his role, along with kickoffs. He still has an important role. And (Oliver) still has to go; we're just one week in."
BUFF BITS: The players finally get a day off - Sunday - from practice. But academic meetings are scheduled, and they have return to work on Monday morning (8:30-11 a.m.) . . . . The second scrimmage of camp is scheduled Friday from noon-3 p.m. in Folsom Field. It is closed to the public . . . . Attending Saturday's scrimmage was Carroll Hardy, a three-sport star at CU who played major league baseball and was a 20-year front-office fixture for the Denver Broncos. Hardy, now 78, is the answer to a legendary baseball trivia question: Who's the only player to pinch hit for Hall of Famer Ted Williams? (Part II: While with Boston, Hardy also pinch hit for Carl Yastrzemski, making him the only player to pinch hit for a pair of future Hall of Famers.).