Brooks: Buffs, 'ToJo' Run Hard Toward Spring Break
BOULDER - Halfway through, halfway there? Yes and no for the Colorado Buffaloes' offense. But they might be well into rediscovering their run game and their next productive tailback.
Eight practices through their allotted 15, the Buffs are exhibiting more familiarity with the playbook and a firmer grasp of assignments. But as offensive coordinator/running backs coach Eric Bieniemy said after Thursday's second scrimmage, "We're right where we need to be - about halfway. Do we have room for improvement? Yes, we do. Are we satisfied with what we've seen? Yes, we are. There's still a long ways to go . . ."
That's not an unexpected spring critique from any coach in America at the mid-point of drills.
The Buffs broke for spring break - at least from a practice standpoint - after Thursday's near 30-play scrimmage, which featured a pair of touchdowns by sophomore tailback Tony "ToJo" Jones - one of the scores coming on long run, the other on a screen pass from sophomore quarterback Connor Wood.
Scrimmage statistics were kept but not released.
"We moved the ball pretty good and made some plays down the field," Bieniemy said. "Tony ran the ball well. (Wood) did a good job of managing the offense once he got his feet under him. The O-line has done a good job . . . we've got to keep them coming."
Bieniemy also pointed out the need to eliminate pre-snap penalties when the team returns to the field on April 3 to begin its final seven practices, culminating with the spring game on Saturday, April 14.
"We've got to give ourselves a chance to use snap count and take advantage of that," Bieniemy continued. "That's the only thing that's difficult for us now. We have to strive to keep improving at that."
Bieniemy said the running game - a point of emphasis when Jon Embree took over as head coach two Decembers ago - has been more efficient this spring and Jones' productivity Thursday was in line with his earlier spring work.
"Tony actually has been pretty consistent," Bieniemy said. "He's been running the ball exceptionally well. Obviously, it goes in conjunction with everybody. The O-line is coming off the ball, the tight ends are doing a great job. The thing I want to keep pointing out is that those big plays don't just happen by chance."
Jones, who played in all 13 games last season mostly as Rodney Stewart's backup, said his spring goals were to "pay attention to details like coach Bieniemy always says . . . I've tried to sharpen up on everything, stay focused, and take my game to another level since I'm trying to be a starter."
Last season, he rushed for 297 yards and two touchdowns, with his best performances coming against Oregon (19 carrries, 71 yards) and Utah (12 carries, 72 yards).
Aside from the academic pause, Jones said spring break would almost be business as usual for him. "I'm staying around (Boulder)," he said. "I'll be in my playbook . . . I'm not taking any breaks, I can't afford to take any."
Also competing with Jones at running back this spring are junior Josh Ford, sophomore D.D. Goodson and sophomore Justin Gorman, who has been impressive at the position after stints at quarterback and defensive back.
Wood isn't getting the competition from the main source he expected this spring after sophomore Nick Hirschman suffered a broken bone in his right foot that will keep him sidelined until the summer. But Wood, noted Bieniemy, has enough to work on within the offense and within his game to keep him focused.
"We're trying to bring him along the right way (and) make sure he has a complete understanding of what we've installed," Bieniemy said. "He's still at baby steps offensively . . . we want to give him the ability to feel comfortable and go play. We're pleased with where he is."
In Hirschman's absence, redshirt freshman John Schrock is getting more looks at QB. Schrock, impressive from the outset last August as a walk-on, said Hirschman not being on the field hasn't altered his approach.
"I came into the spring expecting to compete," Schrock said. "Just because Nick's out doesn't mean I won't be competing with him when he comes back. I always put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well. Coach (Rip) Scherer says we're not competing with each other, but ourselves to make ourselves better. I've gone into it with that mindset. However many reps I get, I'm trying to do the best with those. Having Nick out doesn't really change how I went about it."
Schrock said the entire offense's familiarity with the playbook and concepts in Embree's and his staff's second spring was obvious. Plus, he said the offense "got pretty wordy last year . . . there was a lot of verbiage. The coaches have tried to make it easier on everybody. Now everyone is on the same page, which makes it great."
When practice resumes, Schrock said he hopes to improve on his accuracy and "take more ownership of the offense. I'd like to make more protection calls, too. I've felt good about that, but I need to get better."
Wood, who transferred from Texas last fall and sat out the 2011 season and directed the scout team, hasn't had this much work since his senior season in high school. "It's great experience," he said. "I haven't felt this 'in charge' of the team out on the field since that time when I was a senior. It's good to get back into it and get that experience."
Over CU's first eight practices, he said he continues to firm up his grasp of the offense and sharpen his ability to call audibles and quickly recognize defenses. Over the last seven practices, he said needs to "make quicker decisions when the defense gives a certain look."
Although the run game appeared more productive than the passing game on Thursday, Wood said there has been offensive balance through the first half of spring work: "I think there have been really great things in both . . . we showed a great running game (Thursday), but in our previous seven practices we've shown good things on both sides of the offense. But the running game and the offensive line showed up (Thursday) and did a good job."
Unlike Jones, Wood plans to take a break next week, returning to Texas with his family, then heading for Florida. Embree also was taking a break from football, leaving immediately after the scrimmage. He emphasized to the Buffs in their post-practice huddle that, wherever they went and whatever they did, to "remember who we represent and who we are," Wood said.