Brooks: Powell Eager For Second Season At Tailback
(First in a series of position-by-position previews of the 2013 Buffs to be posted on CUBuffs.com during preseason camp. Today: Running backs)
BOULDER - Last September, the element of surprise worked in Christian Powell's favor. This September - and for the remainder of the 2013 football season - Powell can't count on being an unknown in Colorado's backfield.
But that's not such a bad thing. For Powell, tailback is no longer an unfamiliar position. After a high school career and nearly an entire August camp at CU spent at fullback, he debuted at tailback in the Buffs' second game last season. His 147 yards and three touchdowns provided the lone bright spot in an unsettling 30-28 home loss to Sacramento State.
Switching to tailback was nearly as big an adjustment for Powell as simply acclimating to the college game.
"It's a whole different level; you've got to improve everything tremendously," he said. "Now, it's year-round - training, working to better yourself to play against bigger, faster, stronger people. You know you have to upgrade your game to match that."
He's upgraded his game most noticeably "in my reads," he said. "I've been working on that a lot. At this level you have to or you're going to run into a mess."
More than one tackler encountered that when running into the bullish Powell. He finished 2012 as the Buffs' leading rusher, gaining 691 yards on 158 carries (4.37 yard average) and scoring seven TDs. This season finds him packing more experience and fewer pounds; he's down five pounds to a trim 229 - a considerable drop from the nearly 260 he was carrying when he visited CU two winters ago.
CU running backs coach Klayton Adams is counting on Powell, a sophomore, being the load-bearing tailback in a two- or three-man rushing attack that likely will feature junior Tony Jones and senior Josh Ford.
That's TBD in camp, along with the roles other tailbacks - returnees and fresh faces - who might challenge for playing time and carries once the season begins. But Adams is fairly certain about this: Powell and whoever else steps up will provide the Buffs different looks at the position.
"The more different styles you have the more opportunity you give yourself on offense," Powell said. "Having these different styles, we can throw more at teams and be more effective."
Powell and Jones (5-7, 190), noted Adams, "are their own styles of runners and Josh Ford (5-9, 205) factors in as a guy who can do a lot of different things and has some flexibility. You start off looking at those three guys and say you have some pretty good flexibility there. All three catch the ball pretty naturally, which is big for us. All three have a pretty solid understanding of what we expect from them in pass protection as well."
In addition to that trio, Adams plans an early assessment of returnees Donta Abron, Malcolm Creer and Terrence Crowder and incoming freshmen Phillip Lindsay, Michael Adkins II and Ryan Moeller. Lindsay (Denver South) and Adkins (San Diego Helix) are scholarship players, Moeller (Rifle) is a walk-on. Lindsay, coming off a knee injury in high school, is to be used at running back, while Moeller has worked at running back/defensive back during the summer.
As for how many backs he'll play on a given Saturday, Adams won't pigeonhole himself or his players. The "hot hand" theory might or might not hold. "It probably depends on how comfortable you feel with the depth," he said. "We played two different guys last season (at San Jose State) because we felt like they were the two who could help us the most.
"But if we're in a situation where we're looking to run the ball a lot, I think you've got to have different guys to spread it out to. The other side of that is if there's one guy you just can't take off the field, then you don't take him off the field."
Entering training camp, Adams' goal was to determine his most productive backs and "try to put them and the offense in the best position to be successful . . . but if you're running downhill a bunch and into the line of scrimmage in short yardage situations with someone that doesn't have that as a strength, then you're not putting your team in position to be successful."
Powell sees his short-yardage capabilities as a strength, although one observation from the former coaching staff was that he ran "high in the hole" - or upright when reaching the line of scrimmage. That critique isn't new to him and he's addressing it.
This coaching staff, said Powell, has instructed him "to run comfortable. If I'm running through a hole straight up, I'm going to get popped, obviously. So if (Adams) sees that he's going to point it out to me and tell me to lower my pad level. I'm going to continue working at that so eventually it becomes what I do on every carry. Usually when I'm running I try to stay low. But sometimes it just happens; you come up."
CU's offensive goals might differ weekly, but in the run game there will be this constant: Coach Mike MacIntyre wants the number of rushing attempts at a high level. Explained Adams: "The reason we say attempts is that when you're getting attempts you're being productive on the runs you're attempting. If you come to the end of the game and you don't have a lot of rushing attempts, it's usually because you haven't been effective in it.
"Sometimes early in a game you might not be effective but you keep hammering and hammering and pretty soon the wall comes down . . . I don't know that we look at a certain statistic in terms of (weekly) yardage or yardage for this back or that back. But we want to wear down the opponent and to be able to take pressure off of the pass game by running effectively. And your defense can rest."
The running game relieving pressure in the passing game is particularly important because the Buffs will open the season with a relatively inexperienced quarterback. "We have to do it," Adams said. "It doesn't mean we have to line up with I-backs and beat somebody's brains in. There's a time and place for that. But one of the things I think we can be effective in is running the ball with different tempos, looks and formations, shifts and motions and dressing it up a little bit."
Adams, who also coaches the tight ends, believes his tailbacks and fullbacks - how much Alex Wood, Clay Jones and Jordan Murphy are used at that position will vary weekly - appear proficient in pass protection. A key, Adams said, is "not to put a back in a position where he's one-on-one with someone he'll have a real problem with . . . most sacks come off a four-man rush. When a back is able to get out to his spot and understand the concept, it generally takes pressure off some of the offensive linemen when they're going against a great pass rusher. That's been a key for us."
The Buffs will use variations of the pistol offense, which doesn't ask any less from a back in pass blocking than any other offensive scheme. "When we're lined up that way we're giving a little less away to the defense in terms of what our intentions are," Adams said. "Sometimes we can end up with a more vanilla look. But we're not lined up that way all the time. I wouldn't say less is asked of him; I'd say we're trying to make his job a little easier in terms of scheme. In general it's designed to get the back downhill faster in the run game and give away less information about what you're doing in the pass game."
After spring drills, Powell said the new offense appeared more player-friendly than last season's pro-style scheme: "Yeah . . . they made it easier to understand. As a team we're picking it up well; it's not too complicated for us."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Klayton Adams, first season on CU staff
Returning starters: Christian Powell, So.; Tony Jones, Jr.
Returnees: Donta Abron, So.; Malcolm Creer, Jr.; Terrence Crowder, Fr.-RS; Josh Ford, Sr.; Clay Jones (FB), So.; Jordan Murphy (FB), So.; Alex Wood (FB/TE), Sr.
Newcomers: Michael Adkins II, Fr.; Phillip Lindsay (also DB), Fr.; Ryan Moeller (also DB), Fr.
Key losses: None
Stat line: The top three leading rushers (Powell, Jones, Abron) are back and - if the restructured O-line coalesces - should help the Buffs improve on last season's 110.3 rushing yards a game. Powell rushed for 691 yards in 2012, Jones for 320 and Abron 256.
Bottom line: Powell and Jones offer a night-and-day different TB combination. Ford, recognized as a tireless worker, is listed with Jones as a co-backup to Powell and with a good camp could challenge for more playing time. For depth purposes, the coaching staff will take a close look in camp at the other returnees as well as anyone (Moeller) who could play another position before finding a home. Creer has shed 15 pounds and appears to have healthy knees. "His body looks great and he looks like he's made big jumps," Adams said. Abron also appears healthy after a hamstring injury curtailed his spring participation. "He had some explosive plays as a freshman," Adams said. The coaching staff wants to see if a healthy Crowder, who has what Adams calls a "unique style of running," can duplicate what he showed in his high school highlight tapes.
Next: Tight ends