MacIntyre, Buffs Eager For Launch Of Pivotal Spring
BOULDER - Inside this second floor lunch room turned Colorado football epicenter, head coach Mike MacIntyre and much of his coaching staff, some of their faces familiar while others not so, are holding court.
The fiery head coach is just two days away from leading his Colorado Buffaloes into the start of their third spring camp under his tutleage, one that is sure to be highlighted by the infusion of the new and renovation of the old. And this meeting room, on this day, might have epitomized that just as much as watching this team practice 15 times over the next month ever could.
MacIntyre and his staff have been tasked with reinventing Colorado football and returning the masses to those same seats they once cheered so jubliantly from during the height of a Bill McCartney era that from 1988-94 produced seven bowl appearances, three double-digit win seasons, a Heisman trophy winner and a national championship.
At one table in the Dal Ward Athletic Center's Varsity Room, MacIntyre speaks definitively to a handful of local media about his narrowly focused goals for a young and mostly inexperienced team (gone are 22 lettermen, seven starters and two assistant coaches) over this next month.
"(We need to work on) defense, defense, special teams and to keep our offense going in the right direction," said MacIntyre. "And it's all in that order. Personnel-wise with the junior college kids, we've got to find out where they fit in the scheme. On special teams, we feel like we've got to find out who our field goal kicker is. Offensively, we've got to replace the guards (Daniel Munyer and Kaiwi Crabb have both graduated). We also lost (wide receivers) D.D. Goodson and Tyler McCulloch, so we've got to figure out where to utilize everybody."
That junior college class is highlighted by sophomore running back Aaron Baltazar, once a highly-touted prospect out of high school who fell victim to a knee injury at Boise State then transferred to Southwestern College for a year. On defense, there are cornerback Afolabi Laguda, who earned honorable mention in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference, and linemen Blake Robbins, who impressed in limited duty at Georgia Military College, and Jordan Carrell, a JC All-America selection at American River College. Laguda, Robbins and Carrell are January enrollees and will participate in spring drills; Baltazar will be a fall enrollee.
At another table sits the afternoon's biggest attraction in newly hired defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. He will replace Kent Baer, who left for the same position at UNLV, along with defensive ends coach Andy LaRussa, shortly after last season. As the team's third defensive coordinator in four years, Leavitt will be expected to rehabilitate a unit that has ranked in the bottom fourth in total defense in each of the program's first four years in the Pac-12.
LEAVITT WAS ONCE THE RESIDENT miracle worker on the campus of the University of South Florida as he took a program from absolute ground zero to a brief stint to No. 2 in the country in just over a decade. Leavitt's first year as USF's coach was the school's first with a football program; he and his staff initially worked out of trailers while a football facility was built.
Just a few years prior, he had helped to mold what had been traditionally one of the nation's worst defensive units into its absolute best in six years as defensive coordinator at Kansas State. He is no stranger to the Folsom Field-sized makeover required for the Colorado defense. With an eye toward the significant weight that he must soon shoulder, Leavitt wasted little time in reminding the media that any drastic, overnight turnaround is unlikely no matter who the defensive coordinator might be.
"Probably the best offenses in the country are in this conference," said Leavitt. "This is a great challenge. I've had some great challenges in my life and this will probably be one of the toughest. You may have hurdles, but when you hit those hurdles you just have to keep going and hope that you have enough leaders on your defense that are like that. Because if you don't, you don't have a chance and it won't be any different with me than it would with anybody else (in this position).
"There's been some good coaches; these haven't been bad coaches that have been through here. The defensive coordinator you had in here before, I know him well. He's very good. I'm not any different than anybody, I'm just trying to do the best that I can. I just want to work hard and that's it."
Leavitt's defense will lose top corner Greg Henderson and top-flight reserve middle linebacker Brady Daigh, but will welcome the return of eight of the team's 10 leading tacklers from a year ago. Leavitt hasn't learned a whole lot about the team's defensive talent in the week since he's been hired. But after more than 30 years of coaching on that side of the ball he now believes more in taking his cue from his players instead of dictating to them and then weeding some out based on his scheme. In this regard, evaluation of returning talent must wait until camp is in full swing.
"I think our defensive identity is up to our guys," said Leavitt. "I want our guys around the ball, obviously, like every defensive coach. (I want them to) be sound, be around the ball and get off blocks. It's going to be a process but I think a lot of it is up to them. If people think we're going to be out there and we're going to be all that (good really quickly), they're nuts. It's going to take some time. It's up to those guys."
MacIntyre went into a little more detail, since he has more of a feel with the personnel on defense, and said he expects the team to transition some players to other positions. Linebacker is a target for one of those transitions, as the loss of three seniors and injuries to some returnees has left the team short on depth. Most notable in the experimentation will be sophomore defensive end Christian Shaver moving to inside linebacker opposite junior Addison Gillam. Also, former Air Force quarterback Jaleel Awini is expected to be given a look at linebacker.
"That's where he played in high school," MacIntyre said of Shaver. "We felt like last year, going into the season, that he has progressed well enough to play where we could drop him (back). We didn't have enough guys out there especially when Markeis Reed had the hernia surgery and we had some other situations.
"Then, Tyler Henington goes down so I'm just looking and saying, 'Ok, that's a good enough athlete (Shaver) to help us.' So, now I think moving him inside gives us more depth and we're able to do that. He's a similar build to Addison, so that's the thought process on that. Now, he could always go back outside too but I would like to leave him in there."
Finally, at a third table sits the staff's latest whiz kid in offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren. He has slowly turned a passing game that ranked near the bottom nationally in 2012 to one that became one of the top in the country in 2014, averaging 284.6 yards per game. Those numbers promise to improve as many of the key cogs will be back in 2015, including junior quarterback Sefo Liufau and senior wide receiver Nelson Spruce. Liufau set nearly every single-season school passing record last season, including touchdown passes (28), completions (325), and passing yards (3,200). Spruce became one of only a handful a players in FBS history to record more than 100 receptions in a season.
IF THERE WAS AN ACHILLES heel for that facet of the offense, it might have been the rash of turnovers that included Liufau's 15 interceptions. Some likely cost the team opportunities for a few more late-season wins. Lindgren's spring focus will be on finding a way to limit the number of turnovers without changing his quarterback's mechanical or mental approach. Liufau's development also figures to be a point of public intrigue over the next month.
"I think it all will start with the overall decision making," said Lindgren. "But, you have to be careful. I think it's a fine line with a quarterback because you don't want them to lose their moxie, their aggressiveness, their confidence. If you say, 'Don't throw any interceptions,' then, they become timid and they don't take chances. I think with a quarterback, you want them to play with a little bit of an edge and you want them to have some confidence and make some throws and some plays for you at the same time.
"You watch all 15 of those interceptions and you could put a lot of them on the quarterback, but you can also put a fair amount of them on other positions. It's also the protection with both the running back and the offensive line, it's the receivers releasing down field correctly and getting to the right spot and looking for a quick pass versus pressure. So, overall ball security and eliminating some of those turnovers is something we need to work on."
Goodson and McCulloch were players that succeeded by finding a clearly defined role and excelling at it. Goodson manned the slot position on almost an every-down basis over the last two years and developed a knack for catching passes in the space underneath as defensive backs tried to limit the big play ability of Spruce and freshman Shay Fields. He also made frequent contributions in the running game.
Goodson will be missed, but Lindgren thinks he may have pinpointed a replacement in sophomore Donovan Lee. He managed 13 catches in limited action in 2014 and has the kind of skill set that dictates a bigger role in the offense.
"D.D. did a lot of great things blocking in the run game, which doesn't always show up in the stats," said Lindgren. "In the slot, that was a huge reason for some of the success we had in the run game was his blocking on the perimeter. So, I'm really excited about Donovan because I think he can do that too. I also think he understands what we're trying to do in the slot and he has the ability to turn a short throw into a big gain. That's one of the things we look for in the position. We will also try some reverses with that spot. I think when you get the ball in (Lee's) hands, it's going to produce some big things for us."
While his offense often soared thru the air, his running game sputtered for much of the year, at times leaving the Colorado offense a one-dimensional sideshow. Injuries hampered junior Michael Adkins and senior Christian Powell, CU's leading rushers, for a large portion of the season. But with both players healthy, Colorado hopes that a unit that ranked ninth in the conference in rush yards per game a year ago can gain significant headway this fall.
Another area of spring interest will be replacing kicking-game stalwarts Will Oliver (placekicker) and Darragh O'Neill (punter). Both were four-year starters. The void left by O'Neill is expected to be filled by local signee Alex Kinney, who was viewed by many as the state's top high school kicker last fall.
The placekicking vacancy is a little bit more of an uncertainty. The likely candidates include junior Diego Gonzalez and sophomore Chris Graham.
"We feel like that young man, Kinney, will end up being the punter but one of these other young men here has got to be able to show they can punt too," said MacIntyre. "So, we've got to figure out which one is best for that. The kicking competition is really one that could continue until right before the start of the season. We're hoping to have one kid kick field goals and one just do kickoffs, but if not the best guy is going to play."
With that, Colorado football's saviors packed up shop and left, the lunch room in the athletic center became just that once again. Progress won't wait.