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Woelk: Buffs' George, Dorrell Have Done Outstanding Job Negotiating Covid Obstacles

Nov 20, 2020

BOULDER — For those who pay attention to more than just the score, watching Colorado Buffaloes coach Karl Dorrell and his staff negotiate the circumstances presented by the coronavirus pandemic has been a lesson in preparation and planning that goes far beyond just the first two games.

Yes, the Buffaloes are 2-0 and awaiting a showdown with USC for control of the Pac-12 South. That is reason enough for celebration for Buffs fans.

But underneath that record and a season that will forever be preceded by an asterisk, Dorrell is doing something that will resonate far beyond 2020.

Colorado's new head coach — the coach who had been away from the college game for 11 of the last 12 seasons — has created a game plan that could put the Buffs on a solid foundation for years to come.

Understand, Dorrell — like every other coach in the country — had no blueprint to follow. There was no such thing as a "pandemic plan" when he took the job last February. 

But instead of panicking, Dorrell prepared. He studied, he learned and adjusted as circumstances changed. While knowing that every hour can present a never-seen-before scenario that could alter the entire picture, he has nevertheless maintained a steady, intense focus that has kept his program always looking forward. 

Now, the results are appearing.

From the beginning, Dorrell has faced roadblocks. No spring ball in his first season. A truncated summer session made even more difficult by pandemic protocols. An abbreviated start, full stop and finally a much-delayed restart of the season.

But instead of lapsing into catchup mode, instead of falling back on excuses and alibis, Colorado's new coach has been proactive. He has not just  deftly negotiated the obstacles, he has in some instances turned them into positives.

Quite simply, he has crafted a blueprint to address an unprecedented problem while installing a game plan that will pay dividends for years to come.

We all know Dorrell inherited a team with just nine scholarship seniors. There were positions where depth — at least in terms of experience — was almost non-existent.

But what we have seen is Colorado's coach use the circumstances created by the pandemic as a tool instead of a burden. With this year basically a "freebie" in terms of eligibility, he is carefully playing as many young, inexperienced players as possible. He is building depth, building experience — and building a foundation for the future

Of course, two of the biggest stories in the Pac-12 thus far this season have been the emergence of Buffs quarterback Sam Noyer and running back Jarek Broussard. Noyer had seen only sparing duty as a quarterback at CU, and actually spent last season watching quarterbacks on tape as a backup safety. Broussard had never played a down for the Buffs.

Their emergence has no doubt been critical.

But along with the headliners, the CU staff is carefully bringing along other young players who will be contributors for the next several seasons. Dorrell has stressed the importance of depth since the day he arrived in Boulder, and he's building it on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis.

"I'm looking at this season, this fall, as really improving our depth," Dorrell said earlier this week. "Getting some experience with some certain positions, guys that haven't played. Freshmen, we'd like to get them some experience in playing. Anytime we can do that with guys that haven't played, it helps their confidence and game experience."

It's why Isaiah Lewis was ready to step in and play all 79 defensive snaps in last weekend's win over Stanford. It's why freshman linebacker Joshka Gustav has 45 snaps to his credit, with two quarterback pressures and a big pass breakup. Sophomore defensive lineman Na'im Rodman has 20 snaps. Freshman running back Ashaad Clayton got his first carry last week. Sophomore offensive lineman Kanan Ray had 10 snaps against Stanford, most coming on a key second half touchdown drive. Sophomore running back Joe Davis has a couple carries. Freshman tackle Jake Wiley had a handful of snaps against Stanford. Freshman receivers Brenden Rice, La'Vontae Shenault and Montana Lemonious-Craig have all seen critical playing time.

The list is long — and remember, neither of CU's first two games were blowouts. None of these youngsters were getting mop-up duty. These were jump-into-the-fire-and-do-your-job appearances with the game on the line. 

What we're seeing is Dorrell seamlessly balancing winning football and building for the future. While the 2020 season will no doubt forever be tagged with an asterisk, the development these young Buffs are getting this year is very, very real. They are the foundation of the future, and every snap is a building block. The investments CU coaches are making now will deliver healthy dividends for the next several years. 

Of course, Dorrell and his staff have not negotiated the current environment on their own. Leadership — from CU Chancellor Phil DiStefano to Athletic Rick George on down — has been outstanding since the very beginning of the pandemic.

George, whose top priority has always been student-athletes, reinforced that philosophy with a carefully planned approach. Everything from meals to facilities to medical care and testing has been first rate.

CU's Health and Performance staff, under the direction of Miguel Rueda, has been on the cutting edge of protocol and procedure since the beginning. The facilities crew, led by Deputy Athletic Director Jason DePaepe, has provided a safe and healthy environment for every sport. Laura Anderson's nutrition team has kept student-athletes fueled despite a multitude of obstacles, while Kris Livingston's Herbst Academic Center team has helped students maintain CU's typical outstanding grade point averages.

Meanwhile, Colorado coaches and staff have done an excellent job in educating their student-athletes in the importance of all the covid basics: masks, social distancing and basic responsible behavior.

The result has been one of the most successful testing and safety rates in Division I athletics.

No doubt, there is still a long road ahead. Unseen obstacles clearly remain.

But supporters of CU Athletics have also seen clear evidence that the department they loyally support is winning in virtually every regard.

In these turbulent times, that should no doubt be a reassuring feeling for Buff Nation.