Woelk: Dorrell Now Firmly Placing His Stamp On Buffs Program
BOULDER — Technically, Colorado's Karl Dorrell will soon be entering his second year as the Buffaloes' head coach.
But in reality, Dorrell is finally approaching what will hopefully be his first "normal" year at the Buffs' helm.
We know all what Dorrell's initial season in Boulder entailed. Hired incredibly late in the cycle, he walked into an unprecedented situation that became only more bizarre and unpredictable as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded.
Simply keeping the program from tumbling off a cliff would have been a success.
But as we also know, Dorrell did far more than that. He wrung more out of 2020 than maybe any other coach in the Pac-12. Handed a fistful of lemons from the beginning, and seemingly more at every juncture, Dorrell squeezed lemonade from every corner possible. He finished with a winning record (4-2), took the Buffs to a bowl game and had them in contention for a conference title.
Those are no small accomplishments given the obstacles thrown his way.
But now — finally — Dorrell has the chance to truly put his stamp on the program. That means his recruits, his coaches and his philosophy, from the playbook to the classroom to the community. It means an honest-to-goodness spring ball session (fingers crossed), an offseason when he can meet regularly with his players and coaches — in person — and an opportunity to instill the culture he wants to build on a daily basis.
Construction is moving ahead quickly.
Already, Dorrell has tweaked his coaching staff. He promoted D-line coach Chris Wilson to defensive coordinator, added Mark Smith as inside linebackers coach, promoted analyst Bryan Cook to tight ends coach, added the duties of defensive passing game coordinator to safeties coach Brett Maxie, and brought in highly regarded Shannon Turley as the new strength and conditioning coordinator.
Each of the new hires meets Dorrell's all-important standards as a teacher and communicator. Those are qualities Dorrell has stressed as being integral to the process since the day he was hired and he made sure each new staffer will be a good fit in that regard.
Meanwhile, the on-field changes on defense will help the Buffs become more closely aligned with the philosophies Dorrell wants to instill.
"Our back seven — linebackers safeties and corners, that whole coverage group — has to be pretty much on the same page and understanding everyone's role and how the coverages work," Dorrell said. "I think with (Smith), myself, Brett Maxie, Demetrice Martin, Coach (Chris) Wilson, along with Brian Michalowski with the linebackers, all those people being on the same page and in concert are really important."
(Side note here: Dorrell knows good defense. A few days before the recent Super Bowl, he was asked his thoughts on the game. His response: "I know (Tampa defensive coordinator) Todd Bowles because I worked for him at the Jets. He is a great defensive coach. Whenever you give him time to prepare, he usually comes out pretty good … Defensively, the way Tampa is playing right now and how they played against Green Bay, they are going to be very confident.")
Meanwhile, Dorrell is also proving to be a quick study in negotiating the new world presented by the transfer portal and what it means to the process of building a program.
In this area, Dorrell is already on an even playing field with his peers simply because the portal process is so new. While recruiting is still the foundational piece of building any program, Dorrell has also quickly determined that the portal can provide immediate, experienced help in areas that need shoring up in a hurry.
This year, he has already added three transfers who will not only fill needs, but also bring to CU the traits he and his staff value. They will fill position needs and be important pieces of the culture he is formulating.
"The players that we've added from the portal, those were key players for us that I think are going to help us and impact our play this year," he said. "We've vetted every situation in and around these kids. We feel that they're the type of player that we need, not only for us to play better but also they will be great fits in our program because their core beliefs and everything are really consistent to who we are as a football program. I am adding the right people and the right mindset going into what the expectations are. And they're really, really good people I think our players will gravitate to."
Since the day he arrived, Dorrell's goal has been to return Colorado to the level that he remembers when he worked as an assistant in Boulder in the 1990s. Those Buffaloes were nationally relevant on an annual basis. They competed for league championships, regularly earned top-25 rankings, sent players to the NFL every season and were annual participants in bowl games.
But that hasn't been the case in Boulder for nearly two decades and Dorrell knows returning to that level won't be an overnight process. He is fully aware of how CU's program matched up against Texas in the Alamo Bowl, and he knows there is work to be done.
Lots of it.
"We still have a ways to go, there's no question about that," he said. "We have to get a couple good recruiting classes in. It's going to take two or three years to get to a level we need to be, where we're the type of program that should be on a national level."
But after a year of wondering what kind of roadblocks were awaiting at every turn, CU's head coach finally has what might be a normal year ahead of him. He has the opportunity to put his stamp on the program, and there's no doubt about the direction he wants to go.
His program, his coaches, his players, his culture.
The process is moving forward. Colorado is building for the future with a firm hand at the helm and a clear vision of how to navigate the road ahead. Stability — a commodity too often in short supply around the program — appears to have returned.
That is enough to make any Buffs fan look forward with optimism.