Seven Storylines For CU Spring Ball
BOULDER — In one of those rarities created by the Covid-19 pandemic, Colorado coach Karl Dorrell will conduct his first spring ball session with the Buffaloes after completing his first regular season in Boulder.
(It has happened once before in CU history. Bill McCartney was hired in the summer of 1982 and coached the fall season before conducting his first spring session in 1983.)
Still, not even McCartney dealt with all the unique circumstances that Dorrell has faced, ranging from a greatly abbreviated and limited summer conditioning session last year to a five-game regular season that didn't start until November to workout sessions that must still follow Covid-prevention protocol.
But Dorrell last season proved to be quite adept at taking Covid lemons and making lemonade. He guided Colorado to a 4-2 record, had the Buffs in contention for a Pac-12 South title right up to the final weekend, and earned CU's first bowl bid since 2016 (and only the second since 2007).
Now, he has his first spring session to continue to implement his culture, his system and, ever-increasingly, players he recruited.
The CU staff's to-do list for their 15 spring practices will no doubt be a long one, and it will by no means be completed in just a month.
But here are seven storylines to watch beginning Monday, when the Buffs will finally get to conduct a spring practice under Dorrell:
1. Implement new defensive coordinator Chris Wilson's system. While the overall look of the defense probably won't change a great deal, Wilson will no doubt tweak CU's scheme with several goals in mind.
One is to simplify it to a degree so newcomers and young players have a better opportunity to grasp the concepts and immediately compete and contribute.
Another will be to tailor the attack to CU's best players. Wilson is a big believer in evaluating and identifying talent, then fitting the scheme to fit the best players.
And, the Buffs want to greatly reduce the number of big plays they yield. Colorado last year gave up 27 plays of 20 yards or more in five regular season games — then allowed 13 in the Alamo Bowl loss to Texas.
2. Quarterback development. With last year's starter, Sam Noyer, out for the spring following shoulder surgery, it opens the door to get plenty of snaps to the players who will challenge for the job next fall.
Tops on the list is freshman Brendon Lewis, who had a sparkling debut in the Alamo Bowl (95 yards passing, 73 yards and a touchdown rushing). But it will also mean plenty of chances for transfer J.T. Shrout (who is awaiting an NCAA ruling on eligibility for next fall) as well as true freshman Drew Carter.
It will be a big spring for Lewis and Shrout. Lewis was robbed of his first spring session last year, and thus had to learn on the fly in the fall. For Shrout, it's a chance to get his feet wet under QBs coach/passing game coordinator Danny Langsdorf and offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini.
Both will be expected to challenge Noyer in fall camp. Their spring development will be critical in that competition.
3. Inside linebacker development. While starter and defensive leader Nate Landman will be back for the fall, he won't be available in the spring after Achilles surgery. CU's other starter last season, Akil Jones, has graduated and moved on.
That will give new ILB coach Mark Smith plenty of opportunity to work with the rest of the group. That includes veteran Jonathan Van Diest, graduate transfer Robert Barnes (Oklahoma), junior Quinn Perry, freshmen Marvin Ham II and new freshman Zephania Maea. Mister Williams will join the group in August but will miss the spring with an injury.
This will be a spot with lots of competition that will no doubt carry over into fall camp. Whoever jumps out early with a good spring will have a head start come August.
4. Tight end development. It's no secret that Dorrell wants the tight end — or tight ends — to be a regular cog in Colorado's offense. It showed last year when Brady Russell caught five passes in CU's opening win over UCLA.
But Russell was injured the following week against Stanford, and CU tight ends caught just five more passes the rest of the year.
Russell likely won't be full go for the spring, but as new TE coach Bryan Cook noted last week, that's not a big problem. The Buffs know what Russell brings to the table.
What it does do is open the door for more repetitions for Colorado's other tight ends — and there are 12 on the roster. That includes veterans C.J. Schmanski (who stepped in for Russell last season), Jared Poplawski and Matt Lynch; as well as incoming freshman Erik Olsen, a prize of the recruiting class, and returning freshman Caleb Fauria.
It's another position where separation in the spring will be key — and every rep will count, whether veteran or newcomer.
5. Depth at running back. There's no doubt who the leader of this group is. Sophomore Jarek Broussard took the Pac-12 by storm last year, rushing for 813 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 6.3 yards per pop.
But Broussard also averaged more than 25 carries per game — a big load for any back and certainly a lot for one who checks in at 5-9, 185 pounds. It's hard to see that kind of workload stretching over a 12-game season.
The good news is there's plenty of talent in RB coach Darian Hagan's room, beginning with Alex Fontenot, the team's leading rusher two years ago. Returning freshman Ashaad Clayton showed some bursts last season as well as a nose for the end zone (two TDs), sophomore Joe Davis also has plenty of potential and returnee Jayle Stacks offers a different look from the backfield.
Here's where depth will no doubt be critical — and it won't be a surprise to see one of the youngsters rise up and offer a stiff challenge to Broussard and Fontenot.
6. Develop depth on the offensive line and replace standout tackle. The good news is that eight of the nine Buffs who started at least one game on the line last year are back.
The downside is the one who isn't returning, left tackle Will Sherman, is a three-year starter who is moving on to the NFL and leaves behind a big hole up front.
Still, there's a nice foundation from which to build. Returning starters Colby Pursell, Kary Kutsch, Casey Roddick and Frank Fillip offer a solid base; and returnees Kanan Ray and Chance Lytle bring experience to the table as well (although Lytle and Roddick won't be available for the spring).
Meanwhile, there are plenty of youngsters ready to stake a claim to some playing time. The group includes Jake Wiley, Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan (at 6-10 the tallest player in CU football history), Valentin Senn and Carson Lee.
7. Replace departed starters on the defensive line and at safety. Mustafa Johnson's departure no doubt leaves a hole up front, but there are plenty of candidates ready to fill the gap. Na'im Rodman, Jeremiah Doss, Janaz Jordan, Lloyd Murray Jr. and Austin Williams all have experience and will have the opportunity this spring to put themselves in the mix.
The availability of experience at free safety, where Derrion Rakestraw started last year, isn't quite so deep. While Isaiah Lewis stepped in and became a fixture at strong safety, the candidates at free safety could include Mark Perry, Chris Miller and Toren Pittman.
It will no doubt be a priority area for safeties coach/defensive passing game coordinator Brett Maxie.