Buffs Training Camp Preview: Storylines Plentiful As CU Readies To Open Camp
BOULDER — A year ago, new Colorado football coach Karl Dorrell took lemons and made lemonade.
In the face of unprecedented circumstances caused by the Covid pandemic, Dorrell excelled. The Buffaloes won four of five regular season games, put themselves in contention for a Pac-12 South title and earned CU's first bowl bid since 2016.
For those efforts, Dorrell earned Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors — and perhaps more importantly, sent a message that the Buffaloes were ready to move forward, no matter what obstacles popped up in their path.
Now, while it is technically his second year at the helm, Dorrell is preparing his team for its first "normal" season under his direction.
The Buffs were able to have a spring ball session. They were able to participate in a full summer's worth of work, including a complete series of workouts under new director of sports performance Shannon Turley.
Next comes fall camp, set to open Aug. 5, and then a 12-game schedule that includes a non-conference lineup ranked among the nation's 10 toughest (Northern Colorado, Texas A&M and Minnesota). It is also worth noting that CU will have the opportunity for 100 percent capacity at Folsom Field — a huge boost for players who spent last season playing mostly in front of empty seats.
There is no doubt a long list of fall camp priorities for Dorrell and his staff, from position battles to the continued installation of a new defense and a revamped offense. Camp will also be important for Dorrell's continued goal of building depth throughout the roster, and it will be another important step as well in developing the culture of the program — something that can't be accomplished in just a few weeks.
Storylines will be plentiful. We have outlined a few here that should be especially compelling as camp unfolds and the Sept. 3 opener against Northern Colorado (7 p.m., Folsom Field) draws nearer.
Position battles — Yes, every fall camp has its share. But the positions up for grabs this year, and the wealth of talent at those spots, will make every snap of every practice critical for players aiming to earn a spot atop the depth chart.
Of course, tops on the list is quarterback, where all eyes will be on freshman Brendon Lewis, who had an outstanding college debut in the Alamo Bowl, and sophomore J.T. Shrout, a transfer from Tennessee who had an excellent spring. The two emerged from the spring in a virtual dead heat, and they will no doubt find their every move in fall camp under the microscope as coaches go through the process of identifying a starter.
But there will be plenty of other battles worth watching. At running back, Jarek Broussard (last season's Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year) missed much of the spring, opening the door for Alex Fontentot (CU's leading rusher in 2019) and talented freshman Ashaad Clayton to display their talents. There will also be plenty of competition on the defensive line, at wide receiver, inside and outside linebacker, and the defensive line.
The situation is what coaches love to see — competition between talented players who push to make each other better. Watching the battles unfold will no doubt provide interesting storylines as camp moves forward.
Continued install of new defense — When Dorrell named defensive line coach Chris Wilson as his new defensive coordinator, he made it clear that Wilson's scheme would be much more "player friendly." Translation: fewer checks and adjustments, which means an easier-to-grasp system that allows young players to come in and compete right away and older players to take full advantage of their abilities instead of getting mired down in last-second adjustments.
Judging from CU's 15 spring practices, the new system should provide a boost. Playmakers such as OLB Carson Wells were in the middle of the action regularly while the defensive line rotation seemed to hit stride quickly.
One key will be the development of a relatively inexperienced but talented secondary. If that bunch can find its groove and the D-line can take a step forward in the run game, the defense has a chance to be a much-improved bunch.
Offensive adjustments — One thing is certain here: the Buffs have no lack of talent in the skill positions. Along with the deep group of running backs and talented (if untested) quarterbacks, the Buffs also have a wealth of ability at wide receiver, where offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Darrin Chiaverini has kept the cupboard well-stocked. Meanwhile, the tight end position is again deep and talented (and, most importantly, healthy).
But how the Buffs utilize all that talent is what counts. We saw the Buffs experiment with some different looks in the spring, trying to emphasize the strengths of every skill position. As always, a balanced attack will be a priority for Dorrell (the Buffs averaged 218 yards per game on the ground last fall and 202 in the air), and with the talent available, there's no reason to think that balance won't be maintained.
One more fall priority on offense? Up front, where the Buffs have a solid core of returning starters, including Colby Pursell, Kary Kutsch and Frank Fillip, as well as some key reserves. If O-line coach Mitch Rodrigue can take this group to another level, it will be the foundation of an offense capable of putting plenty of points on the board.
Depth development — While the 2021 season is obviously the most important task at hand, Dorrell and staff will continue to develop young players and depth for the future.
Dorrell isn't here for the quick fix. He's building for the long term, which means getting younger players quality snaps whenever possible. That not only prepares them to be ready if needed this year, but also gives them a springboard for 2022 and beyond.
Bigger, faster, stronger — and more durable? The addition of Turley as the strength and conditioning boss quietly drew rave reviews in coaching circles. He is a coach who earned a great reputation in his years at Stanford — and it's no coincidence that his years with the Cardinal were also the same period when Stanford was consistently among the Pac-12 elite.
One of the more underappreciated tasks of a strength/conditioning coach is building durability to prevent injury. That was one of his specialties at Stanford, where the Cardinal had years in which the same five offensive linemen started every game — a testament to durability.
If Turley can bring that kind of consistency to CU, it will be a huge plus, especially late in camp — and late in the season, when injuries are often a deciding factor.
Development of leadership — This isn't something coaches can designate. Players have to earn their leadership bones through their actions on and off the field.
There's no doubt the defense already has touchstones in senior ILB Nate Landman and OLB Wells. Both have earned the respect of their teammates through their performance, work ethic and accountability.
But it will be interesting to see who takes the reins on the offensive side. A year ago, quarterback Sam Noyer was a senior and he quickly earned his leadership stripes through his passionate playing style.
This year, though, the starting quarterback will be a relative newcomer, and whoever wins the job will have to earn the respect of his teammates.
There are some veterans up front — notably Pursell and Kutsch — who could also fill that role.
But the bottom line is both sides of the ball will need players in the huddle who will have the ability to lead through adverse moments.
Fall camp will be a big start in identifying those players.
Continuing to establish culture — This isn't something that can be quantified. There are no statistics for culture.
But it is an integral part of every successful program, and Dorrell has done his best over the last 18 months to instill a culture built on accountability, ownership and discipline.
While the Buffs now have a good idea of what Dorrell and his staff expect from them, they have yet to hit the "dog days" of a fall camp. Those days when the weather is hot, practices are long and the first game is still a couple weeks away are difficult — and they are the days when a team's culture is shaped.
Last year was an anomaly in virtually every way. Fall camp was on full-time fast-forward, the regular season consisted of just five games and the cloud of Covid was ever-present.
But now, things are back to normal — and Dorrell and his staff are building for the long haul. There will be no shortcuts and no excuses, and no brownie points for last year.
This is, Dorrell has stressed repeatedly, a new season — and a compelling storyline will be how the Buffaloes respond under "normal" circumstances.