Buffs' Dorrell Quietly Confident At Pac-12 Media Day
LOS ANGELES — Last year's performance by Karl Dorrell's Colorado Buffaloes didn't seem to mean much to the media who voted in the Pac-12 preseason poll, released Tuesday at the conference's Media Day.
The Buffs, who finished the abbreviated 2020 season with a 4-2 mark and were in contention for a division title right down to the final weekend, were picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South in 2021, ahead of only Arizona.
But Dorrell, the reigning Pac-12 Coach of the Year, exuded a quiet confidence in his meeting with the media at Tuesday's events.
"Those are the things that we're going to have to use as motivation to keep us moving forward, playing well, winning games that come across our plate and march through this season, having a great mindset that we have a chance to win our division," Dorrell said of the preseason projections. "That's really what we're setting out to do. People think I'm crazy for saying that, but I think we have as good a chance as any."
No doubt, the Buffs have some questions to answer — as do the majority of the teams in America. CU must identify a new starting quarterback, develop some consistency at some key positions and hope that inside linebacker Nate Landman, recovering from an Achilles injury, can return to his All-Pac-12 form.
Those are widely-asked queries Dorrell believes will have positive outcomes in training camp, which begins when players report Aug. 4 and open practice a day later.
But what Dorrell believes might not have been taken into account by observers in the preseason polls are the additions Colorado made via the transfer portal — all at critical spots where the Buffs needed some immediate help.
That list includes two linebackers, Robert Barnes (Oklahoma) and Jack Lamb (Notre Dame); two offensive linemen, Max Wray (Ohio State) and Noah Fenske (Iowa); defensive lineman Blayne Toll (Arkansas); and quarterback J.T. Shrout (Tennessee).
Each could become an immediate contributor as CU continues to build depth. Add to the equation a healthy list of returning veterans, including Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Jarek Broussard, and Dorrell believes there is a strong basis for his optimism.
"You're going to see a much-improved team," Dorrell said. "I feel we made some good positive steps last fall … But we bridged the gap with springboarding into 2021 with some really good acquisitions from the portal that are helping us in some key areas. We're just better across the board in a number of respects and a lot of positions. We feel good about where we are as a team. Obviously we feel that way, and now we have some proving to do as we play."
Dorrell knows all interested eyes will be focused on his quarterback battle in camp. With last year's starter, Sam Noyer, out the door via the transfer portal, the Buffs are looking at a two-man battle between freshman Brendon Lewis, who had an outstanding college debut in the Alamo Bowl, and sophomore J.T. Shrout, a transfer from Tennessee who had a solid, consistent spring session.
"We think they're both very qualified, capable players," Dorrell said. "Both of those guys have great leadership qualities along with their physical talent. All of our players offensively respond to both of them in a positive way."
While Dorrell won't rush to name a starter, he did say that he hoped to make that determination "somewhere in the middle of training camp."
That means that every practice, every snap will be watched closely.
"It's going to be a day-by-day test, right?" he said. "They're going to be assessed on everything about how they run the offense, the mistakes they make, the plays that they do make, everything like that. We're going to account for everything as we go through that process.
But they know when it's all said and done, they're both all in about helping us be a factor in winning this season."
As for Landman, a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection and member of the preseason Butkus Award watch list, Dorrell said he believes his standout inside 'backer is nearing 100 percent now, and will hit that mark in camp.
"He is way ahead of schedule," Dorrell said. "He doesn't do anything half speed, half tilt … He's going to be ready to play, there's no question in my mind. He's a great leader for us. He's a catalyst. He's a guy that leads by not only what he says but also what he does. You
wish you had 120 Nate Landmans on your team to have that mentality."
But, as Dorrell noted, the plan is to make sure Landman doesn't have to shoulder the load inside alone.
"The better part of this thing is that we did build our defense through the portal and some other acquisitions on our team," Dorrell said. "He doesn't have to make every play, which is what he did the last couple years. It's going to be good to have other players around him that are really good players that he can just do his job and allow for those others to do theirs."
That same philosophy will apply to Broussard, who burst onto the scene with 895 yards and five touchdowns in just six games.
But Broussard also averaged 26 carries per game last season, a number that will likely go down this year. CU's 2019 leading rusher, Alex Fontenot, is back after missing last season with an injury, and talented freshman Ashaad Clayton is coming off a productive spring.
"This year, we have more depth," Dorrell said. "He doesn't have to carry everything on his shoulders."
Dorrell also noted the staff changes he made in the offseason. That includes promoting defensive line coach Chris Wilson to defensive coordinator and the hiring of director of strength and conditioning
"Shannon is instantly having credibility with our players," Dorrell said. "I can see the results in our players already in watching them train, what they look like physically. There's a lot of respect that Shannon has gained in such a short period of time … It's been a real positive to have him onboard, leading that area, because our team is gaining confidence knowing that they're physically better than what they were a year ago."
One more area Dorrell is anxious to see progress in camp is wide receiver. It is a talented if untested group, and Dorrell — a longtime wide receivers coach — wants to see consistency develop from that group.
"The receiver group has skill," Dorrell said. "We continually have to refine that skill where the talent is consistent. There's definitely some really good talent in that group, (but) it's young. That's the part that they have to grow and have a level of consistency that needs to be better than where it is."
CONFIDENCE IN COMMISH: All the Pac-12 coaches present at Media Day met Monday with new conference commissioner George Kliavkoff.
Dorrell came away impressed.
"The thing that resonates with me that he said is, 'We're going to make this a championship conference,'" Dorrell said. "That's what I want to hear. I want that expectation from our leader to tell us that this is all about winning championships. We need to have more relevance and significance in the CFP (College Football Playoff). That's what it tells me, is that we need to get more teams involved in that. I think he wants to help that process and do the things that's necessary for us to get into that next step."
In his morning press conference, Kliavkoff — who took the reins July 1 — reiterated that philosophy. Parity, he noted, will not be a priority.
"I want to be 100% clear, going forward the Pac-12 conference will make all of our football-related decisions with the combined goals of optimizing CFP invitations and winning national championships," Kliavkoff said. "This is a decision fully supported by all 12 of our athletic directors."