Buffs Season Wrap: Takeaways From 2021
BOULDER — Barely had the 2021 season come to an end Friday before Colorado coach Karl Dorrell began addressing the issue clearly foremost on his mind:
Make no mistake, 2022 will be a critical season in the Dorrell era as he continues the process of trying to make the Buffaloes relevant once again in the college football world.
The Buffs wrapped up their 2021 season Friday with a 28-13 loss at Utah. In many ways, the game provided a microcosm of the entire season: some big special teams moments, a reasonably solid defensive effort and an offense that struggled to produce anything close to consistency.
"We felt we had some opportunities to do some positive things but unfortunately, we did not," Dorrell said of his offense, which finished the season as one of the least productive in CU history. "We showed spurts of doing some really good things … We had a couple nice drives. One drive didn't end up with any points, a missed field goal, but other than that we had trouble. We struggled with protection, we struggled with creating any type of production in the running game."
But CU's final 4-8 record (3-6 Pac-12) was the product of more than just an unproductive offense. While CU's defense had some solid stretches, there were also plenty of difficult moments on that side of the ball as well. Football is a team game, and it was a team effort that produced the final record.
Still, there were glimpses of promise on both sides of the ball throughout the season, moments when players executed, the game plan clicked and good things happened.
The question in the offseason — which started Saturday — will be how quickly the Buffs can turn those glimpses and flashes into steady, consistent stretches.
"Everybody feels we're heading in the right direction," Dorrell said. "Everyone feels that we have that foundation to build from moving forward. I would have loved to start the offseason with a win and use that as a boost to get some things going for us in a positive way. But there's enough of a good feel in this team that we feel that we're close. We play with a lot of young players, we have some veteran players here that are going to get bigger, better and stronger, so we feel like the foundation is set. We want to make sure we're relevant in the conference."
Thus, with an eye on 2022, our final takeaways from 2021:
1. Dorrell has instilled some crucial program fundamental principles. Tops on this list are taking care of the ball and special teams, two areas that often make the difference in close games — and two areas that are often overlooked.
The Buffs were the best Power 5 team in the nation this year when it came to turnovers. Colorado gave the ball away just seven times (a program record) and had seven games with zero turnovers (also a program record).
That's a mindset that is built into the foundation of a team, and an important one. Colorado was 4-2 this season when the Buffs won the turnover battle, with the losses coming to Utah and Oregon.
Dorrell's emphasis on special teams is also a critical piece of the overall culture. When coaches truly make special teams important, that attitude spreads throughout the team — and big special teams plays are difference makers in tight ballgames.
2. The transfer portal will be even more important. Take a look around and you'll see transfers making big impacts everywhere — to the point that successfully adding players from the portal is getting closer and closer to being as important as high school recruiting.
Transfers don't have "first-year" problems. They've been away from home and they know the college-life ropes. And, unlike junior college players, they have seen college ball at the D-I level and know what to expect.
The key is finding players who fit needs and can come in and contribute immediately. It is the college version of NFL free agency.
The Buffs had some success with the portal this season, although injuries were an issue. That shouldn't deter CU from hitting the portal with even more gusto this year.
3. Dorrell has earned the trust of his young players — a critical development. This is just a theory here, but when CU's head coach stuck with QB Brendon Lewis through some very difficult times early in the year, it sent a strong message to Colorado's young players.
In particular, it signaled that Dorrell had their backs. He wasn't going to dump them at the first sign of adversity. He would stick with them, allow them to grow and develop and not succumb to spur-of-the-moment snap judgments.
That kind of process builds trust, loyalty and confidence among young players, and those are character traits that soon become part of a program's foundation.
4. Speaking of young players … Youngsters take their lumps. It's part of the growth process in college ball. But when you see underclassmen such as Nikko Reed, Tyrin Taylor, Devin Grant, Kaylin Moore, Ty Robinson and Joshka Gustav — and plenty more — making plays, it's a good sign for the future.
Grant, by the way, had a very good game against Utah. He finished with eight tackles — two for loss — and had one of the higher Pro Football Focus rankings of any CU defender. That's a good sign for a team that will be looking to replace some big shoes at linebacker.
Which brings us to …
5. There will be holes to fill. We saw what happened to the defense when All-American Nate Landman couldn't play. But the Buffs will also sorely miss OLB/defensive end Carson Wells, who quietly became one of CU's most consistent and effective players, and they will have to find a replacement for Mustafa Johnson up front.
On the offensive side, don't underestimate the loss of linemen Kary Kutsch and Colby Pursell. Both were steady, reliable contributors. Developing their replacements in the interior won't be easy.
6. Building the trenches will be critical. As Dorrell noted after the Utah game, Colorado had trouble protecting the quarterback and establishing a run game. Talented skill players can only go as far as their linemen will allow — and it is an area that will no doubt be of the highest priority in spring ball.
As for the defense, the Buffs have a decent core of returnees — but developing a pass rush with their base front will be crucial, as will solidifying the run defense. CU has some talent in the secondary, but the defensive line will have to take another big step forward next season.
7. Offseason conditioning will be a key to next year's success. All those young players returning next year have to be bigger, stronger and faster. They will need to show more than flashes of potential; they have to become consistent contributors.
The first step in that process will occur in the weight room with strength coach Shannon Turley, who came to CU with great credentials — and now has a big task in front of him.
8. The Buffs have to establish an identity on both sides of the ball. This is something that Dorrell has been trying to create, but there are still plenty of building blocks to put in place.
How Colorado develops its offense and defense in the offseason will be key. There will almost certainly be another quarterback battle next fall, development of the offensive and defensive lines will be priorities — and the Buffs will have to move closer to defining exactly what style of ball they want to play.
One critical element we did see this year was a refusal to quit. Colorado played hard down to the wire, long after postseason hopes had been eliminated. That kind of fortitude is an integral piece of a team's culture, and one that will pay dividends.
Next, they must take another step in developing a team identity — not just how they see themselves, but how others in the conference view them.
That will be the next step toward being truly relevant in the Pac-12.