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Woelk: Dorrell's Buffs Set For Critical Spring

Mar 27, 2022

BOULDER — As Colorado coach Karl Dorrell enters his third season with the Buffaloes, he is preparing for a spring that will require a sense of urgency from all involved.

After a 4-8 finish in 2021 and an offseason steeped in roster changes, the Buffs' aim will be to utilize every minute available over the next month to turn the program's trajectory back in a positive direction.

Colorado's offseason changes were significant, from both a coaching and player personnel standpoint.

For starters, Dorrell conducted a staff shakeup that resulted in the addition of six new assistants, with four on the offensive side — no surprise given the Buffaloes' struggles on offense in 2021.

Meanwhile, the "new normal" of the transfer portal world produced a long list of subtractions and additions that will affect nearly every position. CU added 22 high school recruits, three junior college transfers and five players from the NCAA transfer portal.

So what will be the priorities in spring ball?

In short, just about everything. There's not a position group on the field that won't have some heated battles. The Buffs must replace a substantial list of departed impact players while beginning to determine how quickly some of the newcomers can become significant contributors.

At the same time, CU must begin the process of installing a new offense under new coordinator Mike Sanford while also retooling a defense that lost at least five of its most productive players.

Colorado did have some success down the stretch last season that should provide some building blocks for 2022. The Buffs won two of their last four games, including a victory over bowl-bound Oregon State. 

"We did feel like we got better in a lot of respects," Dorrell said in February. "We're going to build off those things … There is definitely a different feeling in the building about moving forward and having a sense of urgency and having some success. It is being manifested in all areas in and around our program. It's a great feeling."

While Dorrell is officially entering his third year as CU's head coach, this will be just his second "full" season at the helm. His first year, a Covid-impacted shortened season that produced just six games, proved to be more of a placeholder than a chance to build the program.

Now, he will have more of "his" players, as well as a coaching staff built with the luxury of time and analysis, rather than a group cobbled together at the last minute following a February hiring.

Again, it would be difficult to find an area that won't be a priority for Dorrell and his staff as they conduct 15 spring practices. The first workout is scheduled for Wednesday, with the Spring Game set April 23.

But, here are five storylines that will no doubt be front and center as the Buffs go through their second spring under Dorrell:

— Establish an offensive identity. In Dorrell's first season, the Buffs appeared ready to define themselves as a power-running team that also had balance in the passing game. But that identity took a big step back last season, as CU finished at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 in a long list of key offensive categories, most notably scoring (11th) and total yards (12th).

Dorrell brought Sanford in to address those deficiencies. A coach with a solid resume´ and history of producing balanced attacks, Sanford — also the quarterbacks coach — no doubt has a big task ahead. He inherits an offensive roster that lost arguably its two best offensive linemen, its leading rusher and three of the top five receivers from last season.

But there is still a foundation in place at every position group. The Buffaloes are by no means bereft of talent. It will be Sanford's task to mold that talent and build an offensive identity that will define who the Buffaloes are when they have the ball.

— Replace key departures on defense. Five of CU's most productive players from last year — linebacker Nate Landman, edge rusher Carson Wells and DBs Christian Gonzalez, Mark Perry and Mekhi Blackmon — are gone.

The Buffs must find players who can fill the holes created by those departures while also getting more production out of the returnees and newcomers.

Again, the cabinet isn't bare. Returning LBs Quinn Perry and Guy Thomas had solid years in 2021 and veteran Robert Barnes had some productive moments down the stretch. As for the secondary, there are some talented if relatively inexperienced youngsters ready to step up.

CU does have a veteran group of returning defensive linemen, but their task this year will be to take their play to  the next level — especially with a young secondary behind them.

It all adds up to a very important spring for D-coordinator Chris Wilson, as well as new defensive assistants Rod Chance (cornerbacks) and Gerald Chatman (D-line). CU's defense had some moments last year, but consistency was not a cornerstone.

That's something the Buffs' coaching staff will no doubt be addressing this spring.

— Rebuild the offensive line. Nearly the same line that helped CU produce the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2020 struggled mightily in 2021. The issue became so dire that Dorrell made the rare decision to fire his O-line coach in the middle of the season.

Now, new assistant Kyle Devan — who brings with him an impressive background as a player and coach — must find a way to quickly address the position group that gave up 32 sacks last season and failed to hit at least 150 yards rushing in seven games.

While the Buffs did lose two veteran starters, there are some returnees who gained valuable experience. Tackles Frank Fillip and Jake Wiley combined for 21 starts last year while guard Casey Roddick had 10. Now their job will be to turn that experience into production. 

There is also help arriving via newcomers here. Former Alabama tackle Tommy Brown could add immediate help, as could JC transfer Alex Harkey. 

But Devan no doubt has his work cut out for him, especially with the Buffs installing a new offensive scheme. There may not be a position group on the field for whom this spring will be more important.

— Identify a new lead RB. CU's leading rusher from the past two seasons, Jarek Broussard, decided to transfer out of the program.

But honestly, the Buffs have the people in place to take a step forward here. Broussard last year was nowhere near the back who won conference honors in 2020, and his departure should open the door for CU's 2019 leading rusher, Alex Fontenot.

The guess here is that Fontenot will enter this spring with a chip on his shoulder and a strong desire to prove himself. Also competing for more time will be Deion Smith — who has shown flashes in the past — as well as big back Jayle Stacks and portal addition Ramon Jefferson.

The Buffs almost certainly won't identify their lead back after the spring. But the 15 practices will no doubt be a start in the process, and should give each RB plenty of chances to prove he belongs in the mix when that decision becomes imperative next August in training camp.

— Resume the QB battle. What, you thought we'd forget this item?

Yes, even though Brendon Lewis returns as the incumbent starter, he won't automatically be handed the keys to Sanford's new offense.

Back to challenge Lewis will be J.T. Shrout, who was running neck-and-neck with Lewis last summer in training camp before being sidelined for the season with a knee injury. Shrout likely still won't have clearance for 100 percent participation, but he should be ready for a large percentage of the workouts — enough to get a good taste of Sanford's new scheme.

There will be others in the mix. Transfer Maddox Kopp (Houston) should get a look, and returnee Drew Carter will receive his share of snaps as well after getting a handful of appearances last season.

This is no doubt another battle that will stretch into fall camp. A new offense means starting from scratch to a degree, and it will be interesting to see how each QB adapts to Sanford's scheme — one that doesn't depend as much on big plays, but does place a big emphasis on managing the game, limiting mistakes and taking full advantage of opportunities when they arise.