The 2012 season was such a tough year for the Buffaloes, starting with non-conference losses to Colorado State, Sacramento State, and a 69-14 shellacking at the hands of good-but-not-that-good Fresno State. The offense struggled scoring points, the defense struggled stopping points, and there were rumors of division in the locker room. When the season ended, so did coach Jon Embree’s 2-year stint as head coach. The administration brought in Mike MacIntyre, hot off an outstanding 11-2 season at San Jose State, and the results were…better. The team improved markedly in many categories, including 4 wins, but the offense and defense were still a ways from competing regularly. The talent isn’t quite there, but MacIntyre has shown he can get the most out of his players. No one’s expecting miracles this season (I hope), but does he have the team pointed in the right direction?
This is the PAC 12, so it doesn’t need to be emphasized that a good quarterback is a must have. Connor Wood proved early on that he was not the answer. After a bright start, with 6 TDs in his first 2 games, the junior completed just 25 of his next 70 passes against the Oregons and Arizona State. MacIntyre came to the same conclusion and pulled Wood in favor of true freshman Sefo Liufau. The rookie only led them to 2 wins – over Charleston Southern and equally beleaguered Cal – but he played well enough against his conference foes to suggest that he could be leading the team for the next 3 years. Of course, having a speedy receiver like Paul Richardson to throw to certainly didn’t hurt. The junior caught 83 passes for 1343 yards and 10 TDs, while sophomore Nelson Spruce caught 55 balls for 650 yards and 4 scores riding shotgun. Helping out was an offensive line that was solid in pass protection, allowing just 20 sacks. Jack Harris did a solid job at left tackle after being pressed into duty there when predecessor David Bakhtiari left early for the NFL. However their run-blocking left a lot to be desired as the ground game averaged just 121 yards per game and just 3.4 yards per carry – hardly stellar stuff. After 2012, Christian Powell was seen as the next good Colorado running back, but the lack of room to maneuver made his job a lot harder, as he managed just 562 yards and 3 TDs on 147 carries. Freshman Michael Adkins II provided a spark, coming second with 535 yards and 6 scores, despite missing 3 games.
Liufau has a long way to go before he can talked about with the other star quarterbacks in the conference, but he showed in spring camp that he’s making the right strides, throwing the ball with more velocity and stepping into his throws. There is one sizeable concern – who will replace Richardson as the top wideout? Spruce is back, which will help, but someone else needs to step up. Former running back D.D. Goodson could be ready for a bigger role after learning on the job last year. There is help coming from the recruiting class, while getting the tight end more involved could be a good idea. They have some good-looking options there. The offensive line needs to replace Harris and center Gus Handler, but could be okay. Left guard Kaiwi Crabb has been working out at left tackle while Jeromy Irwin recovers from surgery, but he may stay there if he shows he can play. The right should be set with guard Daniel Munyer and tackle Stephane Nembot back, while Alex Kelley is the likely center after seeing some action as a reserve in 2013. MacIntyre has gone the JUCO route to bolster depth here, and guard Sullivan Wiefels has the size to contribute straight away once he arrives on campus. The Buffs look to be in decent shape at running back with Powell and Adkins back, but watch out for redshirt freshman Phillip Lindsay, who missed last year with injury but has been earning the right kind of attention in camp.
The defense had a tough time of it last season, particularly against the run, where the unit was routinely gashed after a bright start. With the exception of Chidera Uzo-Diribe, the defensive line struggled. Uzo-Diribe led the team with 10.5 tackles, 4 sacks and 5 forced fumbles, more than the rest of the starting unit combined. Samson Kafovalu was a productive reserve with 5.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks, despite playing just half the season. The shining light on defense was at middle linebacker, where freshman Addison Gillam had an outstanding campaign, posting 107 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 3 sacks, 5 passes broken up and 1 interception. Weakside linebacker Derrick Webb was second on the team with 88 tackles, making 6.5 on the opponent’s side of the line. In the secondary, cornerback Greg Henderson showed some playmaking ability in the secondary, making 4 interceptions (1 TD), and breaking up 10 passes. He also returned a fumble for another score. Free safety Jered Bell made 71 tackles, 4.5 for loss, with 3 interceptions (1 TD) and broke up 5 passes.
The defense only loses 2½ starters, but they still have a lot of work to do to slow down PAC 12 offenses. The line loses Uzo-Diribe, which is bad news, but let’s see what Kafovalu can do with a full season under his belt. JUCO Ahkello Witherspoon has been making his presence felt and should push for a starting gig. In the middle Josh Tupou and Justin Solis have excellent size, but they didn’t provide enough push inside. They need to find some depth with Nate Bonsu gone. Gillam will be back to lead the defense, and he should be even better in 2014, but Webb needs to replaced. Woodson Greer III saw some action last season in their 4-3 system, while Brady Daigh has been a much-used reserve for the last couple of years. If these two seniors can get a little inspiration from Gilliam and play out of their skins, this could be a decent unit. The secondary says goodbye to strong safety Parker Orms. Terrel Smith missed all of last season, but is the most experienced contender for the position. Marques Mosley and Tedric Thompson have started games in the past.
Kicker Will Oliver was one of the best in the conference, hitting 17 of 24 field goals with a long of 53, with 6 of his 7 misses coming from over 40 yards. Darragh O’Neill had a down year by his standards, with a 40.5 gross, but he dropped 22 punts inside the 20 with just 4 touchbacks. He’s one of the best in the conference. Kick returner Ryan Severson (a linebacker, no less) was okay returning kicks, averaging 22.1 a pop, but Spruce averaged just 4.6 yards on punt returns. The coverage units weren’t terrible, but could tighten up some.
Everyone’s back, which is good, but the return game needs to add some explosion, while the coverage units could shave a yard or 2 off their 2013 averages.
Now seems like a good time to trot out the old “better on the field, but similar record” cliche, but where will the improvement come from? Let’s look at the schedule. The AAC should be easy – Colorado State have lost a ton on offense, plus their top defender, while UMass is an FBS program in name only. Hawaii have been plumbing the depths recently, so beating all of these teams is not only possible, it’s a must. Within the league, Cal is another must-win, while Utah and Arizona are possible wins for the Buffs. Outside of those 6 games, beating the other conference foes would require a major upset, but 6 wins would be a huge step. The offense should be better, while improvement against the run could benefit a solid secondary. Of course it’s tough to have a concrete idea of how a team will be before the finished article hits the field, but 5 wins and more competitive losses would be a reasonable expectation for Colorado in 2014.