When the Colorado players converge on the practice fields this morning to begin preparing for a season that has the potential to become pivotal, one overarching question will continue to demand an answer. Can these Buffs find the ability to finish?
By nearly every measure, CU comes into the 2015 campaign a more experienced and more complete outfit. They return numerous key players on both sides of the ball and they welcome in some new faces that stand to provide immediate contributions. Everyone, by and large, is healthy and only one presumed starter (DT Josh Tupou) has been lost for the season. So, as camp gets underway in earnest this morning here are three questions to keep in mind as we work up to September 3rd. The answers will go a long way towards determining whether the Buffaloes do indeed begin finishing games, and whether or not Mike MacIntyre's third season will be looked back upon as a turning point.
1: Can the defensive line more effectively produce pressure?
In college football, and the Pac-12 especially, it can be argued pretty convincingly that a strong defensive line is the most critical component to a successful defense. If you give any of the quarterbacks in this conference any time at all to assess their reads you're going to get shredded regardless of how skilled your secondary is. Adding to the degree of difficulty involved in slowing quick-strike Pac-12 offenses is the fact that nearly every team has a complimentary and effective rushing attack, and athletes capable of breaking plays at every position. There truly are a million ways to die in the west.
Colorado's defensive front showed flashes of effectiveness last year, but in order for them to be the cog that moves this defensive vehicle forward they're going to need to improve upon their season average of 5.6 yards per carry allowed and more consistently hurry the passer. I think making these next strides begins with Derek McCartney. He's versatile, quick off the edge, strong enough to maneuver himself around opposing lineman, and now he has the experience to know what's required to be successful. I expect him to fully emerge as a leader of this unit.
Joining Derek, and providing some much needed bulk, is Samson Kafovalu. Checking in at 6'4" and 260 lbs, Kafovalu has the potential to completely change how this defense operates. If he can be a terror on critical passing downs, and help shut down holes on others, he and the line can relieve a lot of the pressure placed on the undersized linebackers. UPDATE: Unfortunately, Tyler Henington will miss yet another season after breaking his ankle this summer. His play would have bolstered the line, but the arrival of junior college transfers Blake Robbins and Jordan Carrell should more than make up for the loss. I believe Jimmie Gilbert stands to have a solid junior campaign as well.
With the absence of Tupou and Henington, Jim Leavitt may not be able to run his hybrid 3-4 scheme as effectively as he'd wish. But, reports out of Boulder indicate that junior tackle Eddy Lopez has filled out his 6'3" frame with more muscle, weighing in closer to 300 lbs this season. If Lopez can become an above average clog up the middle and draw double teams then this line and this defense will have much more success slowing down the run. It'll be very intriguing to see what looks the defense trots out and how the new faces up front change the complexion of the unit as a whole. With Leavitt bringing a fresh blast of energy and scheme, combined with returning pieces and new additions, the defensive front stands to pose a more formidable barrier to Pac-12 offenses this season.
2: Can the running game take pressure off of Sefo Liufau?
The Colorado offense will likely live and die with the passing attack again this season, and well they should. However, if the Buffs ever open up a double digit lead on a conference opponent they're going to need a stable and consistent rushing threat to hold on to it. On paper it would appear that the Buffs have a very capable stable of tailbacks. Last season largely featured a three prong approach consisting of Christian Powell, Phillip Lindsay, and Michael Adkins II when healthy. I'd expect those three to receive the bulk of the work early this season, especially since that trio brings so much versatility to the table. I'm very interested to see who among them impresses most in camp.
I'm also quite interested to find out how Dino Gordon, Patrick Carr, and Kyle Evans fare in their first action in Colorado uniforms. The three young running backs received a lot of hype on the CU internets during their recruitment and while they may not see much action early in the season but one of them could blow the coaches away over the next month and earn some carries in the early going. MacIntyre and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren have clearly shown their preference for utilizing a stable of ball carriers so it wouldn't shock me if one of the freshmen cracks the rotation early.
The offensive line might present the most questions of any unit, but only for having lost two stalwart senior contributors in Daniel Munyer and Kaiwi Crabb. I think the Buffs will be capable of filling those large shoes. Alex Kelley is a monster at center and we all know about Stephane Nembot on the right side of the line. If a defender is able to get by Nembot, he's certainly earned his time in the backfield. Jeromy Irwin returns to anchor Liufau's blindside and it appears to be a safe bet that Gerrad Kough, who saw extensive action in the latter half of 2014, will start at left guard.
The competition to fill out the remaining right guard spot is wide open and will be fascinating to watch play out. Both Jonathan Huckins and Shane Callahan had strong springs, with Jonathan earning the Iron Buffalo Award recognizing toughness and hard work. In retrospect, Callahan's arrival from Auburn may have been over-hyped but he has shown steady improvement since beginning his career in Boulder and his ceiling is high. My money is currently on Huckins to win the job after seeing his work this past spring but whichever guy comes out on top will have earned his place after battling the other all month long.
The key to cohesive protection is consistency and familiarity and the Buffs didn't lose too much of those qualities up front. I expect Sefo to see less pressure this season, and I hope a large part of that is because the linemen and their backs more successfully create and exploit holes and lanes, leaving shorter third downs and, eventually, more manageable end-of-game situations.
3: Can the special teams unit reload and limit damaging returns?
I was tempted to highlight the turnover ratio and Sefo Liufau's progress here but we won't learn anything new and important about that issue or him until this season is well underway. Instead, one thing that can be very evident in camp is the performance of the special teams crew. The Buffs will be replacing two of their more critical pieces in punter Darragh O'Neill and placekicker Will Oliver as camp opens. Freshman Alex Kinney, straight out of Rocky Mountain High School, will be called upon to boot punts from Day 1. His leg seems ready for the big time, I'm interested to watch his performance over the next month. As for the placekicking, it appears that Chris Graham will have first crack at being the go-to kicker. He's shown himself to be more accurate from 45 yards and in but he'll need to demonstrate consistency in camp. With his booming leg, Diego Gonzales will more than likely handle kickoff duties. If he's able to show more control and accuracy throughout August, he may win the placekicking job outright.
Now, about kick coverage. This phase of the game has produced more than its fair share of face-palm inducing moments over the past few years. The last thing this team needs is to be giving up easy real estate to an already explosive offense, so if Colorado is to give themselves opportunities to finish games the coverage unit will need to have things strapped down.The Buffs, as a whole, are deeper and more experienced this year so there's one factor that should help this group more effectively corral return men and preserve a long field for their defense. The other factor will be coaching. One can only assume Toby Neinas has learned from the past and will have his crew ready to roll come 9/3. Otherwise, we could be in for some #excitement and not the good kind.
As the Buffaloes open camp this year the team is in the best shape it's been in for quite some time. Jim Leavitt's arrival has provided a fresh, tangible wave of confidence on top of the rising tide of optimism surrounding the program. The facilities are tracking along beautifully and recruiting has begun to take off. If Colorado is able to consistently provide positive answers to the questions above they'll find themselves turning the close losses of 2014 into wins in 2015, and they may finally turn that corner.