2012 Colorado Football Preview: Recovering Your Lost Soul

BOULDER, CO - OCTOBER 22: Running back De'Anthony Thomas #6 of the Oregon Ducks is pushed into the end zone for a 14 yard touchdown by defensive back Greg Henderson #20 of the Colorado Buffaloes as linebacker Jon Major #31 looks on during the first quarter at Folsom Field on October 22, 2011 in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Related: Colorado's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Buffs football, visit Colorado blog The Ralphie Report, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Denver.

(Forgive me, but I'm going to briefly put on my Missouri hat for this intro.)

The warning signs are all here. I know them well.

First, your team slowly fades from national attention. It might take a decade or more, but it eventually happens. Next, you start to struggle from a financial perspective. At some point, you hire a charismatic salesman who promises to take you back to the next level. He does, but in the wrong direction.

Along the way, the injuries pile up. Star recruits who were once destined to turn the program around barely actually see the field (and when they do, it is difficult for them to live up to expectations). Players give you a glimpse of something fantastic, then immediately go down for a week, or a month, or a year.

After about 20 or 25 years of this, you almost begin to forget what you once were. And then you realize, it is quite possible that your coach sold your program's soul for a national title.

It was long joked among Mizzou fans (or at least me) that Dan Devine sold Missouri's soul for the 1960 national title. Missouri reached No. 1 late in November of that season and remained a strong program through the 1960s. But after the snakebitten 1970s (beat USC, lose to Iowa State, beat Alabama and Ohio State, lose to Kansas repeatedly), Missouri's athletic department fell into money trouble and, combined with what ended up being a horrendous hire (Woody Widenhofer), the Mizzou program completely bottomed out in the mid- to late-1980s. It wasn't until the late-1990s when they showed any signs of life, and it wasn't until the 2000s when they actually regained stability.

(The joke was on Mizzou, of course. Using a player later deemed ineligible, Kansas defeated Missouri then was forced by the Big 8 to forfeit the game. So Missouri finished "undefeated" and without a title.)

While this is clearly all in jest, I'm just saying … the paths of these two former conference mates are similar. Colorado is one fifth down away from following the script almost precisely.

Colorado won a national title in 1990 under Bill McCartney, remained strong under McCartney and Rick Neuheisel (three more Top 10 finishes in the 1990s), put together two lovely seasons under Gary Barnett (19-8 in 2001-02), then crumbled. They went 20-18 for the final three years of the Barnett era, made what seemed to be a strong hire in Dan Hawkins, and went just 19-39 with The Hawk in charge. Former Buffalo Jon Embree took over in 2011 and, following an incredible set of injuries, went just 3-10 in Colorado's first Pac-12 season.

Now they enter 2012 without last year's starting quarterback, running back, top three receivers (two graduated, one is already lost for the season with injury), and two offensive linemen who had combined for 83 career starts. Their defense, devastated by injuries a year ago, is facing quite a bit of turnover in the front seven. In a division where USC is surging, Utah is solid, and three other teams have made at least semi-interesting new hires, it is difficult to see Colorado rebounding to past glory anytime soon. They didn't sink as far as Missouri did during their bottoming-out phase, but the recovery phase looks every bit as long and arduous.


Related: Check out Colorado's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about the Buffs and their reunion tour last May:

Slowly but surely, Colorado has forgotten how to win. It began under Gary Barnett (even as the Buffs were winning a couple of North titles by default) and continued with verve under Hawkins. The pride and the belief in Colorado as a great program instead of a once-great program have gone away; to remedy this situation, athletic director Mike Bohn looked inward. Jon Embree, a tight end under Bill McCartney during the earliest stages of Colorado's glory days, was hired to lead the program. Former great Buff running back Eric Bieniemy? Offensive coordinator. Former Bill McCartney (and Gary Barnett, and Dan Hawkins) assistant Greg Brown? Defensive coordinator. Former All-American defensive tackle Kanavis McGhee? Defensive line coach.

There is a strong Buffalo influence everywhere you look now. Whether that translates into success is obviously unclear -- among other things, both Embree's and Bieniemy's new positions are the highest they've ever held, so there is almost no track record from which to glean -- but never mind that for now. The band is getting back together, and that always feels good for a little while. […]

What we know for sure: 1) Colorado has drastically underachieved compared to their recruiting rankings, which suggests, at least in theory, that their upside is still reasonably high, at least "minor bowl bid" high, this year. 2) Colorado returns quite a few seniors, especially in the offensive backfield, and quite a few starters overall. 3) Colorado's offensive line wasn't very good last year with a first-round pick, so it's unclear how much of a positive "four returning starters" really is. 4) The defensive line is potentially outstanding; the back seven returns plenty of players with experience and no proven play-making ability. […]

So basically, we don't know much.

In short, the defensive line was nowhere near "potentially outstanding," the back seven was wrecked by injuries, the offensive line improved a decent amount, and the senior trio of quarterback Tyler Hansen, running back Rodney Stewart and receiver Toney Clemons did not get to finish their careers in a bowl game. Early promise (first three games: Opponent 27.3 Adj. Points per game, Colorado 27.1) was wiped away by a thin defense and inconsistent offense (last 10 games: Opponents 30.8 Adj. PPG, Colorado 24.1), and a year after dumping Hawkins and finishing 5-7, the Buffs went 3-10. Their F/+ ranking fell from 79th to 108th. The Buffs did win two of three to finish the season, and in the finale they did knock off Utah, preventing the Utes from winning the Pac-12 South's title game bid, but two solid performances sandwiched a horrid performance at UCLA, so momentum was minimal.

Offense

Obviously talk of sold souls is silly. But Colorado fans may have felt it made some sense on April 10, when leading returning receiver Paul Richardson was lost for the 2012 season with a torn ACL. Richardson was the ultimate sold-soul tease in 2011: He caught 11 of 17 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns in a near-upset of California in Week 2 but spent the rest of the season battling both injuries and mediocrity. He missed four games, and in the other seven games against teams not named Cal, he caught just 29 of 57 passes (a poor 51 percent catch rate) for 285 yards (5.0 yards per target). Still, entering the spring he was easily the most proven Colorado skill position player following the departures of running back Rodney Stewart (854 rushing yards, 571 receiving yards), X-receiver Toney Clemons (680 receiving yards) and Z-receiver Logan Gray (300 receiving yards). Colorado's new leading returning receivers? Running back Tony Jones (168 yards) and sophomore receiver Keenan Canty (161 yards). Yikes.

Richardson's absence is one of many Colorado battled this spring and, of course, last fall. Former four-star tackle Jack Harris has missed quite a bit of time over the last two seasons and has started just two games as a Buffalo. (That's nothing new; Colorado has struggled through countless line injuries through the years.) Plus, the most experienced returning quarterback, Nick Hirschman, has suffered multiple broken bones since the end of the season.

Okay, so enough about who might NOT play for Colorado this fall. Who will? For starters, you've got at least a potentially interesting backfield. In Hirschman's absence, Texas transfer (and former four-star signee) Connor Wood seized control of the starting job behind center; Wood completed seven of 10 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns, without Richardson, in the spring game. He will be joined by a pair of youngsters in the backfield -- sophomore Tony Jones (297 rushing yards, minus-8.1 Adj. POE) and junior Josh Ford (128 yards, minus-0.8 Adj. POE). Ford has earned the "Mr. Spring" moniker after a pair of great spring game performances, but Jones is very much the presumptive starter. (A third interesting back, sophomore Malcolm Creer, is out with injury. Of course.)

Injuries and personnel shuffling, meanwhile, have resulted in decent experience on the line. Despite the loss of guards Ryan Miller (49 career starts) and Ethan Adkins (34), six players with starting experience (54 career starts) do return. Tackle David Bakhtiari earned second-team all-conference honors last year and anchors a line that did show signs of improvement in one regard last year; the Buffs rose from 96th to 79th in Adj. Line Yards even if they did also sink from 43rd to 60th in Adj. Sack Rate.

Even if all of these units are strong, however, there are still enormous question marks littered throughout the receiving corps. Sophomores Keenan Canty and Tyler McCulloch proved little last year -- they combined for a catch rate of 45 percent but averaged only 10.6 yards per catch; at 10.6 per catch, you need a catch rate of about 75 percent or better to be useful. You should also probably be a tight end. All hope for a No. 1 weapon, then, transfers to three-star redshirt freshman Nelson Spruce, who had a nice spring but is a redshirt freshman. The tight end position has a couple of intriguing candidates who have combined for one career catch; senior Nick Kasa, another former star recruit, moved to tight end from defensive end late last season and caught one pass for eight yards. He is wonderfully athletic for his size (6-foot-6, 260 pounds), but he has, to put it kindly, struggled to stay healthy through the years. Still, he and sophomore Kyle Slavin have potential.

Defense

The next time you are looking at a team's full-season stats, there is an overlooked piece of data that might interest you: games played. Survey the defenders in particular: How many actually played your team's full allotment of games? How many players missed part or most of the season with injuries? And once you're done looking at that, look at how many defenders actually made at least five or 10 tackles.

Looking at simple games played (and number of defenders who made contributions) tells you a lot about how much lineups were shuffled and, presumably, how many players got hurt through the course of the season. For Colorado, these numbers speak volumes: The Buffs had just eight defenders play in all 13 games: four linemen, three linebackers … and a single defensive back. To repeat: One defensive back played in all 13 games for Colorado in 2011. And guess what: Colorado had one of the worst passing downs defenses in the country. Go figure, huh? It got so bad that Embree had to pull a Bill Belichick and toss former running backs into the secondary just to keep 11 guys on the field.

Or as defensive coordinator Greg Brown put it, "It was one of those years we'd like to see not repeated."

But again, that's enough about Colorado's struggles. The sold-soul argument is pretty much air-tight at this point. What will they have to offer this fall? Here are four players you should remember:

  • Cornerback Greg Henderson. Amid the uncertainty in the secondary, this two-star freshman seized control of a potential four-year starting gig (assuming he can stay healthy, which, you know). He defended 10 passes (one intercepted, nine broken up) and made four tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Colorado was forced to play mostly soft coverage in the secondary, but Henderson still showed quite a bit of potential. If youngsters like sophomore Jered Bell and redshirt freshman Sherrard Harrington (both of whom suffered injuries last fall) can get, and stay, healthy, the Buffs could have one of the better batches of corners in the league.
  • Tackle Will Pericak. The undersized senior was the rarest of things: a tackling machine tackle. His 48.5 tackles were a huge total for an interior lineman, even if he wasn't particularly disruptive (2.5 tackles for loss). Colorado might be shifting more toward four down linemen this season (they alternate between three and four down linemen, but it might say something that the depth chart is listed as a 4-3 instead of a 3-4 this year), and that could help free up Pericak. At 6'4, 285 pounds, he is not quite big enough to fit the 3-4 nose prototype.
  • Defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe. In 13 games, Uzo-Diribe logged just 18.0 tackles; this was a problem for the line as a whole -- players not named Pericak just didn't make enough plays, putting too much pressure on the linebacking corps. But he still managed to finish second on the team with 5.5 sacks, first with three forced fumbles and first among linemen with 6.5 tackles for loss. After losing active outside linebackers Patrick Mahnke and Josh Hartigan (combined: 17.5 tackles for loss), Colorado needs a few playmakers. Among returnees, Uzo-Diribe might be one of the most likely candidates.
  • Strongside linebacker Jon Major. But really, you should already know his name. The senior has been pretty good for a while now. Major led the team with 70.5 tackles (8.7 percent of the team's total) last year, logged seven tackles for loss and defended four passes. He is a potential anchor for a defense desperate for such a thing.

Defining Success

Whatever the goals are, the wins better come early. None of Colorado's first four opponents are projected higher than 81st, and none of their first six are higher than 58th. If they can pull four or five wins out during that stretch, a return to a bowl is highly conceivable. But the @USC-@Oregon-Stanford stretch is absolutely brutal. Get your wins early, or don't get them at all. I'll say the success-or-not line, then, is around five games. A bowl game would be optimal, but baby steps.

Prognosis

I am always wary when a school hires a first-time head coach who puts together a rather disparate staff of assistants with whom he has barely worked. In other words, I was wary of the Jon Embree hire. But honestly, he was dealt such a poor hand on the injuries front that not even Bill Belichick would have won many games with this squad. In essence, then, Year 2 becomes Year 1 for Embree and company, even if, with Richardson, injuries have already taken a toll on 2012 as well. The road back to prominence gets longer and longer in Boulder, but a bowl bid is still a possibility with a hot start. And even some minor bowl, with a 6-7 final record, would represent a significant, positive step forward.

For more on Buffs football, visit Colorado blog The Ralphie Report, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes and SB Nation Denver.

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