I have to admit that during Nebraska’s Big XII days, I came to regard Colorado’s football program as a classic Warner Brothers’ Roadrunner cartoon, with the Buffaloes playing the role of one Wile E. Coyote. Every year, the Buffaloes would examine their Acme Corporation playbook, and then the rest of college football would watch as the anvil crashed down on top of the Buffaloes.
My personal favorite was replacing offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich (who’d go on to lead Oregon into the first playoff national championship game) in order to run a “pro-style” offense with 5’11” Cody Hawkins throwing the ball 40 times a game in 2009. Needless to say, it took less than two games for the anvil to appear...and in spectacular fashion when Toledo raced out to a 30-3 lead on the Buffs, sparking the now famous “second half suicide hotline thread” over at RalphieReport.com.
Dan Hawkins gave way to Jon Embree and then Mike MacIntyre. Except for one magical 2016 season, nothing has really worked in Boulder since that infamous 2001 game. Now MacIntyre is gone, replaced by Mel Tucker in his first head coaching job. While Tucker hasn’t been a head coach, he’s spent ten years in the NFL (seven as a defensive coordinator) in between stints working under Nick Saban (at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama), Ohio State’s Jim Tressel and Georgia’s Kirby Smart. So he’s an accomplished assistant coach; how is this going to translate into success in Boulder, a place where so many have failed? That’s a great question.
One big thing that has changed is that Colorado now can offer assistant coaches multiple year contracts. Believe it or not, until 2017, Colorado could only offer six multi-year contracts on the entire campus, which undoubtedly handcuffed Hawkins, Embree and MacIntyre in building their programs.
Colorado’s new offensive coordinator is Jay Johnson, who spent the last two seasons as an analyst at Georgia. In 2016, Johnson was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator for Tracey Claeys’ single season; prior to that, he spent five season as the offensive coordinator at Louisiana-Lafayette. According to SB Nation college football analytics guru Bill Connelly, Johnson’s offenses worked best when can combine a strong running game with a semi-mobile quarterback.
Senior quarterback Steven Montez (6’5” 230 lbs.) fits that mold; he rushed for 238 yards and four touchdowns last season, averaging 2.5 yards per carry. Through the air, he completed 64.7% of his passes for 2,849 yards and 19 touchdowns with nine interceptions. Look for Johnson to use Montez like he used Mitch Leidner as a senior in pistol formations where he can both run and pass.
You have to figure that Johnson is going to find a way to feed junior Laviska Shenault as much as is possible. Shenault exploded at the start of the 2018 season with four straight 100+ yard receiving games against division 1-A opponents before suffering a turf toe injury against Southern Cal. Shenault still earned all-Pac 12 honors for his pre-injury performance, catching 86 passes for 1,011 yards and six touchdowns. He also rushed 17 times for 115 yards and five touchdowns. BTW, if you recently read a quote about Shenault trashing Nebraska; it’s a fake that was also debunked by the television station that reportedly obtained the quote.
Shenault isn’t the only proven weapon that Montez will have. Junior K.D. Nixon (5’8” 190 lbs.) and senior Tony Brown (6’1” 190 lbs.) also return; Nixon caught 52 passes for 636 yards and four touchdowns last season while Brown caught 32 passes for 333 yards and a touchdown. Sophomores Daniel Arias (6’4” 200 lbs.) and Maurice Bell (6’0” 180 lbs.) along with redshirt freshman Dimitri Stanley (5’11” 185 lbs.) had impressive springs and should add to the depth.
Running back is a position of major concern, as sophomore Alex Fontenot (6’0” 195 lbs.) is Colorado’s leading returning running back after rushing for 43 yards on 11 carries last season. True freshman Jaren Mangham (6’2” 215 lbs.), a four-star recruit, enrolled early and rushed for 149 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries in the spring game. Fontenot is thought to be the top back coming out of the spring, but Mangham looked like the guy with the most potential.
Injuries hampered the Colorado offensive line last season, but the upside on that is that a lot of young players gained valuable experience. Sophomore left tackle William Sherman (6’4” 305 lbs.) earned honorable mention all-Pac 12 honors in nine starts as a true freshman. Senior Tim Lynott Jr. (6’3” 300 lbs.) was a freshman all-American but briefly lost his starting spot last season; he’s now battling for a spot either at center or guard. Oklahoma State graduate transfer Arlington Hambright (6’5” 308 lbs.) is slated to arrive on campus this summer; a starter in five games at left tackle last season, he could push Sherman back to his more natural right tackle position.
New defensive coordinator Tyson Summers followed Tucker from Georgia, where he also was an analyst. Prior to Georgia, Summers was defensive coordinator at Central Florida and Colorado State before a failed season-and-a-half stint as Georgia Southern’s head coach. Summers has to rebuild a defense that only returns three of the front seven. Up front, only junior defensive end Mustafa Johnson (6’2” 290 lbs.) returns from last season’s two-deep on the defensive line. Johnson’s 73 tackles last season led the defensive line, with 8.5 sacks (led the Pac-12) and 17.5 total tackles for a loss (third in the Pac-12). Colorado was hoping to line him up with Auburn transfer Jaunta’vius Johnson, but Jaunta’vius opted to transfer out after the spring semester after his wife and child were in a serious car accident.
Only junior inside linebacker Nate Landman (6’3” 230 lbs.) returns in the linebacker corps; Landman’s 123 tackles led the 2018 team. Sophomore outside linebacker Carson Wells (6’4” 245 lbs.) looks to be a likely candidate to start ahead of infamous sophomore Jacob Callier after putting up 34 tackles as a freshman reserve last season. But the other candidates at linebacker, junior Akil Jones (6’0” 235 lbs.) and sophomore Jonathan Van Diest (6’1” 230 lbs.), each only had two tackles last season. Interesting note here: former Nebraska assistant Ross Els was one of three MacIntyre assistant coaches retained by Tucker.
In the secondary, only senior nickel back Davion Taylor (6’2” 220 lbs.) and senior cornerback Delrick Abrams (6’3” 180 lbs.) return this season. Taylor had 75 tackles, ranking third on the team last season while Abrams had 44 tackles in 10 games. Besides the graduation departures of last year’s starting safeties, Colorado has seen five members of the secondary quit, transfer or be dismissed from the program so far since last season.
With huge questions on defense and at running back, it seems like Colorado is shaping up for a rebuilding “year zero” season. If you look at Bill Connelly’s analytics, Colorado shapes up to be an underdog this season against everybody they play from outside the state of Colorado. But with six games where they are within a touchdown in the offseason projected spread, it won’t take much improvement and answered questions to turn the Buffs into a bowl eligible team. If that happens, it’s probably because they are outscoring the other team with Laviska Shenault getting serious Heisman hype.
What happens when the Huskers return to Boulder?
This poll is closed
The Buffs just find another way to crush the Huskers dreams.
Tucker’s program is improving, but Nebraska still gets the W.
By 4:20 in the afternoon, most Colorado fans have left, leaving the Huskers dominating in the stands and on the field.