Part Two -
The Colorado offense was a bit of a mixed bag in 2016, getting off to a record breaking start before seemingly bogging down mid-season. While it never really got back to early form, during those early weeks, the offense looked like it was playing in a video game. The real shocker was the ease with which the Buffs hung 28 early points on Michigan.
From that point on, the offense had mixed results, shining at times but really struggling at other times. Sefo Liufau and Phillip Lindsay were the beating heart and living soul of the offense; two warriors with the gift of playing beyond their seeming limitations, and more importantly, lifting their teammates above theirs as well.
Lindsay returns, but Liufau ends one of the most storied, and controversial, careers in CU football history. So where does this offense go from here? Let’s look at it position by position and finish with a peek at the coaches.
Quite clearly everything in this offense starts with the quarterback position. Liufau and Steven Montez both showed us that a quarterback operating at high efficiency can make this offense lethal. But by the same token, when the quarterback struggles, this offense bogs down quickly.
Liufau, no matter how one views his career behind center, goes down as one of the great warriors in CU football history. Replacing him will be no small feat and anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. And the first shot at replacing this Colorado legend is going to go be the guy who replaced him on the field last year.
Montez struggled at times in 2016, particularly when asked to come in cold off the bench. But at other times, when he was the main guy all week in practice, he shined in all aspects of the game. He moves well and has much better accuracy than Liufau. If his game at Oregon was the real Montez, then he could leave CU as one of the Buffs' all-time greats. On the other hand, if he struggles the way he did many other times last season, he could get beat out for the starting gig. And the two quarterbacks who could beat him out are on campus now, working with Drew Wilson and getting ready for spring ball.
Sam Noyer goes into spring with the advantage of having practiced in CU's offense all of fall, so he is going to start out as the main challenger. Noyer got positive reviews from his first semester on campus and seems to have the tools to be a good Pac-12 quarterback. When or if that happens remains to be seen, but like last year, it certainly appears that the Buffs have a talented back-up no matter who ends up starting.
And of course the wild card, the third option, is incoming freshman Tyler Lytle, who came to CU as easily the most sought after quarterback recruit of the last decade. Lytle seems to have all the right tools, including a tall frame, athleticism, and a good arm. What remains to be seen is how fast and how well he adjusts to the speed and complexity of the game at this level.
On paper the quarterback depth this spring looks better than we’ve seen in a really long time at Colorado from a quality standpoint. But plenty of questions remain: Can these guys truly master the offense and learn the art of reading defenses on the move? Can they come anywhere close to the level of leadership we saw for four years from Liufau? Can they display even a fraction of his toughness? There are lots of questions to be answered this spring at quarterback, but for once it appears the Buffs have some real talent to put towards answering those questions.
What a difference a year makes.
A year ago at this time there were nothing but question marks at running back, and some thought Patrick Carr would be the answer before he decided to transfer. And some thought perhaps incoming Beau Bisharat would be the savior at the position. Others thought Michael Adkins would be the answer, and that he would finally live up to the flashes he had shown at various times. Some wondered if Donald Gordon might bring size to the position that CU had been missing.
But very few people a year ago thought that Philip Lindsay could, or would, be one of the top running backs in the Pac-12. CU fans admired his heart and fire, but found plenty of alleged shortcomings. As he’s done his entire football career, the 'Tasmanian Devil' proved people wrong, and he proved them wrong to the tune of 1,214 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Lindsay became CU’s first 1,000 yard rusher since Rodney Stewart went for 1,300 in 2010, and only the second Buff to break 1,000 yards in a season since Bobby Purify did it in 2004 and Chris Brown got 1,700 in 2002. And what does not show up in stats, and possibly the reason he played so much to begin with, is Lindsay’s willingness to block in pass protection. At times he is devastating to players much bigger than he is, and he takes great pride in this part of his game.
It has been long time since a CU running back rushed for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, so the question now is, can Lindsay do it again? The bet here is that he can. There have been few players to wear the Black and Gold that have had more heart than Lindsay, and his pride and work ethic are not going to let him slow down and rest on his laurels this off-season. He will be a team leader in the weight room and in spring practices. But it is also to be expected that his load this spring will be reduced, both to protect his body, and to give more reps to other players to answer the really big question facing this offense.
Who else is going to support Lindsay at the running back position? Early last year it looked as though Kyle Evans and Donovan Lee would fill that role. Later in the year Bisharat began to see more time. But as the season wound down, Lindsay carried more and more of the burden at running back. That simply cannot continue next year. Running backs coach Darian Hagan has to find some guys to step up and help carry the load, to give the Buffs some change up and explosiveness. So who is going to do it?
Every running back that got a carry last year returns this spring. But that does not account for very much in terms of yards and points.
Evans went into fall camp last August as a walk-on. He came out of it, not only a scholarship player, but also a significant contributor to the offense. Evans may be the shortest of the running backs, but he was by no means the least of the bunch. He showed in games that he could pick up the tough yards, that he could find holes and pick up first downs, and that he could fairly reliably pick up the blitz in pass protection. He was the third leading rusher on the team, and No. 2 among running backs, and had a respectable per carry average of 4.1 yards. But curiously Evans began to disappear from the rotation toward the end of the season. It remains to be seen how much he can elevate his game with a full season under his belt, but it seems clear that Evans will be right in the mix at the top of the rotation.
And right beside him, if late season playing time means anything, will be Beau Bisharat, last year’s recruiting day sensation. He got increasingly more playing time as the year went on, but coaches never really found a niche for him in the offense, at least in terms of taking advantage of his particular strengths. One of the goals of spring ball this year must be to find a way to put Bisharat’s talent to good use on offense. Perhaps that will be as simple as him understanding the offense more completely with a season of experience. If he can't be someone who really delivers on offense, Bisharat could be a very rare talent at linebacker. So it is up to Hagan to figure out how to get more out of Bisharat's size and speed at running back this spring.
The forgotten men in the running back race, or so it seems, are Donovan Lee and Michael Adkins. Both have shown flashes in the past, but neither have shown enough improvement or consistency to remain at the top of the depth chart.
It seemed that Lee would be a contributor on offense early last season, but his playing time began to tail off and he eventually disappeared completely when he failed to continue improving. He will have to step it up this spring if he hopes to remain in the picture for significant playing time, particularly when K.D. Nixon arrives this summer looking like a significant upgrade on the same skill set.
And finally, Adkins goes into his final spring at CU needing to prove a great deal to Hagan to even see the field. CU fans have hoped, for going on five years now, to see Adkins fully deliver on the promise that he has shown in bits and pieces. But you are not going to play for Hagan if you don’t have real physical toughness and if you aren’t willing to stick your nose in and block and sacrifice your body for the team. Adkins has not shown those attributes on a consistent basis yet during his college career... and time is running out.
The Buffs' offense needs some ball carriers to step forward and help Lindsay. This spring may be the last chance for some upperclassmen, before a couple of young and very talented new backs show up. There is no question who the top dog will be, but lots of questions about who will be running with him, and who will be sitting on the porch.