Wide receiver is another position with a lot of question marks this spring, but for the opposite reason than the running back position. Colorado is going to have an abundance of riches at receiver next fall, and there is just not enough playing time - or balls - to go around. So there will be fierce competition this spring to see who comes out on top, and then there will be more competition this summer as a deeply talented corps of new blood comes into the position. So who should you keep an eye on?
Early in the 2016 season it appeared that the CU receiving corps was on its way to a season for the ages. Shay Fields, Bryce Bobo, and Devin Ross seemingly took turns each week lighting up opposing defenses, and in each game a different one of them would turn in highlight reel catches and plays. Whether it was Bobo making one handed circus catches or Fields and Ross getting behind an NFL caliber secondary at Michigan, it was a fun group to watch operate. All three return and it will be interesting to see what each of them can do to elevate their game this spring. For a variety of reasons, what started out the season as an explosive and potent trio in the passing game struggled as the year wound down. Now it remains to be seen if the three of them can exceed what they did last season.
All three bring different attributes to the field. Bobo brings length and height and can be a mismatch against smaller defenders. Ross brings blazing speed and finally developed the hands to make use of it. And Fields is the most complete of the three, having the best combination of size, speed, hands and routes.
But the truly amazing thing is that none of these three guys were the talk of the early weeks of camp last August. The guy who was terrorizing a CU secondary that would turn out to be one of the best in the nation was Juwann Winfree, who had his way in camp before injuring his knee and missing the season. At 6-foot-3, and close to 210 pounds, Winfree brings a combination of size, speed, grace and pure athleticism that has been rare on a CU practice field since the days of Michael Westbrook. Winfree is probably the best person to describe what he brings to the table: “We all bring something different to the table,” he said. “With me, being as big as I am, not many people [my size] can move how I move. I watch a lot of film on Julio Jones, just the way he moves. I feel like I bring that aspect to the game, that big creature who can do a lot.”
Winfree is said to be ahead of scheduling on rehabbing his knee, but it remains to be seen how much, if any, he will be able to participate in spring ball. But if he can return to the form he showed last August, he could take this offense to a new level.
Of course a truly deep corps of receivers is not made up entirely of stars. There also needs to be the more unsung guys who can step in and make a clutch catch here and there, or fill in when someone gets hurt, and CU had two of those last year who return for spring ball. Jay MacIntyre and Kabion Ento both had priceless moments for the Buffs in 2016, filling in for injured starters, or making big catches when CU needed it. Both will have to continue to progress to stay in those roles, however, with the influx of talent coming at the position this summer.
MacIntyre in particular has proven to be adept at finding the first down marker, as many of his catches this year came at the right time to move the sticks. If he can keep doing that, he will continue to see the field. But there’s really no way around the fact that, based purely on talent, MacIntyre and Ento are not in the same league as the guys coming in. So they will need to rely on the other attributes that they have already used so well.
Rounding out the look at receiver for spring are three guys with three possibly very different trajectories in front of them. Johnny Huntley was one of the stars of last year’s recruiting class and had his redshirt burned. Though he played in 12 games, Huntley only had one catch for 14 yards, so his value was more on special teams. That said he still possesses an elite combination of size and speed and his future is bright. The question this spring will be is that future now, or will he take the redshirt next year that he could have taken this year. Spring will be an interesting time for us to see what Huntley brings to the table.
At the other end of the spectrum is a player many had high hopes for a couple years ago because of his speed. Lee Walker is undoubtedly one of the fastest Buffs but he has not been able to translate that into consistent playing time. He played in only seven games last year and had only one catch, and it’s hard to see him improving on that next fall without a big spring right now. With the talent coming in he will have to show something right now or he will get passed up for good.
And somewhere in between these two is Derrion Rakestraw, another wide receiver from last year’s class, though significantly less celebrated than Huntley. Rakestraw, by most accounts, had a good fall on scout team and was mentioned by some defensive backs as one of the more impressive scout team players. But it remains to be seen whether he has the raw talent to compete with the high level players arriving this summer, so spring will be very important for him.
Finally, and not by any means least, there is a newcomer at receiver for the Buffs this spring. Jaylon Jackson, one of the stars of the 2017 recruiting class, is already on campus, and has talent - and speed - to burn. With a 10.55 clocking in the 100 meters, Jackson truly does have elite speed. But he’s also had knee injuries that knocked him out of competition the last two years, so he comes with significant question marks. But he’s in Boulder, working with one of the best sports medicine teams in America, in one of the finest facilities in the country, so the Buffs hope those troubles are behind him. It remains to be seen when he will be ready to play, though, so he will have to have patience.
The bottom line is wide receiver is easily the most talented position on this CU team, and that means fierce competition this spring, with even more talent coming this summer. The future is very bright at the position, and many fan’s favorite coach, Darrin Chiaverini, will have plenty to work with for years to come.
If you look at the tight end position at CU immediately after looking at wide receiver, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that you just went from the most talented and exciting position on the team to the least. Talk about a forgotten position. The tight end position at Colorado in 2016 really did not amount to much more than glorified offensive guards, performing an important and necessary service to the run game, but completely nonexistent in the passing game. No tight end caught more than one pass all season, and the entire position only accounted for three catches. Sean Irwin, who had several highlight reel catches the year before, did not catch a single pass until the Alamo Bowl.
So the question arises, what happened? It’s possible the receivers played so well that all the balls went their way. But then there were times when CU's receivers were shut down completely and a mismatch by a tight end would have been a very valuable weapon. So did the Buffs just not have the talent at tight end to find and exploit those mismatches? Again, it’s hard to say what happened to this position in 2016, and it will be an important question for the offensive staff to answer. This will be something to watch in spring.
That said, there won’t be much to watch, as there are only three scholarship players at the position for the spring: George Frazier, Dylan Keeney, and Chris Bounds. Much was expected the last couple of years from Frazier and Keeney. There was excitement about Frazier because two years ago he was a real weapon in both the run and pass games. But since then he has steadily disappeared, with the low point seeming to come late last year when he dropped an easy catch in the end zone. Frazier seems to have regressed last season, though he is still highly respected by his teammates.
Many people were excited about Dylan Keeney from the day he signed with Colorado because of his combination of size and athleticism. It’s somewhat mystifying that the coaches have not been able to find ways to isolate Keeney against opposing defenses in ways to exploit his size and speed. Will that be something they figure out this spring?
Chris Bounds was one of the lowest rated recruits in the CU class a couple years ago, and thus far he has not generated much excitement. However, Sean Irwin did praise his development and said he believes Bounds can help fill his shoes going into 2017.
At this point the tight end position is nonexistent in the passing game until proven otherwise. It is also home to the most controversial coach on the staff and it’s a fair question to ask whether the disappearance of the tight end in the CU offense and movement of Gary Bernardi to coach the position simultaneously were more than simple coincidence. Will spring ball answer any of these questions? That remains to be seen. For now the tight end position at CU is nothing to get excited about unless a returning player shows improvement or new faces this summer bring new excitement.