The offensive line had mixed results last year, clearly showing improvement over the previous season, but also, at times, looking overwhelmed against more talented defensive fronts. In their defense it was year one under Klayton Adams as offensive line coach and Drew Wilson as strength coach, and it takes a couple years for an offensive line to fully develop under good coaching in those two areas. The Buffs also played two redshirt freshmen extensively on the offensive line last season, and no matter how talented they may be, it’s tough to ask young linemen to compete against guys two and three and even four years older than them at this point in their careers.
Everyone on the line should be significantly stronger and more explosive after another off-season with Wilson. It really can not be overstated how important a good strength and conditioning program is, and the Buffs did not have one before Wilson. Everyone on the line should also be significantly improved in terms of technique in year two under Adams, and technique is the life’s blood of an offensive lineman. No offensive lineman will be as athletic as the guys across from them at this level so technique is everything and it takes time to develop. The young guys on this line will be a year older and more physically mature and the Buffs only lose one full time starter and another part time starter from last year’s line.
So it’s fair to expect a significant upgrade in year two under Adams and Wilson even with the loss of three year starting center Alex Kelley, and the security blanket provided by experienced guys last year in the form of Shane Callahan, Sully Wiefels, and Sam Kronshage. Having guys like that on the bench really helped the Buffs at various times last year when starters had to miss games for various reasons.
With that said, let’s look at who is back this spring, and who joins them this off-season to make up the CU offensive line during spring ball.
As everyone no doubt knows, the Buffs return five players on the offensive line who started multiple games last year, but only four of them were really considered starters. Jonathan Huckins started a few games late in the season at left guard but only because Gerrad Kough was sidelined with an ankle injury. Colorado was lucky last year to have four experienced players in reserve on the offensive line to fill in for injuries and illness. That won’t be the case this year. There may still be depth next fall, but it will be untested depth and we won’t really know how good it is until we actually need it.
With that said, it is a nice luxury when a team can return most of its starters on the offensive line, and while the CU line had its ups and downs last year, it is still a positive to return most of your starters. And it’s clearly a good thing when you can return a veteran sixth-year player with legitimate NFL hopes at left tackle, the key to a passing oriented offensive line. Jeromy Irwin is that rare sixth-year player, having overcome two different season ending injuries in his career here.
Last August Jeromy Irwin was coming off knee surgery and rehab that limited his ability to lift fully and kept him out of spring ball. The year before that he was coming off foot surgery that caused the same limitations. This January and February Irwin is full go in the weight room with Wilson and the rest of the team and that is going to make a huge difference. Last season Irwin still lacked the mass and power, particularly in the lower body, to effectively deal with the kind of talent they saw week in and week out in the Pac-12. That’s not a knock on him or his work ethic, it’s just not possible to achieve maximum results in the weight room with repeated lower body injuries.
That won’t be a problem this year, and everyone should expect Irwin to be substantially better next fall than he was in 2016. He is a legitimate all-conference candidate, and maybe more, and could very well play his way into the NFL Draft. This will be his first spring practice in a while and he should make significant strides.
Lining up next to Irwin at left guard will be another guy who is six years out of high school, but by a different route. That would be Gerrad Kough, who greyshirted out of high school, and is also a very legit all-conference candidate. It’s tough to get noticed at guard, but Kough is exactly what you hope for at the position: big, mean, nasty, and powerful. He’s the real deal even if he doesn’t get the attention some other linemen get. He will also be playing for a shot at the NFL and I have no doubt he will get it. The left side of the Buffs' line is going to be very big and very veteran, with both Kough and Irwin in the 6-foot-5, 305 range.
Continuing our journey from left to right across the offensive line we come to the big question Klayton Adams is faced with: How will you replace three0year starting center Alex Kelley? Ask any offensive line coach and they will tell you that center is one of the toughest positions to play for a variety of reasons. Centers generally make the line calls and call out defensive fronts. Centers generally have a 310 pound drooling nasty behemoth inches away from them at nose tackle to deal with immediately. Oh, and by the way, can we please get that snap perfect every time? Those of us who have followed Colorado football the last 10 years know that the last one is not a given, and can often be an adventure.
So Adams has his work cut out for him this spring finding both a starting and a backup center, because last year he had two fifth-year guys in this spots in Kelley and Wiefels. So what’s a line coach to do?
Well, the answer that seems most obvious is to throw Tim Lynott Jr. and Jonathan Huckins in there this spring and see if one of them wins the job. I’m guessing most folks would bet on Lynott, and that’s where I would put my money too. Lynott is as perfectly built to play center as you could hope for. He’s not the tallest lineman ever and his listed height of 6-foot-3 is generous by an inch or two. But 6-foot-1.5 is plenty tall to play center, particularly if that 6-foot-1.5 frame is built like a Volkswagen. Have you ever been run over by a Volkswagen? I don’t recommend it and I don’t recommend lining up across from Tim Lynott either. There’s a reason why he was named Freshman All America last season.
Lynott had a very good year starting every game as a redshirt freshman. There were times when he was over matched, which is to be expected in a young lineman. But there were also times when he took his turn being dominant, and you can expect a lot more of that in year two as a starter. I expect Lynott to really bloom in year two and it’s not ridiculous to suggest that he could garner all-conference, or even All America notice before the year is over.
The only real question with Lynott is, will he do it at center or at guard? It’s not an automatic that he can play center. Not every lineman can do it. In fact some truly exceptional linemen can’t ever master the art of snapping the ball and exploding into a defensive lineman simultaneously, and if there’s even the slightest hesitation it can be lethal. So it will be very interesting to see what Adams does with Lynott going forward.
It will also be interesting to see what happens with Huckins this spring. He played a lot last season, especially late when Kough was injured, and to be blunt and honest, the results were not that great. There’s no real secrets about Huckins at this point in his career. He’s played a lot of football and his strengths and weaknesses are there to see. The bottom line is that too often he does not move anyone off the line, and sadly, at times he gets pushed around. He’s not the biggest lineman around, and he just doesn’t have the explosive hips that Kough and Lynott have. Can he correct that this spring? Well, it’s hard to believe that a guy would change significantly in his fifth-year, but maybe a second year with Adams and Wilson will do the trick. We’ll have to wait and see, but we should know in the spring when we see how he does against huge CU defensive linemen like Javier Edwards, Lyle Tuiloma, and Frank Umu. Stay tuned because there’s an open spot on this line and it may not get filled this spring if Huckins doesn’t get it done.
We’ll come back to who else might get a look at center and guard this spring, but first, let’s finish up our look at returning starters by moving to right tackle and one the linemen on this team that I think has the most exciting future, and that is Aaron Haigler. Haigler, like Lynott, played extensively and started quite a few games last fall as a redshirt freshman. Like Lynott he had moments when he was very good, and other moments when he was in way over his head. For Haigler the only downside of playing so early was that he just wasn’t ready physically, and by that I mean he really needs another year in the weight room with Wilson. At around 270 last year Haigler just did not have the size and power to anchor himself against the type of defensive player we see in this conference. That should not be the case next fall.
Haigler has everything you want in an offensive tackle prospect, and frankly, has a higher ceiling down the road than Lynott because of his height and length and athleticism. At 6-foot-6 and with long arms, Haigler has the length that line coaches love. And when you add in power forward type athleticism, this is a player that pro scouts are going to drool over in a couple years. All he needs now is to keep working in the weight room and keep refining his technique. He is going to be a significantly better player in year two because of the experience gained last year, and he is going to be a solid bookend with Irwin next fall.
Now that we’ve talked about all the guys with significant playing time returning from last year, let’s look at who else will be in the mix this spring, and let’s start with a guy that I think could ultimately be the best in the entire bunch, Isaac Miller. Yeah, I know, that’s heady talk for a guy who hasn’t played a down yet, but this guy is the real deal. First he’s huge. Did you notice above that I said Haigler is 6-foot-6 when CU lists him at 6-foot-7? Well, they also list Miller at 6-foot-7, and in every line photo he’s clearly the tallest guy in the picture, so someone isn't measuring right. But any way you look at it, Miller is a giant of a man, and his work ethic in the weight room and on the practice field is unmatched. His technique was ahead of the game coming out of high school and is even better now. And with arms as long as his, once he locks you up you are done. So keep a keen eye on Miller. He figures to be the prime backup at tackle next fall.
Josh Kaiser goes into his junior year next fall as something of a mystery. Many had high hopes for him coming out of high school, thinking that his size and athleticism would make him a natural at this level. But thus far he hasn’t shown much and has not seen the field in the heat of battle yet. If he’s going to do something this spring is the time to do it, when there’s a position open and before the highly touted freshmen arrive. It seems likely that he’ll get a long look this spring, and if he doesn’t take advantage of it his ship may have sailed by next fall. This winter with Wilson will be critical for Kaiser.
Dillon Middlemiss is a big kid who could also figure at multiple positions down the road, including either tackle or either guard. Right now he needs to keep working on strength, power and filling in a long lanky body. He will be reunited this spring with his former high school lineman, Jake Moretti, and it will be interesting to see where Adams plays Middlemiss and how much he progresses. With young linemen you can never really tell because they can make amazing progress in a couple months in the weight room.
And finally, the Buffs have the new faces on the line for this spring in Hunter Vaughn, Colby Pursell, Chance Lytle, and the aforementioned Moretti, who was one of the Buffs' most prized signees earlier this month. Given the upgraded level of offensive line recruiting this year, the first task for Vaughn, Pursell, and Lytle will be to prove that they haven’t already been recruited over. I know that Vaughn was here in the fall, so in that sense he’s not a new face, but this will be his first spring, and really his first chance to really show what he can do. He has great length and will really need to apply himself in the weight room to fill in his frame and on the field to learn technique.
Lytle and Pursell both put on the pads for the first time after greyshirting last semester. That’s a move that will pay off down the road but puts them somewhat behind Vaughan at this point. Lytle is a Texas kid who caught the coaches’ eyes at a summer camp and combines a long lanky frame with nice athleticism. He’s the guy I think is most likely to turn into something from this group, and he should continue to add to Colorado's tackle depth as he learns the game at this level. He and Vaughan are in many respects very similar prospects. They are both in the 6-foot-7, 290 range and both under the radar guys, but if they pan out, we are going to be well stocked at tackle for a long time.
Pursell is kind of at the other end of the spectrum for the offensive line, carrying the same 290 pounds as Lytle and Vaughn but packing it onto a 6-foot-4 frame, making him look much bigger and thicker than the other two. In fact, Pursell looks as much like an offensive lineman as anyone I’ve seen, with the thick bull neck and flat top haircut that just screams "I'm an offensive lineman" to me. He passes the eyeball test. Now he needs to show he can actually play. Pursell played tackle in high school but he’ll move inside to play guard at CU, and the Buffs need him. The depth at guard and center is lacking this spring, so Pursell should get plenty of reps to learn his trade and impress Adams.
And that brings us to the man of the hour at CU, Jake Moretti. If you don’t know who he is, or know his story, it would be fair to ask what you are doing on this site or even reading this article. Moretti is already something of a legend, having been the top player in his class for a couple of years now, and having flipped from perennial playoff team Ohio State to stay home with the Buffs. Having watched Moretti play for a couple years now, and having had the pleasure to work with him hands on a couple times, it’s very clear to me that he is the best lineman to come out of Colorado since, well, maybe ever. It simply isn’t possible to overstate how good he is.
Early last summer, before his knee injury, Moretti played in Pomona’s full contact full pads scrimmage with Highlands Ranch and he was the most polished high school offensive tackle I’ve seen. His technique in both the run and the pass games was flawless, and he has a mean streak a mile wide. He truly enjoys punishing opposing players. And yet when you talk to him off the field he’s an extremely polite young man. At that scrimmage he was already 295 and thick, but with plenty of room to add more size, and he’s really going to blossom under Wilson and Adams. The only question mark for this kid is the knee he injured last summer. When it will be ready to go? And how much it will hold him back in the weight room and on the field? The answer to that question will determine how early, how much, and how well Moretti plays for the Buffs.
So, all things considered, there is room for considerable optimism about the CU offensive line this spring. There are questions to be answered, and depth must be found, but there are certainly some promising bodies for Adams to work with.
Heading into spring practice it appears that the offense staff will remain intact with no changes. With all the changes happening on the defensive side that was probably inevitable and likely just as well. Continuity on offense right now is a good thing, and year two for this group could and should provide even better results than year one. The CU offense opened the season last year firing on all cylinders, seemingly unstoppable against any and all defenses. But as the season wore on it began to struggle and stagnate, and it’s hard to say if that’s because the Buffs got predictable, defensive coordinators figured them out, players got hurt, or some combination of all of the above.
But it’s clear that the offense that finished the year was not the same offense that started the year, and that has to rub the wrong for guys as competitive as Darrin Chiaverini and Klayton Adams. Brian Lindgren may come off as quiet, but he is driven as well, and the way the season ended is likely to push him to greater heights as well. All things considered the collaboration between Lindgren and Chiaverini gets pretty good marks for season one, but we should all expect more in year two. It’s a good bet that they will expect more. An off-season studying their own film should provide clues to what went wrong down the stretch and spring is the time to get it fixed.
Similarly, Adams gets a passing grade for his first year with the offensive line, but there is no doubt that he expects better in year two and will push this line to get there this spring. Adams is a good young coach and he got the line moving in the right direction, but it will be his ability to continue to refine their technique, and frankly, instill a nastier attitude, that will determine how well he does with this group.
And finally there is Gary Bernardi, who has been the topic of much discussion on the message boards. There is no doubt that the tight end position left a lot to be desired last year, and whether that was because of Bernardi remains an open question. It seems that the position must be given a bigger part of the offense this year, and Bernardi can not simply be allowed to collect a big paycheck without providing some value. But it’s also clear that he does provide something that Mike MacIntyre values highly, and for now that is going to have to be enough for fans that are critical of him. After all, a national coach of the year who brought CU a 10 win season has earned a lot of leeway.
Ultimately the prognosis for the CU offense is very exciting for next fall and this should be a fun spring. It’s entirely reasonable to expect the Buffs to have one of the most explosive offenses in the country, and with Philip Lindsay returning and the Buffs' wealth of ability at wide receiver, whether by air or by ground, this CU offense should deliver.