The Buffs suffered some losses to transfer this offseason. RB Brian Calhoun, DE Marques Harris, DB Sammy Joseph, OL Del Scales and Fred Staugh are gone for various reasons. The biggest losses are on defense, where Harris was primed to have a big senior season in the revamped 4-3 defense, and Joseph would have been the returning cornerback with the most experience.
Of biggest concern the week heading into camp, however, is the status of redshirt freshman defense end Chadd Evans. Evans had a strong spring and is penciled in at rush end behind starter James Garee, but as of Tuesday was undecided whether or not he planned to return to CU in the fall. If the player from Tulsa, Okla., decides to leave the team, the Buffs will be short on the defensive line.
Word is that John Guydon may be moved back to defensive line after spending the spring on offense. If that's the case once camp opens Sunday, it may be to help shore of the DL if Evans is gone. The move could allow senior Matt McChesney to play some defensive end, where he's played some in the past. However, McChesney spent the spring inside at tackle and is carrying the weight to play there rather than end. Also, McChesney and Garee are among CU's best three or four defensive linemen, and both need to be on the field at the same time.
We should know by Monday night whether there are any surprise no shows, or any impending position moves.
2) Will the new defense play better than the old defense?
You can make a case that CU's defense in 2003 played more poorly than any Buffalo defense going back to the Chuck Fairbanks era. Statistically, CU gave up 33.2 points per game, and an average of 432 yards per outing to opponents last season. The Buffs also managed just 19 sacks all season, their lowest total since 1999.
Barnett has maintained that the problem on defense was more the byproduct of youth and inexperienced players on the field rather than the 4-2-5 system the team ran. Nevertheless, he fired longtime assistant Vince Okruch in the offseason and hired Mike Hankwitz, who brought in a different defensive philosophy.
The Buffs had a productive spring, getting most of the 4-3 system installed in April. Hankwitz is cautious, though, when asked about expectations for the fall. He says we won't really know the strengths and weaknesses of the defense until after the team gets a few games under its belt. Maybe that's when the real work will begin.
One thing that seemed strange last season, at least to onlookers, was the Buffs' seeming inability at times to adjust on defense during a game. CU made FSU QB Chris Rix look like a Heisman winner last September, refusing to adjust its secondary coverage even as Rix and the Seminoles continued to slice and dice through the Buffs' defense. Rix ended with 394 yards before Bobby Bowden called off the dogs, and FSU clobbered Colorado 47-7 in Tallahassee.
That performance alone seems to dispute Barnett's assertion that it was the inexperience on defense that caused the trouble, rather than the scheme. In that game, CU started three seniors (Clyde Surrell, Medford Moorer and Phil Jackson) along with sophomore J.J. Billingsley and redshirt-freshman Joseph on the back end of its 4-2-5 defense. And yet anyone who saw the game knows the Buffs got beat in the passing game time-and-time again. Things turned ugly in the second half when FSU figured out that CU's corners were going to give the Seminole receivers a 9-yard cushion no matter what happened, and FSU took advantage for 31-second-half points.
If experience was the problem then, what's to happen when CU lines up with a considerably less experienced defensive backfield in every single game in 2004? Heading into August, only Billingsley among the entire secondary has more than a handful of starts to his name.
My hunch is that, despite its general lack of experience in the secondary, Colorado will fare better in pass coverage this fall. And that will be because of the new scheme and its emphasis on not giving up the big pass play. Also, new DB coach Craig Bray brings an impressive résumé, and it will be interesting to see his influence on his unit's performance.
3) Who will emerge at wide receiver?
Consider this: While it looks like CU is slipping in its recruiting, Colorado has three former top 100 players in its wide receiving corps. But the trio of sophomores Tyler Littlehales and Blake Mackey and redshirt-freshman Stephone Robinson have just five games (Littlehales) and no catches between them.
While hardcore fans worry about recruiting rankings of possible future Buffs, CU has three former blue-chippers on its roster. Is the potential that the trio brings a positive? Or is the fact that they've yet to produce on the field a bad omen? That probably depends on whether your glass typically half full or half empty?
Either way, this August camp stands to be more important for those three players than perhaps any other on the team. With only one experienced wide receiver returning (senior Ron Monteilh), three spots are there for the taking in the receiver rotation. All three of the aforementioned were banged up in the spring. All three have the talent to become bigtime contributors, and now is the time to begin to make that happen.
If those three don't make a case for playing time, look for redshirt-frosh Dusty Sprague to get onto the field. (He likely will either way). Junior Evan Judge, a former walk-on, goes into camp listed No. 1 opposite Monteilh. Senior Mike Duren, another former walk-on, worked his tail off in the spring and earned Most Improved Offensive Player for his efforts. He'll also be in the mix.
4) Is the offensive line ready to make way for a stronger running game?
There were times this spring during scrimmages when the offensive line looked better than it had in games the previous fall. And the fact that only senior Derek Stemrich missed the spring due to injury is a huge improvement over previous years, when it seemed like several offensive linemen were banged up and missing time in spring and early fall.
So the Buffs go into August ahead of the game in the offensive trenches, which bodes well for the running game. And the running game will have show better than it did last season, when it rushed for just 1,122 yards. That's a lower output than any of the Rick Neuheisel-coached CU teams, squads not known for strong run games.
This year, CU certainly has the horses in the backfield, beginning with a beefed up fifth-year senior Bobby Purify. Purify, who has had nagging injuries throughout his career, put on 20 pounds in the offseason, which should help him withstand wear and tear in 2004.
Colorado will have six backs the coaches have confidence in, so depth shouldn't be an issue. But it all starts up front on the offensive line. When the Buffs ran well in 2001 and 2002, they had play great success front on the line. That needs to happen again this fall.
5) How will the off-field controversy affect the team going into 2004?
This offseason was the most challenging in recent memory for the Colorado football program. Nine allegations of sexual assault became the focus of local and national sports media from February on. No charges have ever been filed, and two football players were cleared through voluntary DNA testing in two of the cases. Still a lawsuit brought by three plaintiffs is ongoing, as is a grand jury investigation into the issues. Also ongoing will be questions from the press about the situation on a weekly basis.
So far, the Colorado football players have handled the media scrutiny and days in front of the grand jury with remarkable maturity. Most say the controversy drew the team close this summer. However, the pressure could mount in the coming months, especially if the Buffs stumble their way to any kind of losing streak on the field.
The tendency among Buff Nation will be to put a great deal of emphasis on the season opener. Ideally for CU fans, Colorado will come into the game and take out an offseason's worth of frustration on the Rams at Folsom Field. But what happens if CSU wins?
The cliché holds true this year: It'll be important for the Buffs to take one game at a time. They can't afford to think of their season in the context of the offseason controversy, and try and prove something on the field. They need to take one game at a time.
While Barnett's teams are 1-4 in openers at CU, it's hard to imagine a more significant opener than this year's contest. Preparation for beating the Rams needs to begin right away.