Junior Joel Klatt has continued to grow as a player and a team leader. The CU offense clearly runs at a higher level when Klatt is at the helm. And the 15 or so pounds that he put on during weight training over the offseason should help him withstand injury as the season progresses.
Bobby Purify has also impressed, and the 20 extra pounds he's carrying looks like it's done nothing but help him. Meanwhile, the entire stable of running backs has continued to progress. CU will be able to run out of several different backfield sets this fall because of the talent they have back there.
How Good is the Offensive Line?
The offensive line has simply got to play better than it did in 2003. All indications — the group's performance in the spring game, and a steady fall camp so far — are that it will. But until the big boys up front can go out an prove it against Colorado State, Washington State and North Texas in September, the line's ability to make way for the CU running game is still a question mark.
Does the Wide Receiver Corps Need a Game Breaker?
One of the trademarks of Shawn Watson's offenses at CU have been their ability to adapt to personnel's strengths in a given year.
In 2001, a dominant running game was accented by a highly productive tight end, and some good pass-catchers coming out of the backfield. That year, Derek McCoy, as a sophomore, led the wide receivers in catches with just 30. In 2002, CU's vertical passing game emerged, but CU once again relied on its running backs to carry the load. Last year, wide outs McCoy and D.J. Hackett were the offense's main weapons.
Heading into 2004, it doesn't look like the Buffs have a McCoy or Hackett. And with Jeremy Bloom likely gone, a big-play receiver has not yet distinguished himself. In Bloom, the team had a guy who could "take the top off the defense," as coaches like to say. It appears they lack a wide out who can consistently stretch the defense as a deep-ball threat. (Although Blake Mackey is reportedly among the five fastest players on the team).
However, there are at least six players who will bring something to the table and get catches this fall. The question is, will it be enough to balance what looks to be a solid running game?
'Can't Lose To Lose' Guys
The last year a CU quarterback went through a season without missing at least one game due to injury? That was 1998, in Mike Moschetti's junior year. If Klatt were to go down, at this point it looks like either James Cox, or possibly Brian White, would step in. But Klatt is a ways ahead of both players in being able to execute CU's version of the West Coast offense. Any of the QB backups would be learning on the go if they were to be called upon.
The other player CU can't afford to lose on offense is center Mark Fenton. If the sophomore, who has spent the past two springs as No. 1 center, and played over 70 snaps in 2003, gets injured, it could throw off the chemistry that an improved offensive line is building. Should Fenton leave the lineup, look for senior Terrance Barreau to move over from his starting split guard spot, and junior Gary Moore, or redshirt-freshman Jack Tipton (who saw time at guard in Saturday's scrimmage) to take over the split guard position. Tipton has improved, but is still unproven. After those two, CU would be looking at freshman Daniel Sanders, as senior Derek Stemrich's post-knee surgery situation will likely keep him out of the lineup more often than not. Coaches have said John Guydon will see some practice time on the offensive line, and could move there from the defense if needed. But Guydon has looked good at defensive tackle, and if he has to move to offense, it will really hurt the DL depth.
The surprise of fall camp on the offense has been the improved play of redshirt-freshman QB Brian White. While he looked good in the spring game, he was not expected to push Cox for the No. 2 spot in August. But he's done that, and should Klatt go down, Watson will have an interesting decision on his hands.
Also rising up have been a pair of former walk-on receivers, Evan Judge and Mike Duren. Judge will likely start vs. CSU, and will provide a steady and strong target. Duren is a scooter who has shown an ability to get open over the middle. Both have earned the respect and trust of their quarterbacks. And, if both continue to play as well as they have, sports writers may even drop the "former walk-on" tag that's attached to their names in stories.
Nose tackle Vaka Manupuna has looked good in camp, proving a disruptive force in the trenches on a consistent basis. Junior John Guydon has also given some offensive linemen all they can handle in daily one-on-one drills. His emergence means CU should have good depth on the interior of the defensive line in 2004.
Sophomore Dominique Brooks has quietly had a solid camp, and it looks as though he's ready to become a three-year starter at strong safety in the Buffs' defense. Also picking up new DB coach Craig Bray's philosophy have been corners Lorenzo Sims and Gerett Burl. One of them, likely Burl, will become a backup once Terrence Wheatley returns from a groin injury, but it looks like CU will have three steady corners heading into the CSU game.
Depth at DE
Depth at defensive end is a question, as only starters James Garee and Alex Ligon have D-I experience. Abraham Wright has not pushed Ligon as much in fall camp as some had expected. Alonzo Barrett has looked quick in August, but at 240 pounds, he's small at the rush end spot behind Garee. This position could wear down as the year progresses.
While Brian Iwuh is entrenched at the buff linebacker, the inside linebacker spots are still up for grabs two weeks before the CSU game. It's hard to tell if it's because Thaddaeus Washington (who's been slowed with an injury) and Akarika Dawn have not performed up to expectations, or because those below them on the depth chart have outplayed expectations. Either way, the fierce competition going on there right now should only help raise the level of play at those two crucial positions.
Depth in the secondary is a concern, as is the health of free safety J.J. Billingsley, who had his knee scoped last week. Billingsley had gained the confidence of Bray, who has already gained a reputation of a hard-to-please coach. He should be ready to go by Sept. 4, but it's unclear yet if the knee will turn into a nagging issue.
Big Plays and Turnovers
CU gave up a ton of big plays in 2003, and couldn't generate turnovers, especially in the first half of the season. Great emphasis has been placed on fixing both areas, but until the team plays against people in different jerseys, we won't know if the emphasis in practice translates to games.
Can't CU Generate a Pass Rush?
The other big question on defense is the pass rush. If CU defenders can't get pressure on the opposing quarterbacks, the pass defense won't improve. My guess is that in defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz's scheme, this area will get better.
'Can't Lose To Lose' Guys
Because of his relentless attitude on the field, in practice and the weightroom, and because players are inexperienced behind him on the depth chart, James Garee would be the toughest player to replace from the starting lineup. Coming in a close second are both safeties, Brooks and Billingsley.
THE surprise of the camp has been the better-than-expected play of linebacker Jordon Dizon. He immediately turned heads when he was moved from safety to will linebacker after the first week of camp. A slight shoulder injury slowed him this past week, but there's an outside chance the youngster from Hawaii could even crack the starting lineup by the CSU game. If not, his knack for being around the ball, and his humble, hardworking demeanor, have likely earned him playing time as a true freshman in the Big 12.
Also unforeseen was Stephone Robinson's move from wide receiver to cornerback. It will be interesting to watch if he stays put, and if he earns his way onto the field in the next month.
PK Mason Crosby has once again been impressive in camp, regularly booming 60-plus yarders. A year's maturity should also help the sophomore, who struggled with confidence at times a year ago.
Likewise, P John Torp is a year older. The junior was hitting the ball very well in the rain this past week, just like he did vs. CSU in the 2003 opener at Mile High.
For the first week of camp it appeared that Bloom may play, and put any worries over the return duties on the bench. Now it looks as though Bloom won't play, and it's unclear who will return punts and kickoffs. Robinson had been the heir apparent, but hasn't yet nailed down the job. He's been taking turns with Jake Duren. Reggie Joseph has recently gotten some looks. Robinson and Bobby Purify have been taking kickoffs. And Terrence Wheatley will be in that mix once he's back from injury.