Wanted: Offensive Playmakers

Colorado broke its fall camp Saturday, with an intra-squad scrimmage at Folsom Field. With classes set to begin Monday, the Buffs now have two weeks of regular practices to prepare for their season-opener vs. Colorado State, Sept. 3. In order to succeed in 2005, Colorado needs some playmakers to emerge on the offensive side of the ball. Inside, a look at several candidates.

After a disappointing 2000 season when the Buffs went 3-8, the team regrouped and went into 2001 determined to get to the Big 12 title game. Gary Barnett took some of his players to the stadium where the game was to be played when they were in Dallas for the Big 12 Media Days prior to the season. He made a bold prediction, saying he wanted his players to get a look at a venue they'd be visiting in December. Barnett and the Buffs backed up the move, playing in the game, and beating Texas for the crown.

But that 2001 team went into its first game not really knowing if it had any playmakers on offense, the type of consistent, reliable, move-the-chains, make-something-out-of-nothing, put-the-team-on-his-back-and-get-it-done type of threat.

Midway through the 2001 season, a handful of guys became playmakers. Tailbacks Chris Brown, Bobby Purify and Cortlen Johnson, tight end Daniel Graham and returner Roman Hollowell fit that category.

While the circumstances are different, it's still unclear if the 2005 Buffs have playmakers on offense. There are several candidates, some with impressive résumés, and some with loads of potential. Here's a look at them.

Running Back
Hugh Charles
He's probably the fastest tailback at Colorado since J.J. Flannigan, and his weightroom accomplishments are unmatched on the CU team. Charles' physical strength, combined with a knack for avoiding punishing blows, point toward him being durable. He's improved his pass-catching ability greatly over the past six months, and has shown in practice that he can be very effective in the open field. But until he's proven he can make people miss, and break tackles between the tackles, the jury is still out on whether or not he can earn 20 to 25 carries a game. He doesn't have the wiggle in his hips that many of the great ones do. Then again, neither did Chris Brown. I'm not saying the two share running styles; obviously, they don't. But Charles has the chance to prove you don't have to shimmy like Barry Sanders to be a good 5-8, 185-pound tailback.

Mell Holiday
He's not the fastest, not the biggest, not the strongest back. But Holliday has the best natural feel for the position. He has an instinct for seeing a hole and hitting it at the right time, setting up a defender, twisting away from a tackle or breaking it outright. But the walk-on hasn't been around long enough to learn the blocking schemes to the point where coaches are comfortable.

Lawrence Vickers
LV is a V-back. V for versatile. He's a blocking fullback, a one-back ballcarrier, or split out as a receiver. Critics argue that CU has underutilized Vickers by over-using him. Good things happen when he touches the ball, as his 30 first downs on 87 touches in 2004 proves. Don't expect his role to change dramatically from what it was last season, when he rushed for 248 yards and caught 27 passes.

Receivers
Joe Klopfenstein
He's big, he's fast, he's strong, he's smart, he's experienced, he has good hands, he can block. Other teams know all about Klopfenstein. Other teams knew all about Daniel Graham back in 2001, but CU got him the ball 51 times.

Sypniewski more than just a good blocker in 2005. (BSN)

Quinn Sypniewski
If he stays healthy, watch for the sixth-year senior to make some big, drive-continuing catches this fall. Obviously, he'll play a part in giving teammates an opportunity to be playmakers in the run game, as well.

Evan Judge
Watching Judge turn CU corners around when he runs routes in practice, you understand why the former walk-on is a starter. He's not a big "yards after catch" guy, but he gets open and has the team's best pair of hands.

Evan Judge is a reliable posession reciever. (BSN)

Dusty Sprague
Sprague had a rather quiet camp, but will probably be in the starting lineup vs. Colorado State. He runs great routes, and has a stronger will than many realize. The lanky sophomore could lead the team in receiving this fall.

Alvin Barnett
Coaches have said they liked what Barnett can do after he catches the ball. Witnesses at CU's scrimmage Saturday finally got a look at what that means. Barnett juked four first-string defenders — Brian Iwuh, one of the juked, was still talking about the play as he walked off the field after the scrum — cutback all the way across the field and moved the chains on what should have been a 5-yard pass play. It was electrifying. The sophomore is light years ahead of where he was in the spring. He's not a speedster, but has good quickness and decent hands. Look for him to get fans out of their seats a few times at Folsom this fall.

Patrick Williams
Patience will truly be a virtue for Williams this fall. He played option quarterback in high school, then broke both his hands last fall after moving to receiver. After a good spring, he was poised to learn Blake Mackey's tricks this season, but Mackey's season-ending knee injury put the spotlight on Williams. At 6-2, 195 pounds, Williams has good speed and oozes a playmakers' mentality. But the redshirt-freshman's still a pup. He needs to be patient with himself as he battles through mistakes. The talent is there. He just needs experience.

Vance Washington
Washington started playing wide receiver over the past 10 days. While his hands are still suspect, his speed isn't. He can fly. And he's shown an affinity for picking up the pass routes quickly. Will he actually see time in a game this fall? This is one place Gary Barnett is fun to watch as a coach — Barnett likes to be innovative with players like Washington. I'm thinking Washington will see the field, sporting his new No. 21. Teams will have to pay attention to him because of his speed. Whether as a decoy or a target, he's likely to have an impact before the season's done.

Return Men
Stephone Robinson
It's easy to forget Robinson is only a sophomore. That's what full-time duty as punt returner for a season will do. Robinson definitely has playmaking ability as a return man — he has good quickness and change of direction, physical strength and good balance. And he's determined to improve on last year's effort, when he averaged 7.7 yards per return and scored a touchdown.

Terry Washington, Gerett Burl, Gardner McKay, Chase McBride, Robinson?
It's still to be determined who will earn the kickoff return job. The only CU player to take one the distance on a kickoff the past four season is Jeremy Bloom (two in 2002, one in 2003). Perhaps someone in this group will put his name on that list.

Why no quarterbacks?
In CU's offense, quarterbacks are not called on to be playmakers. They are called upon to make reads, execute the play action, check through their progressions until they find the open receiver, and hit the target.

Playing quarterback is the most difficult position at CU, like most any place. But the quarterback under offensive coordinator Shawn Watson is a game manager. It's his job to distribute the ball into the hands of the potential playmaker. When a CU quarterback tries to go outside the offense, things can go awry.

It's why, under Watson's watch, the CU offense has excelled most with quarterbacks who were efficient game managers, ones who subverted their playmaking instincts and operated strictly within the system. (It's also, I believe, why Bernard Jackson is still No. 3 on the depth chart. Jackson has instincts to make plays that you can't teach. He's corrected his throwing issue, and is now relatively accurate as a passer. But he's still living between game manger land and playmaker city.)

Craig Ochs was a true playmaker in high school. He showed flashes of that in the 2000 win at Texas A&M, and the near win at Nebraska later that season. But Ochs never flourished here. Instead, after Ochs went down with an injury in 2001, the sedate, even-handed Bobby Pesavento led the 2001 team to a Big 12 title. In 2002, undersized Robert Hodge would not have started on any Big 12 team. But after Ochs left the team, Hodge did just enough — managed the offense, handed off to Chris Brown, threw the long ball well — to get CU back to the title game.

Joel Klatt will be Shawn Watson's first three-year starter at quarterback. (BSN)

Through two seasons, Joel Klatt is sort of a tweener. He's got a playmaker's instincts, but he's dutiful enough to try and play within the system. Klatt gets himself into trouble when he tries to force throws where they can't go, but he showed in 2003 that with a pair of good receivers, he can put up big numbers. And that's not to take what he's already accomplished. He's poised to become only the second quarterback at Colorado to throw for more than 6,000 yards. He was heroic in the 2003 win vs. Colorado State, the first game he started.

Barring injury, this will be the first time a CU quarterback has performed under Watson as a three-year starter. It's an enviable position any college would want to be in. It'll be interesting to watch how Klatt plays in the coming months.


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