The Buffs pared down their offense to nearly a bare minimum last season because Jackson — who had played wide receiver, running back and return man, in addition to QB in years past — struggled to take command of the playbook. Instead, the 6-foot, 210-pounder often relied on his ability to improvise with the ball in his hands when he led the offense.
He ended the year with 677 yards and seven touchdowns rushing. But his 1,298 yards through the air were far short of what's expected — needed — from a quarterback in the CU passing game.
Jackson's had an three months to continue his education process in terms of what CU offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich wants out of the quarterback. Then again, Jackson had an entire offseason last year.
Jackson is the most experienced and his running ability gives the offense a dangerous dimension. If another player beats him out of the starting position, odds are he'll still see the field in certain situations.
Meanwhile, Nelson, who transferred to Colorado in January from Saddleback Community College, has impressed coaches the past two months with his study habits. It's one thing, however, to do your homework, and another to make plays on the field, especially when you're having to learn a knew offense.
Nelson ran out of a shotgun spread look at Saddleback, and has been trying to learn CU's West Coast-styled offense the past two months.
How long will it take for Nelson to get up to speed when he puts on a jersey?
"That kind of remains to be seen from an execution standpoint," Helfrich said. "He has definitely demonstrated that his ability to learn is above average. That's encouraging. It just depends on that phase for a quarterback, going from learning what the terms are and what the plays look like on the board to how quickly he can translate that into action."
Coaches also like who Nelson has been the main man on football teams that have won, both in junior college and in high school. He led Saddleback to an undefeated 10-0 regular season, and a No. 1 Juco ranking. He was also the only athlete at Saddleback to play two sports, as he started on the baseball team, too.
"He's won at every level in a lot of sports," Helfrich said. "He's used to winning, and he's used to doing what it takes to win. That's important and that's something we're trying to improve upon across the board as a team, just get more guys that are used to winning, and creating that kind of culture.
"Everybody in his program at Saddleback really liked the kid, liked his intangibles," Helfrich continued about Nelson. "Liked him in the huddle and off the field as a leader. And he made a lot of plays. All that points in the right direction. Now it's just a matter of doing it."
Speaking of winning backgrounds, Hawkins has that too. His team has won every game he's started at quarterback since he was in middle school.
"That's big for every position, but probably even more so with quarterback," Helfrich said.
Hawkins spent last fall learning the offense and mostly running scout team. (He game-prep snaps late in the season when the Buffs were down to two legitimate quarterbacks for a couple of weeks).
What's obvious about Hawkins from anyone who watched him practice, whether it was with the scout team or otherwise, is that he's a natural leader. Helfrich said he's doing well with the mental side of things too. And the 5-11, 190-pounder has too, Helfrich added.
"Cody just has to make up for some of his physical limitations," Helfrich said. "He's no 6-5 guy, so he's got to make great decisions pre-snap to overcome that, which for the most part he did during his redshirt year. Now we have to see how it plays out this spring."
Patrick Devenny is back at tight end after becoming the Buffs' emergency quarterback the last stretch of the season last fall.