Pac-12: Colorado Buffaloes
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! -- opponents. Or not.
On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.
On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and a leader in interceptions.
We tackled offensive trios for the North and the South on Tuesday. This morning, we looked at the defensive situation in the Pac-12 North, which looks to be a rebuilding adventure across the board. Here's a glimpse at the Pac-12 South, which looks like it may be in better shape than the North. There also seems to be some defensive parity across the board in this division, so keep that in mind when considering these rankings. There's no clear standout.
The skinny: The Utes will certainly miss Nate Orchard's beastly productivity (18.5 sacks, 21 TFL), but this strong defensive machine looks to keep on churning. Norris led last year's team with 116 tackles -- the next most productive player after Orchard accumulated only 61. Utah will turn to Dimick (10 sacks, 14.5 TFL) to pick up some pass-rush slack, while Paul's four interceptions paced the roster in 2014.
The skinny: To begin, let's establish that Scooby Wright alone delivers the statistical output of an entire three-headed monster: 163 tackles, 19 TFL, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles in 2014. It's remarkable to realize that Parks' 81 tackles -- second most of Arizona's returners -- were less than half of Wright's total last year. The safety did also contribute two interceptions, as did Denson at cornerback. With Jared Tevis and Tra'Mayne Bondurant both gone, the secondary must pick up slack to round out the Wildcats' new three-headed monster.
3. Arizona State
The skinny: The Sun Devils are coming off a topsy-turvy season on defense, but the bet here is that Todd Graham's maturing unit will show much more consistency in 2015. Simone has gone from walk-on to ASU's leading returning tackler and critical defensive glue. Fiso will likely have to improve upon his 11 tackles for loss from last season to help this unit overcome the pass rush loss of Marcus Hardison. Brown brings back three interceptions.
The skinny: Though leading tacklers Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard are gone, plenty of exciting talent remains at USC. Sarao, now a senior, is the leading returning tackler on a balanced defense. Cravens is a true Swiss Army knife -- he's effective both in the secondary and at linebacker, evidenced by the fact he led the Trojans in both tackles for loss (17) and interceptions (3) last season. Jackson is still looking for his first career pick, but we're betting that comes soon, as his playmaking ability is not in question.
The skinny: This troika is tasked with filling the shoes of Eric Kendricks, perhaps the nation's most dependable tackling machine (145 last season). Jack is the unit's leading returner (87 stops in 2014), while Hollins led the Bruins with nine sacks as a sophomore. UCLA should benefit from the experience that Adams brings at cornerback. Remember that he housed two interceptions last year, and both returns were electrifying.
The skinny: The Buffs seem confident that they'll make major improvements to their atrocious run defense in 2015. That'll require a unit-wide effort originating from the front seven. But trio above represents an integral core of statistical production. Olugbode is Colorado's leading returning tackler, McCartney paced last year's team with 4.5 sacks, and Thompson recorded all three of the Buffs' interceptions in 2014.
And the capital of Nebraska is Lincoln!
- What if Rich Rodriguez had been a basketball coach instead? (Point guards release a collective "phew" that he isn't).
- Todd Graham has high hopes for the Sun Devils.
- Some key position battles raging at California.
- In case you missed it on the blog yesterday, Colorado and TCU have inked a home-and-home.
- Former Duck Darron Thomas is still hoping the NFL will call.
- The Beavers have extended an offer to a three-star tight end.
- Sort of Stanfordy ... Jim Harbaugh is looking for the next Andrew Luck, but knows he probably won't find him.
- How’s the recruiting battle in LA going? A little something for UCLA and USC fans ... since you guys share so well.
- Dennis Dodd does a great job breaking down the newly-unsealed NCAA emails from the Todd McNair case.
- Utah opens spring ball with some position battles to keep an eye on.
- Phil Steele’s spring guide is loaded with good info. Washington fans might be particularly interested in page 6.
- Any Washington State fans remember James Hasty? He was just hired as a high school head coach.
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! -- opponents. Or not.
On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.
On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.
We're breaking it down by division. We tackled the offensive three-headed monsters from the North earlier today. Now it's time to move on to the Pac-12 South, which features plenty of firepower and plenty of question marks.
The skinny: Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Wildcats' surge to the top of the treacherous Pac-12 South was their youth at the skill positions. Solomon led the offense as a redshirt freshman, Wilson bowled over defenders as a true freshman, and Jones led the team in receiving as a sophomore. That entire nucleus returns in 2015, and it looks like more quality depth could be layering the receiving corps -- Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips, and DaVonte' Neal come to mind. But the main point remains: Arizona returns a 1,000-yard rusher, a 1,000-yard receiver, and a developing quarterback who handled his inaugural campaign well. That's a three-headed monster that can flex its muscles in 2015.
The skinny: There should be plenty of offensive confidence oozing out of the desert come fall. Bercovici showed plenty of dependability last season, so Todd Graham isn't waking up in cold sweats because of Taylor Kelly's graduation. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils are confident enough in Richard's running abilities to move versatile weapon Foster to the slot. Richard racked up 478 yards on 5.7 yards per carry as a 17-year old, while Foster already caught 62 passes while also serving as the primary running back last year. With Jaelen Strong's 1,165 receiving yards gone, Foster's position shift makes sense, and ASU has gunpowder in all three of its offensive cannons.
The skinny: Kessler will be in the early Heisman Trophy discussion thanks to the gaudy numbers he posted in 2014 (39 touchdowns, five interceptions), but the Trojans do have to replace his two most influential sidekicks. Running back Javorius Allen (1,489 yards) and receiver Nelson Agholor (104 catches, 1,313 yards) are both taking lavish production with them to the NFL draft. Sure, the Trojans have been recruiting well enough to power through those losses, but doing so won't be a cakewalk. Davis and Madden are expected to share backfield duties (there are promising true freshmen coming, too), while Smith returns 54 catches. There's work to do at USC to make this troika as effective as it was last year, but the cupboard certainly isn't bare -- it's brimming with potential.
The skinny: Brett Hundley is gone from this mix, but the Bruins can take solace in the fact they return the Pac-12's rushing champion. Perkins' 1,575 yards on 6.3 yards per carry led all conference backs last year, and there will be big weight on the junior's shoulders as a new quarterback takes over. Jerry Neuheisel or Josh Rosen must develop rapport with Payton, who emerged as Hundley's favorite target in 2014. That'll be the key in ensuring that Perkins again enjoys running room in 2015.
The skinny: This is an intriguing trio for a Colorado program that's eager to turn a bevy of heartbreaking losses into 2015 wins. A hemorrhaging run defense might have been the primary culprit in the Buffs 1-11 finish last year, but Liufau's conference-worst 15 interceptions also cannot be overlooked. If he does a better job avoiding these mistakes, Spruce and an improving run game should be ready to roll. Spruce's 106 catches led the Pac-12 in 2014, while Colorado's rushing efficiency has bettered from 3.1 yards per carry in 2012 to 4.1 last year. Powell, a 230-pound bruiser, led a committee of backs at 5.3 yards per carry.
The skinny: The Utes have Booker, a 1,512-yard name that'll be tossed around in early Heisman discussions, but there has to be significant worry beyond his position. For one, both prospective quarterbacks struggled throwing the ball last season, and their road doesn't look to be getting any smoother. With Kaelin Clay, Dres Anderson, and Westlee Tonga gone, the Utes are losing two of their top three receivers and their most productive tight end. Scott is the leading returning target while prized junior college transfer Deniko Carter will be counted on to produce immediately. There's potential there, but at this point, questions outweigh answers. Booker is the workhorse with a hefty load on his shoulders.
You talkin' to me?
Colorado has finished their spring game, so we're in a slight Pac-12 practice lull while basketball is in the spotlight. But the avalanche of 11 other spring games is creeping closer. Here are some links from around the conference:
- Rich Rodriguez has netted the commitment of a three-star running back.
- The Arizona State staff says that it needs an improved Mike Bercovici at quarterback in 2015.
- A recap from the latest Cal football spring practice, courtesy California Golden Blogs.
- More on the life and death of former Colorado lineman Ryan Johanningmeier.
- Oregon kicks off spring practice in less than a week. Here's a preview.
- Details have been announced regarding Oregon State's spring game on April 18, while the Beavers have grabbed another 2016 commitment.
- Last week, Stanford coach David Shaw spoke about his former boss and a young quarterback prospect named Jameis Winston.
- As UCLA gears up for spring practice, here are some Bruin Bites.
- The latest USC football morning report from the Los Angeles Times.
- Five burning questions about Utah football -- answered.
- A Washington football mailbag tackles the Huskies' quarterback competition.
- Washington State needs a new director of player relations.
Vanity. Definitely my favorite sin.
- The Wildcats wide receiving corps should be strong again.
- Speaking of receivers, ASU feels like it's got a pretty good stable as well.
- Some post-practice thoughts and analysis from Cal.
- Some good Colorado football Qs and As from Kyle Ringo's chat.
- Highlights from Marcus Mariota's QB Camp with Jon Gruden.
- Oregon State is keeping its eye on this JC cornerback.
- A preview of Stanford's pro day.
- UCLA loading up on linebackers.
- Former USC running back Reggie Bush is headed back to the West Coast.
- Would Eric Rowe be a good fit in Baltimore?
- Jake Browning could make an instant impact for Washington.
- Connor Halliday is on this list of the top 10 quarterbacks in the draft.
With spring practice underway at many Pac-12 destinations, it's time to do our annual position-by-position breakdown.
Today, we move to the defensive side of the ball and we're starting with the defensive backs. For the sake of time and avoiding headaches, we're going to just separate this into three groups -- the defensive backs, linebackers and defensive line. For teams that have certain hybrid positions and players, we put them into which of those three categories we thought they best fit. If you don't like how we did it, feel free to complain here.
Arizona: Cornerback Jonathan McKnight is out, leaving the Wildcats down a corner. The good news is that Jarvis McCall Jr. is back after finishing last season as Arizona’s ninth-leading tackler. Three players will try to battle it out to start opposite McCall: Cam Denson, Devin Holiday and DaVonte’ Neal. Denson is the most experienced, having started at CB against UCLA and Colorado and finishing the year with 21 tackles and two picks. Holliday played in just six games and finished with two tackles and one interception, while Neal has come over from the offensive side of the ball to help out with depth at the corner spot. All three are in similar physical molds to McKnight but this is going to come down to who can make the most plays. Whoever comes out on top this spring has a fast track to the starting job next fall so these reps are crucial.
However, the Wildcats aren’t as fortunate in the rest of the secondary, where they lost Jourdon Grandon, Tra'Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis. Will Parks should fill Bondurant’s spot at spur pretty well, but he needs to bring the leadership of Bondurant and Tevis combined. Jamar Allah, Tellas Jones and Anthony Lopez will fight for minutes this spring alongside juco transfer Paul Magloire Jr., who has already received some praise from Rich Rodriguez. The quarterback turned running back turned safety enrolled early and with so many open reps and so few more opportunities left in his college career, look for him to make the most of this.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils return most of their secondary, but lose boundary safety Damarious Randall, who led ASU in tackles last season and tallied three interceptions. Replacing him will be no small task but Todd Graham has options in James Johnson, Chad Adams and Dasmond Tautalatasi. Whoever earns that starting spot will have the opportunity to work and grow alongside field safety Jordan Simone, who had a breakout year in 2014 after going from walk -on to scholarship player and he’ll look to build on that momentum. And at corner, the Sun Devils return both starters in Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown as well as nickel Armand Perry. So, don’t be too worried if those three don’t get a ton of reps this spring because their spots are secure and now Graham is just looking to build some depth. Perry should get a few more reps as will Solomon Means and Ronald Lewis, as they try to break into the cornerback rotation.
Colorado: The Buffs are in a slightly different position here considering they concluded spring practices yesterday. But here's a run down based off the notes from the spring game that were released as well as some thoughts that led to the event. The depth chart has Ken Crawley (who’s up to 180 pounds) and Chidobe Awuzie listed as the two top cornerbacks. Behind them are John Walker -- who won the team’s award as the most improved defensive back -- and Ahkello Witherspoon in the two deep. Awuzie was kind of a surprise to see atop the list considering how much praise we’ve heard about the rangy Witherspoon but considering that Awuzie is also listed as the starting nickel, we’re still expecting to see a lot of Witherspoon at corner. At safety, Evan White and Tedric Thompson took the starting jobs while Ryan Moeller and Afolabi Laguda fill out the two deep.
We're making our way through the offensive position groups and today we get to wide receivers. Let's begin with the South ...
Arizona: The Wildcats could have one of the most electric passing attacks in the Pac-12 next season with Anu Solomon and his crop of returning receivers. Arizona has five of its top seven receivers returning with the only Cats out being Austin Hill, who graduated, and DaVonte' Neal, who's still on the roster but moved over to defense. But between Cayleb Jones, Samajie Grant, Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips and David Richards, there's going to be a lot of competition for catches this spring. Also, according to this report, there are a few 2014 scout team players who've impressed wide receivers coach Tony Dews so far this spring -- Tony Ellison, Kaelin DeBoskie, Jocquez Kalili and Darius Aguirre.
Arizona State: D.J. Foster will have his first full WR spring this year after being the second-leading receiver for the Sun Devils last year. Past Foster, the only other player who had significant receiving experience last season was Cameron Smith, who caught 41 passes for ASU. Look for these two to solidify their roles as starters, but they'll also have competition from Gary Chambers, Frederick Gammage, Ellis Jefferson and former JUCO transfer Eric Lauderdale.
Colorado: Nelson Spruce deciding to come back for his final year of eligibility might be one of the biggest returns -- from a team's own stock perspective -- in the league this year. This spring, expect him and Sefo Liufau to keep building that chemistry, especially considering Mike MacIntyre told reporters that he could see Spruce having another 100-reception season, which would make him the first Pac-10/Pac-12 player in history to have two 100-reception seasons. Shay Fields and Bryce Bobo will duel it out for the opportunity to get those non-Spruce balls as the Buffaloes attempt to replace the production of Tyler McCulloch and D.D. Goodson.
UCLA: The Bruins return their top six receivers from last year so since Jim Mora has plenty of experience returning, expect this spring to be a lot of experimentation with different formations for those top guys, while also building depth with lesser-known players. Is there a chance that Mora could go crazy and pull a Mike Leach and throw four (maybe five?) receivers out there on a single down? He certainly has the talent and depth to do so. Jordan Payton will be the Bruins' go-to, but past him Devin Fuller, Thomas Duarte, Eldridge Massington, Mossi Johnson, Devin Lucien and Kenneth Walker are more than capable. Better yet for the Bruins, all of those receivers except Walker, are at least 6-foot, giving UCLA serious opportunities for mismatches downfield. But Walker, even though he might be vertically challenged compared to his receiver teammates, is known as one of the fastest (if not the fastest) on the team, so he creates mismatches of his own. Long story short: The Bruins are going to have a strong spring full of veteran players who will be impact players come fall.
USC: The Trojans lost a lot when both Nelson Agholor and George Farmer decided to leave early for the NFL. Add to that 41-catch RB Buck Allen and USC has a lot of shoes to fill. But fear not, they seem to have the numbers to do it. JuJu Smith returns and he'll become Cody Kessler's go-to receiving weapon. This spring will be spent building trust and chemistry between those two as Kessler adapts to the post-Agholor era. Past Smith, Adoree' Jackson, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell will have a lot to prove after showing flashes last fall. On top of those four familiar faces, the Trojans welcome early enrollee JUCO transfer Isaac Whitney, who could boost the USC wide receiver corps. At 6-foot-4 Whitney towers over most other wide receivers and though spring will be his first reps with the Trojans (meaning he might be slower to start because of the new-ness of everything) he could be a guy that makes monstrous gains this spring and summer.
Utah: Last year the Utes finished last in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game. Heading into this spring the Utes lost three of their four top receiving threats, so to say that players need to step up is a bit of an understatement. One of the problems last fall was the quarterback rotation, so it was hard to build chemistry when a new face popped up every game behind the offensive line. This spring, that problem will still exist since Kendal Thompson is out, so the Utah receivers need to do the best they can to just build depth with a question mark still at the QB spot. Utah can't afford to be a singular attack (read: Devontae Booker) come fall. Kenneth Scott will look to step up as the go-to receiver while Tim Patrick and Delshawn McClellon spend the spring battling for those No. 2 and No. 3 receiving spots before junior college transfer Deniko Carter (No. 8 WR in the 2015 JUCO class) gets to campus this summer and tries to climb the ladder himself.
The past few seasons have shown that two-way football is back in the Pac-12, and if the recruiting trail is any indication, it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Coaches such as USC’s Steve Sarkisian, UCLA’s Jim Mora and Washington’s Chris Petersen have mentioned how difficult it can be to put players on the field going both ways -- from managing the physical load during games and at practice, to the mental load of what meetings to attend and how much of the playbook needs mastering. But they might need to find a way to make it easier going forward, because the two-way football recruiting pitch has become one of the loudest and most noteworthy for 2016 recruits, with many of them believing that’s what could await them at the next level.
Though Myles Jack at UCLA, Adoree' Jackson at USC, and Shaq Thompson at Washington received the most attention for their two-way exploits, Arizona State has done it, too, and all four programs are being mentioned by prospects as selling the possibility of playing both ways in college. Colorado could soon join the mix with George Frazier going both ways. At this point, the pitch is working.
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Yesterday we began with the quarterbacks. Today, we move onto running backs. Starting in the South…
Arizona: Rich Rodriguez said that even though running back Nick Wilson is fully recovered he won’t be going through any full-contact drills this spring since there’s no need for him to prove he can get hit and still be effective. He already did that this past fall when he led Pac-12 freshmen and was the conference’s fourth-leading rusher. But with Terris Jones-Grigsby gone, there are a few players who do need to get hit and prove that they can make up for some of the lost yardage. Two names to watch: Jared Baker and Jonathan Haden. And with Wilson out of contact drills, expect some younger players’ names to crop up as Rodriguez gives carries to guys who’ll be more involved on scout team come fall.
Arizona State: With D.J. Foster’s move to receiver, alleviating some of the post-Jaelen Strong era pains, there will be plenty more carries with the Sun Devils. In February, quarterback Mike Bercovici predicted that Demario Richard would probably come out as ASU’s starting running back next season. Richard comes in a similar mold to Foster (Richard is 5-foot-10, 210 pounds while Foster is 5-foot-11, 205 pounds). Richard caught 13 passes and had 84 carries last season, so he can be counted on as a passing-catch running back. But, don’t expect Kalen Ballage to take Richard’s promotion (through Bercovici’s eyes) sitting down. Todd Graham spoke very highly of Ballage last season and Ballage’s 96-yard kick return in the Hyundai Sun Bowl is what set up Richard’s game-winning TD. This battling duo will be fun to watch this spring.
Colorado: The Buffs had four running backs with 75-plus carries last season and quarterback Sefo Liufau toted the ball 69 times, too, but past those five players there really was no one else on the running back radar for Mike MacIntyre. Christian Powell, Michael Adkins II and Phillip Lindsay are all back for Colorado, but only Powell is full go for the spring. McIntyre told reporters in February that Lindsay is day-to-day and Adkins could be out until the middle of spring, leaving Powell with the brunt of carries and the rest going to whoever doesn’t have a turf-toe or knee injury. George Frazier, Jordan Murphy and Kyle Evans are all names we could hear this spring but mostly because of said personnel problems.
UCLA: Paul Perkins, ladies and gents. There’s not a whole lot else Bruin fans need to (or want to) think about when it comes to running backs. After leading the Pac-12 in rushing in 2014, he’s back and ready to make even bigger strides. With Brett Hundley and Jordon James gone, there will be some serious yardage that needs to be made up in 2015. Perkins can take a lot of it, but it’d be nice if Nate Starks had a big spring for the Bruins so he could be counted on next fall to take the load of Perkins’ shoulders every so often. And, stop me if you’ve heard this once before: it should be interesting to see what Jim Mora does with Myles Jack. He carried the ball 28 times for UCLA last fall but will all the back-up eggs be put in Starks’ basket? Or will Jack remain an occasional running-backer -- giving the Bruins a few more options in short-yardage situations? And does that change how the spring looks for the Bruins or Jack?
USC: Tre Madden might still be nursing a turf toe injury, but if he is 100 percent, it’ll be a fun spring season for USC run game coordinator Bob Connelly as he watches Madden and Justin Davis square off to be the top running back. The winner will have the upper hand this fall when USC sees an influx of young talent. If Madden is healthy, you’ve got a player whose career has been plagued by injuries vs. the 2014 back up -- chip on the shoulder vs. chip on the shoulder. This could get spicy. And, if Madden isn’t full go, then it’ll mostly just be a lot of reporting on guys who’ll probably be next year’s third- or fourth-string running backs. Yay spring ball.
Utah: Like Arizona and UCLA, the Utes have their No. 1 guy locked up in Devontae Booker, who took the 2014 season by storm and finished as the conference’s second-leading rusher. After a full winter of strength and conditioning, how much more polished will he look? Utah also returns back up Bubba Poole and third-stringer Troy McCormick, who will probably retain those same roles this spring. The Utes are sitting pretty at running back.
- "Crop tops are like soooooo out right now." No, but really, the NCAA says they are.
- Grantland's NFL Draft Cocktail Conversation Guide lists quite a few Pac-12 guys.
- Breaking down Arizona's defense this spring.
- Could the Chiefs draft Jaelen Strong?
- California lost a starting defensive lineman to transfer on Monday.
- Some good background on a Colorado defensive back from Kyle Ringo.
- Marcus Mariota is up for another award.
- Oregon State added an OL to its 2015 class Monday.
- This writer doesn't see Andrus Peat going to the Vikings.
- Projecting UCLA's QB depth chart this spring.
- What does it take for USC to recruit in Georgia?
- Check out Utah's spring practice dates in case you're able to make one.
- Could Danny Shelton be going to Cleveland?
- Steve Gleason tweeted some congrats to Hunter Dale.
In many other contexts, such a note from the boss would be music to a strength coach's ears.
But the time for smiles and pats on the back in Boulder isn't yet here. Forman knows the program is still in dire need of visible results: Colorado is 4-32 in Pac-12 play since joining the conference in 2011.
"First, you have learn to compete," Forman says. "Then, you have to learn how to win."
Colorado has accomplished the first half of that. The Buffaloes were more competitive in 2014, ultimately to no avail in the win column.
"You put your heart and soul into something and it's a heartbreaking loss, those kids finally felt that last year," Forman says. "I think they finally understand what needs to be done. There are little, tiny details they may have overlooked last year, and they now realize how important they are."
In one-on-one meetings to begin this offseason, Forman listened as Colorado players recounted their particular frustrations from the difficult season that had just passed, and he worked to tailor the Buffs' offseason program to address the team's weaknesses. Colorado's rush defense, by far the worst in the Pac-12, gave up 30 runs of 20 yards or more in 2014, ranking the team No. 122 nationally in that category. Blown defensive assignments, often caused by a lack of communication in crunch time, proved devastating.
As a result, Forman has placed an emphasis on fusing communication with greater physical strength. He based many of the Buffs' winter conditioning workouts on cadence -- "down-up-one, down-up-two" -- to encourage a synchronous atmosphere. In this environment, no player could "hide" from any part of the workload.
"At the end of the day, everyone was doing the same amount of work," Forman says. "Nobody skimped out on anything. We're fostering trust and building camaraderie. There's no more pointing fingers. You have to trust that the guy next to you is going to do his job on the field, and this is aimed at developing that trust."
If it's easier for Forman to stay positive and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, it's because he's seen the results of his regimen pay off twice before.
He served three years as sports performance guru Shannon Turley's assistant at Stanford. He arrived there in 2008, a year after Jim Harbaugh inherited a 1-11 squad, and saw the Cardinal bleed yardage and blow two leads in the final minute of games on their way to a 5-7 season. That team finished an agonizing one win short of bowl eligibility, but it went on to post an 8-5 record in 2009 and a 12-1 Orange Bowl championship season in 2010, Forman's third year.
Forman then took over the head strength and conditioning role at San Jose State following the program's 1-12 campaign in 2010. This resuscitation followed a similar trajectory. The Spartans finished 2011 a painful 5-7, victims of defensive hemorrhaging and several blown fourth-quarter leads. But they turned the anguish into an 11-2 campaign the following season.
Forman came to Boulder with MacIntyre in 2013, and he can draw firm parallels to his previous two jobs. The staff's first season saw Colorado blown out of virtually every conference game except for a win against 1-11 California. Despite finishing 0-9 in Pac-12 play in 2014, the Buffs' average margin of defeat tightened by a full 10 points, including two double-overtime losses.
That hurt has become Colorado's offseason fuel, and it's caused Forman to sense something familiar to him -- a warmth brought on by progress.
"There's a nice feeling in the air," he says. "It feels different. You're walking down to practice, there's construction going on [Colorado's major facilities upgrades], and you can really point to an upward trajectory happening on a daily basis. It's a good vibe."
That said, there are some positions/players who really have to something to prove. Chris Low is taking a national look at some players. Here are five more within the conference (in no particular order).
Evan Goodman, OT, ASU
Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona
We could say this about a lot of quarterbacks. So feel free to insert a “duh, Gemmell” after you read this. But what makes Solomon an interesting case is that the first-year starter actually regressed as the season went on. Consider his first nine games: 25 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Over his final five, he had just three touchdowns and two picks. The opponents, of course, have something to do with that: Washington, Utah, ASU, Oregon and Boise State weren't slouches. But the poise he showed seemed a bit shaken at the end. This spring would be a great time for him to re-establish himself as a steely team leader -- especially with changes coming across the offensive line.
Samson Kafovalu, DL, Colorado
Remember the name? He played in 17 games as a true freshman and sophomore and tallied three sacks in 2013. But academic and personal issues kept him off the team in 2014. He's back. And he has to win the trust of his coaches and his teammates before jumping into what should be a starting role. According to one Colorado staffer, he's been "tossing linemen around like rag dolls." His return could provide a much-needed boost to a defense that ranked last in the Pac-12 in rush defense last season, allowing 204.8 yards on the ground per game.
Destiny Vaeao, DL, Washington State
After losing a couple of top-notch wide receivers in Vince Mayle and Isiah Myers, guys such as Dom Williams and Gabe Marks come to mind ... especially with Washington State looking for a new QB. But the Cougars also took a hit on the defensive front with Toni Pole graduating and Xavier Cooper jumping to the NFL. Vaeao has started the past two years and has shown some glimpses, tallying 3.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks last season. But as the only returning starter on the line, the staff is looking for more production from him in 2015.
Travis Feeney, LB, Washington
The obvious choice here is quarterback Cyler Miles. Maybe in Year 2 at the helm, things click for him and the offense. But what he won't have in Year 2 is the benefit of a veteran front seven backing him up. That's why Feeney, the lone returner in that front seven, is in such a critical position. While guys such as Keishawn Bierria, Azeem Victor, Joe Mathis and Elijah Qualls jockey for spots along the front seven, it will be Feeney the coaches will look at to assume the leadership role. The Huskies' defensive talent drain leaves plenty of questions. It's up to Feeney to step up, lead the front seven and answer them.
While some teams have more issues than others, every team has specific issues that will be front and center. So we begin a look at the main questions each Pac-12 team will address this spring.
Up next: Colorado. The Buffs, by the way, have already been at it in spring practice for over a week. They started their session earlier than any other Pac-12 program.
1. Will the defensive front seven develop into a more cohesive run-stuffing unit? Colorado surrendered 5.6 yards per carry last season, a full yard more than the conference's second-worst team (Oregon State, 4.6). Opponents routinely gashed the Buffs up front. There's optimism emanating from Boulder, though, that another year of experience will be the salve for this defense. Underclassmen comprised all of the Colorado's primary depth along the defensive line in 2014, so every single spring practice brings further maturation to a developing unit. So far, the Buffs seem excited about their offseason gains, and they have to be thrilled by the return of lineman Samson Kafovalu, who took last season off. Spring is a time to see if the Buffs' strengthening is leading to better flow up front. A lack thereof left plenty of gaping holes for opposing backs to barrel through last season.
2. Is this the beginning of breakthrough Year 3? The third year of Mike MacIntyre's first head-coaching job was the charm. That's when he led San Jose State to a 10-2 record and a Military Bowl championship. His success that season with the Spartans came on the heels of 1-11 and 5-7 seasons, the second of which featured a number of blown double-digit fourth-quarter leads. A closer look at MacIntyre's first two seasons in Boulder reveals similarities to his time at San Jose State: Though Colorado has struggled to win so far, Year 2 saw the Buffs develop enough of a competitive spirit to lose in heartbreaking fashion -- just like that 5-7 San Jose State team. Spring ball means that the third year is officially here, and it will be intriguing to see if the parallels to MacIntyre's first head-coaching foray continue.
3. Will strength and conditioning gains begin translating to the field? Sports performance director Dave Forman and star receiver Nelson Spruce have both lauded Colorado players for impressive gains during the recent winter conditioning stretch. It's now time to find out if those improvements will translate into wins. The Buffs lost two games in double overtime last season -- brutal, to say the least -- so they're looking for that extra boost to push them into the win column and earn the momentum that comes with a dose of success. If Colorado shows more physicality during spring than they have in the past, it will be safe to say that they're on the right track. It's taken some time for this program to rebuild its foundation from the ground up. There's now a strong demand for tangible results in the win column. Bring on the spring litmus test.
Yet Colorado finished 2-10 overall and 0-9 in Pac-12 play, so the program suffered through one of its worst seasons. Holy dialectic opposition!
The Buffs, 4-32 in Pac-12 play since joining the conference in 2011, were a lot closer in 2014. Their conference losses came by an average of two touchdowns instead of the four-plus the previous two seasons. Still, as grounds for a potential end-of-season celebration, that's not terribly ambitious.
“It's just being able to make plays in tight situations," he said. “There were one or two plays, maybe on third down, maybe in the red zone, we could have turned into seven points or at least a field goal. We didn’t do that last year.”
Think of that that third-down drop late in the fourth against UCLA. Or Liufau's fourth-quarter interception against Arizona. Or failing to score any points in the second overtime against California after earning a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Regrets, the Buffs have a few. But so does every team that's not Ohio State.
After throwing seven interceptions in a four-game span, Liufau didn't start at Oregon, the second to last game of the season, interrupting a run of 17 consecutive starts that began his true freshman year. While it wasn't a straight benching -- he'd suffered a concussion late against Arizona that made him miss practices during an off week -- it seemed pretty evident that coach Mike MacIntyre was at least curious to see what backup Jordan Gehrke could do, particularly when Liufau started the second half and returned to the starting job for the season finale.
“You accept whatever decision the coach makes," Liufau said. “I wasn’t mad. Obviously you’re a little upset because you want to play every game, but it’s over and it’s done with and I think people make more out of it than I do.”
The good news for the Buffaloes is Liufau's top target, receiver Nelson Spruce, is back, and the cast of skill players is promising. Further, the offense may not have to score 40 every game for the Buffs to have a chance because the defense will be far more experienced, and new coordinator Jim Leavitt is widely celebrated for his X's and O's and motivation skills.
It's not too naive to project the Buffs closeness in 2014 translating into a few more wins in 2015, even though the South Division will again be the nation's toughest division. At least, that's the way Liufau and his teammates are seeing things this spring.
"We were close last year and we felt like we could have won more," he said, "but I definitely think we are going to be able to take those close games and put them into Ws next year."