Team preview: Colorado
Blue Ribbon Yearbook the 2005 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
The law of nature dictates survival of the fittest. Is Gary Barnett the fittest football coach in Division I-A? Maybe not, but he is definitely a survivor. For almost three full years, the Colorado football program has been at the epicenter of an ugly scandal centered on allegations of sexual assault involving several players and the plying of recruits with alcohol-and-sex-stained parties. The charges provoked an independent investigation of the entire athletic department commissioned by then-university president Elizabeth Hoffman. In May 2004, the commission released its findings, among which it was noted that player-hosts did use sex and alcohol to entice prospects, but there was no evidence that university officials, including coaches, were culpable. Just more than a week after the commission's report, the CU athletic department was restructured and placed under the watch of then-Provost Phil DiStefano. Meanwhile Barnett, who had been placed on administrative leave since February for comments he made about former Colorado kicker Katie Hnida (who had claimed in a Sports Illustrated article that she had been sexually assaulted by a teammate in 2000), was reinstated. As the controversy widened to encompass a state grand jury investigation, several key figures at the center of the storm began to fall away. Athletic director Dick Tharp resigned last November. University Chancellor Richard Byyny left his post to become the executive director of a new health policy center at the school's hospital in December, though he said the scandal had nothing to do with his decision. Then Hoffman announced her resignation, effective last June 30, in response to mounting questions about her future job status. DiStefano assumed the chancellorship on an interim basis, as did Hank Brown with the presidency of the university. Former San Diego State athletic director Mike Bohn was hired as Tharp's successor in April; he faces a mountain of budgetary and public relations crises brought about by the scandal. And then there's Barnett. Not only has he retained his head coaching position -- Barnett is under contract through 2006 with an option for 2007, thanks to an extension signed three years ago -- the Buffs won a third Big 12 North Division title in 2004, albeit in very mediocre style. Colorado won its last three regular-season games to finish 4-4 in the league, then watched as Iowa State gagged away its opportunity to win the division outright by losing to Missouri, 17-14, on the last Saturday of the season. Furthermore, the program received a modicum of legal vindication when the Title IX lawsuit that ignited the scandal in the first place was dismissed by a federal judge on March 31. U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn ruled that plaintiffs Lisa Simpson and Anne Gilmore did not prove that the university knew that female CU students were sexually harassed by football players or recruits, or that the school was indifferent to the claims. The controversy has not ended by any means, but Colorado's coaches are seeing the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Discussion is finally centered on the team between the lines, not outside of them. "They dropped that lawsuit [several] months ago, and there's nothing, because [the media] has got nothing to write about," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "I think it validated that there wasn't any real merit to it." Added offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, "We couldn't have done what we did last year unless we were of this mindset: You put your head down and you go to work, because you do the right things and good things happen to good people when you do it. "People have taken it a little bit for granted, what we went through and how we got through it. There has to be something special there. It's something that doesn't get talked about enough, as far as I'm concerned." Oklahoma throttled CU, 42-3, in the Big 12 Championship, but the Buffaloes rebounded by beating UTEP, 33-28, in the Houston Bowl. Barnett and his staff told their players to treat the bowl game like the first game of 2005; with 50 lettermen and 17 starters returning, the reasoning was valid enough. But can the Buffs match or exceed their hard-earned profits from 2004 in light of a nasty road schedule and a missing go-to tailback?
When your wide-outs are dropping more often than John Daly at Pebble Beach, it's only instinctual to improvise. As Joel Klatt (6-1, 210) demonstrated through the heart of the 2004 season, that only compounds the problem. Through the first three games, all Colorado victories, Klatt was managing the game efficiently. He didn't have to put up Dan Fouts-like numbers because Bobby Purify was running like Chuck Muncie. Then the Big 12 schedule hit, and Klatt went flat. Three interceptions against Missouri, two more in a win over Iowa State and a loss to Texas -- Klatt was fighting himself as well as his error-prone receivers. Heading into 2005, the hope in the Colorado camp is that Klatt and his cohorts will develop a stronger bond built upon the Buffs' bowl victory over UTEP, when the senior went 24-of-33 for 333 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. "Joel had to get back inside the system and not try to create things that weren't there," Watson said. "He just has to simply play within the system. He kind of went through a rough spot last year when he got outside the system. "Joel tried to do way too much. He had lost [most] of his receivers that he was throwing to, guys who were responsible for 33 or 34 school records, with [D.J.] Hackett and [Jeremy] Bloom all graduated. He took a lot more on himself. Basically he had to learn, he had to develop relationships [with his receivers]." The final tally shows Klatt completing just more than 57 percent of his passes for 2,065 yards and nine touchdowns, but the 15 interceptions mar the bottom line. Also, drops reared their ugly head in the spring game, as Klatt was just 5-of-16 for 64 yards. If Klatt should struggle again, the Buffs have two distinct options available. Junior James Cox (6-3, 210) started over Klatt versus Iowa State last year and mopped up on three other occasions. Cox is more liable than Klatt to exit stage left, rushing for 37 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries last fall. Bernard Jackson (6-0, 190) is an electric sophomore who punishes defenses with his scrambling speed. He had the best spring game of any of the quarterbacks, completing 70 percent of his tosses and rushing for 41 yards. Another option is pure passer Brian White (6-5, 225), a sophomore from Mission Viejo, Calif., who missed much of the spring with a wrist injury. "We don't have any issues at quarterback," Watson said. "We feel good about that position."
After graduating in May with a degree in sociology, Bobby Purify left a 1,000-yard hole in Colorado's backfield. The most pressing issue of fall camp will be who can be entrusted to fill it in. "Coming out of the spring, our biggest question mark is our tailback position," Watson said. "The thing that's good about it is we have two very talented young players in Hugh Charles (5-8, 185) and Byron Ellis (6-0, 200). "They're both very intelligent players, they did a great job between the hashes, but they're still young players. You don't just walk out there and be called on to carry the load, as Bobby carried the load last year." Charles is swift (sub-4.4 speed) but small; whether he can handle the full-time pounding is uncertain. In 2004, the sophomore carried 17 times for 49 yards. Ellis is more rigidly constructed, but he too was used sparingly last year (19 rushes, 61 yards). Initially, the rushing burden could settle on senior Lawrence Vickers' (6-2, 235) broad shoulders. A V-back not because of his surname but because he's a fullback-tailback hybrid, Vickers was a distant second to Purify in rushing yards last year, netting 248 on 60 carries. Two other possibilities are junior Brandon Caesar (6-0, 210), who is still recovering from a pair of knee surgeries, and sophomore walk-on Ryan Enright (5-11, 185). Less commonly used to tote the rock, junior fullback Paul Creighton (6-5, 250) doubles as a tight end in some formations. The Buffs will likely use Vickers as the heavyweight in short-yardage personnel groupings and employ Charles and Ellis in medium- to long-yard situations. "Our philosophy always has been to play a number of tailbacks. We like to do that as a change-up on the defense," Watson said.
If radio broadcasts of Buff games were your only source of game-day coverage last year, you might have sworn the team had recruited quadruplets with the last name "Ohnohehadit." "In 2003, we had six dropped balls the entire season. It was amazing. We caught everything," Watson said wistfully. "Last year we had 38. "One of our big purposes in the spring was basically teaching the receivers and the tight ends the passing game and then getting them to make the plays. Making the contested catch, or just making the catch." Only two of Colorado's top seven pass-catchers -- Ron Monteilh and Mike Duren -- were lost to graduation from 2004, so the remainder, led by senior Evan Judge (6-2, 215) and junior Blake Mackey (6-3, 200), has to get with the program soon. "It's just something you have to go work on -- in drill work, in the classroom, in teamwork, in 7-on-7s," Watson said. "I love the talent we have at the position. Now it's a matter of them finishing the work and being consistent in doing that." Three catches separated the Buffs' five top receivers in 2004, and Judge's 29 grabs topped the list. His best outings were early -- five catches for 82 yards in a romp over North Texas, six for 50 against Oklahoma State. "Evan does everything right," Watson said. "He's a very assignment-strong guy. You can count on him to be everywhere he's supposed to be. The main thing with Evan was finish plays. He made some spectacular plays in 2004, and then he'd drop some easy plays." Mackey produced more star turns, averaging a team-best 16 yards per catch. His finest hour was an eight-reception, 116-yard performance in a 26-20 victory over Nebraska. "Blake Mackey is the best receiver talent since we've been here," Watson said. "His whole issue is consistency. He'll make the great play then drop the easy play. That was a recurring theme in 2004." Dusty Sprague (6-4, 190) was a Freshman All-Big 12 first-teamer by The Sporting News after catching 22 passes for 278 yards last season. He missed three games with a broken collarbone but will press Judge and Mackey for time. An X-factor from the junior college ranks is Alvin Barnett (6-0, 190), who comes to Boulder as a sophomore from NE Oklahoma A&M. "Alvin has a lot of quicks," Watson said. "He's an explosive player. He'll be a factor. We'll pick our places as we develop him and bring him along, in how we use him so we don't overload him." If the wide receivers don't mesh with Klatt, the Buffs have two superb senior tight ends in Joe Klopfenstein (6-6, 245) and Quinn Sypniewski (6-7, 265). A second-team All-Big 12 performer as selected by the coaches, Klopfenstein reeled in 28 balls for 284 yards and a team-high four touchdowns in 2004. He rambled 78 yards for a score in the Houston Bowl, the longest play by a tight end in Colorado history. "Joel Klopfenstein is on the level with Dan Graham in terms of explosive tight end," Watson said. "Different type of player, but on the same level in terms of his ability to make big plays." Sypniewski was awarded a sixth year of eligibility after injuries devoured his 2003 season. He has been a part of all three of Colorado's Big 12 North Division titles under Barnett.
Ah, the constancy of Colorado: Great skiing, movie stars on vacations -- and the Denver Broncos' running game. The first two won't aid the Buffaloes' offense, but the last one might. Watson, running backs coach Shawn Simms and offensive line coach Dave Borbely have modeled a portion of their blocking scheme to mirror what their neighbors to the southeast have used to run roughshod over the NFL the last half-decade. "We had studied their running game the last two years extensively and exclusively really," Watson said. "We believe in a lot of the same things, in terms of being a downhill running team. It's really unique in how the Broncos and the Falcons -- we studied them too, because [ex-Broncos offensive line coach] Alex Gibbs went there -- rush the football. They're the best at it, and that's what we try to pattern ourselves from for the run game." Three veterans and two relative newcomers will be called upon to put practice into production. Junior Mark Fenton (6-4, 295) started every game of '04 at center; junior Brian Daniels (6-5, 300) has started 22 straight games at tight guard and was an honorable mention all-Big 12 pick last winter; and senior Clint O'Neal (6-5, 290) was immovable as a full-time starter at tight tackle. The split side -- Sam Wilder and Terrance Barreau -- split because of graduation, but sophomore Tyler Palombus (6-8, 280), a prep tight end and basketball player, wowed the staff with his agility at tackle. "Tyler Palombus had an enormous spring," Watson said. "You look at him right now, and you think, 'This guy will be a player.' " Sophomore Edwin Harrison (6-4, 305) missed the entire spring because of shoulder surgery, but he and junior Jack Tipton (6-3, 285) are going to duke it out for split guard chores. Depth is a concern along the line; senior Gary Moore (6-6, 320) and JUCO transfer Bryce MacMartin (6-2, 290) are the only other returnees with experience at any level. But if the Buffaloes can copy any of the Broncos' legerdemain, oh, the places they'll go.
Is it the altitude, or does Mason Crosby (6-2, 210) have half a foot? The junior from Georgetown, Texas had a little Tom Dempsey in him last year, booting a school-record 60-yarder against Iowa State. Crosby was no one-kick wonder; he won second-team All-America honors from Rivals.com because he converted 19-of-23 field goals, including five from 50 yards and out. The Cyclones would be defending a Big 12 North crown if it wasn't for Crosby's four field goals in a 19-14 CU victory. Crosby's kickoffs were also extraterrestrial; only 17-of-59 were returned, with all but one fair catch winding up in the end zone. Suffice it to say Crosby owns the Colorado place-kicking job until someone pries it from his cold, dead foot.
Despite retaining the services of 10 defensive starters from 2004, the Buffs took a diploma-induced dip in the interior, resulting in a position change and a lot of crossed fingers. Matt McChesney, CU's sack leader in 2004, was the most productive of the departed, but losing Brandon Dabdoub and McKenzie Tilmon damaged the depth. So the staff slid senior James Garee (6-6, 275) inside from end and paired him with classmate Vaku Manupuna (6-1, 290). Garee seems better suited for inside; he had only 2.5 sacks and 3 tackles for loss in 13 starts from the end. Meanwhile, Manupuna emerged as an All Big-12 candidate with 42 stops at tackle. "He made great strides from his sophomore to his junior year," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said of Manupuna. "If he can make those same strides this year, he'll have a heckuva year for us." The burgeoning rush ability of junior ends Alex Ligon (6-3, 255) and Abraham Wright (6-3, 240) also helped prompt Garee's change. Each had 4.5 sacks from the same spot on the depth chart -- rush end. Now both will be on the field at the same time. Hankwitz is more comfortable with the rotation at tackle rather than end. Senior John Guydon (6-2, 285) experimented with the offensive line but moved back to defense last fall. "He's explosive," said Hankwitz of Guydon. "He had an excellent spring." Junior Marcus Jones (6-4, 300) and senior Nick Clement (6-2, 260) will also back up the tackles, though Clement is still dubious because of a pectoral tear that kept him out of the spring. Sophomore Alonzo Barrett (6-3, 240), undersized but athletic, can sub for either end. However, it falls to red-shirt freshmen Greg Newman (6-4, 235) and David Veikune (6-2, 230) or freshman Zach Jones (6-3, 245) for other backups. The Buffs should be a better pass-rushing team in'05, but the jury is out on whether this unit can reduce the 161 rushing yards per game CU surrendered last fall.
There is one other great thing about freshmen, besides the fact they'll be sophomores soon. They are also very malleable. Take Jordan Dizon (6-0, 215), who came to Boulder from Hawaii as a heralded running back and safety. As 2004 training camp opened, the coaching staff was flat-out undecided about what to do with him. Dizon wasn't fluid enough at safety, and there were plenty of running backs scooting around. Here come the sun rays and booming voice: Move Dizon Forward. "When we moved him up to linebacker," Hankwitz said, "suddenly we got ourselves a very athletic, fast linebacker." What a revelation, indeed; Dizon was chosen the league's Defensive Newcomer of the Year by the Associated Press and was the coaches' defensive freshman of the year after posting 82 tackles at inside linebacker, a CU freshman record. How good will Dizon be when he actually knows what he's doing? "He didn't really have all the fundamentals of the position," Hankwitz said. "He hadn't been taught the position and had never played it. Well, this spring really gave him a chance to learn the position from the ground up." Dizon has plenty of tutors surrounding him. Junior Thaddeus Washington (5-11, 240) was second on the squad with 93 tackles at the other inside linebacker. His two interceptions were crucial in Colorado's conquest of Nebraska in Lincoln. "We really thought Thaddeus came on in the second half of the year," said Hankwitz. "He was more physical and played much more consistently." Returning on the outside is senior Brian Iwuh (6-0, 225), the top tackler from 2004. Of his 98 stops, 12 were for loss, even though his utility wasn't fully exploited. "We had to keep him out in coverage more than we wanted to," Hankwitz said. "We've got to try to get him more involved stunting and blitzing. He's the hardest hitter on our team. He has excellent speed, and he needs to be an integral part of our defense." Though not projected as a starter, senior Akarika Dawn (6-2, 240) is a key third-down defender who was fifth on the squad with 71 tackles in '04. Sophomore Joe Sanders (6-3, 220) is back inside after dabbling outside last year. Junior Chris Hollis (6-1, 230) is also a factor in the middle, if he regains dexterity after a foot injury shut him down last season. Red-shirt freshmen Brad Jones (6-4, 220) and Maurice Cantrell (6-0, 235) are two other reserve options. Junior Jason Ackermann (6-1, 220) is questionable after off-season knee surgery.
We promise, there's a first string lurking in the discombobulated CU secondary. It's just going to take time to surface. Terrence Wheatley's (5-10, 170) wrist injury and J.J. Billingsley's (5-11, 185) suspension for the ubiquitous team-rules violation prevented the Buffs from putting their best hoof forward in the spring. Normally, that wouldn't be a pressing concern; many college teams prefer caution to cohesion in April. But Colorado's defensive backs were peppered for over 260 passing yards per game, a large reason the Buffs were last in the Big 12 in total defense (421.6 yards allowed per game). The good news is Wheatley, a junior forecasted to start at one corner, will be fully healed in the fall. His presence will mean the battle is joined among him, junior Lorenzo Sims (5-11, 185) and junior Gerett Burl (5-10, 160) for the two corner spots. "When Wheatley got healthy last fall, he was our best corner," Hankwitz said. "When we have him, we'll have three veteran guys who can push each other." Sims started 12-of-13 games at corner last fall, notching 56 tackles and breaking up a team-best 11 passes. Wheatley and Burl split the 2004 season roughly down the middle in terms of starts. All of the above could stand to be more physical with opposing receivers. A pair of Washingtons are also angling for time -- Vance (5-10, 185), a junior who has been afflicted by shoulder problems, and Terry (5-11, 190), a transfer from Garden City (Kansas) Community College who was a second-team All-Jayhawk Conference performer after intercepting six passes and forcing two fumbles in 10 games last season. After sitting out the spring, Billingsley, a junior, has been reinstated and immediately becomes the front-runner at free safety. He barely got started last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Washington State. "It certainly hurt us last year when we lost him, because he was our most experienced safety and was a big playmaker," Hankwitz said. Juniors Dominique Brooks (6-1, 200) and Tyrone Henderson (5-10, 175) shuttled between free and strong safety for much of 2004. Henderson will have to fight off Billingsley for the free safety spot in 2005, because Brooks, CU's fourth-best tackler in 2004, looks like the answer on the strong side. Tom Hubbard (6-5, 220), a senior with striking stature among his smaller unit mates, came on strong at the end of last year; after starting in the Houston Bowl, he can't be discounted either. If four consistent players ever stepped forward in this unit, the coaching staff would be ecstatic. Buff opponents converted 36-of-94 third downs (38.2 percent) when seven or more yards were required. That's far too prolific for what should be a shut-down situation.
Did we mention something about altitude and the Colorado kicking game? John Torp (6-2, 210) enters his senior season as the favorite for the 2005 Ray Guy Award and the leading active punter in the NCAA with a 44.6 average over three seasons. Torp's 42.4 net average reveals only part of his value. When the Buffs were planted inside their 25, Torp averaged 49.6 yards a boot, quickly reversing field position. Also, CU opponents could muster only 6.7 yards per return, showing Torp wasn't out-kicking his coverage. "I don't know anybody who could have a better placekicker/punter combo than we do," Hankwitz said. "We led the nation in net punting and John was very consistent. Those two guys [Torp and Crosby] are phenomenal at their positions." And that altitude excuse? Torp averaged 43.7 yards a punt on the road. There went that idea.
Sophomore Stephone Robinson (5-9, 185) evenly divided the kickoff-return responsibility with Wheatley last fall. With Wheatley's health in question, Robinson, a receiver-turned-cornerback, should be the main man deep. Robinson averaged almost 18 yards per return on 15 tries. Robinson has the punt-return territory more clearly marked; he took in 35 punts and hustled forward for 269 yards (7.7 yards per attempt). He went 48 yards for a touchdown that put CU ahead for good in a 30-21 win over Kansas last November. The Buffs are set at holder and long snapper. Junior Nick Holz (5-11, 180) maintains the former for Crosby, while senior Greg Pace (5-11, 235) takes care of the latter.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2005 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
We see that you are not an ESPN Insider. Upgrade today and gain access to our exclusive coverage.
MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES
- Winston investigation results due Thursday
- FSU's Winston captures ACC player of year
- Grambling hands coaching reins to Fobbs
- Washington names Tuiasosopo interim coach