IN THE SPOTLIGHT
2006 Colorado Football Outlook
The 117th football season at the University of Colorado will kickoff this fall with new faces and renewed expectations under Dan Hawkins, who was hired as the 23rd head coach in the school's history last December.
While most coaching changes occur after a team has endured a string of 3-8 or 2-9 type seasons, the Buffaloes are coming off a fourth Big 12 Conference North Division title (in five years), so the cupboard isn't exactly bare for Hawkins and his assistants, which includes two coaches from the previous staff. But CU has only won the overall league title once, and was battling to be competitive from start-to-finish in the other three championship games, which was thus the foundation for the change in leadership.
An experienced defense and a perennially solid kicking game will make the transition easier for the new coaches, as those two strengths should buy the Buffaloes some time on offense to develop. Eight starters on defense return, along with a ninth who redshirted due to injury, and the leg of consensus All-America placekicker Mason Crosby is an outright weapon.
Crosby was really the only player "safe" at his position, as Hawkins and his staff listed everyone else alphabetically on the initial depth chart, which Hawkins isn't big into to begin with.
"I want us to always have the sort of mentality that we are starting new every year," Hawkins said. "When you get to the spring, I don't care if you have a senior quarterback coming back, that guy has got to go back out and start all over and prove himself. There are no locked positions on this team. Well, maybe Mason Crosby."
"And I'll keep saying this, and some people think the depth chart is a big thing, but when we get to the fall, we'll have a group of guys who contribute, and those guys will all be lumped in there," he added. "I'm just one of those guys who isn't and never have been into (depth charts). The quarterback and the offensive line mean something, but everybody else; basically they're broken down into the contributors and those who are redshirting. So be prepared for a lot of 'ands' and 'ors.'"
That philosophy was one of the grass root reasons Boise State went 53-11 under Hawkins in his five years as the Broncos head coach. He brought with him five members of his coaching staff, hired two offensive geniuses from other staffs, and retained two former CU assistants who had long-time ties to the program. Hawkins has also embraced CU's history and has already had numerous conversations with former head coaches Eddie Crowder and Bill McCartney.
With the defense expected to be at least as good as last year, one that spent much of the year in the top five in rushing defense and in the top 30 in total defense, the development of the offense will be vital to this year's success. And the key there is replacing quarterback Joel Klatt, who graduated with 44 school records; make that 45-the 44 records he set is also a record for the number of records set by any individual in any CU sport.
CU's new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Helfrich comes from Arizona State, where his teams passed for almost 19,000 yards in five seasons. Passing game coordinator and receivers coach Eric Kiesau joins CU from the California staff, and the two will be in charge of revving up a Buff offense that has been inconsistent. The final spring scrimmage reinforced that there is plenty of work to do; neither the first or second unit was able to put together a sustained drive, and Crosby would attempt 16 field goals on the afternoon, despite a swirling wind that often gusted to 40 miles per hour.
With all that passing know-how, Hawkins is firm when he says success on offense must start with a solid running game, and is proud of the fact that while his Boise State teams seemed to be known for its passing accomplishments, they also had a 1,000-yard rusher every season.
That will be pivotal for the Buffaloes, who have had just two 1,000-yard runners since Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman Trophy with 2,055 in 1994: Chris Brown (1,744 in 2002) and Bobby Purify (1,017) in 2004 (although both topped 900 in 2001, CU's Big12 title season). The offensive line has had injury and depth issues much of the last decade, and has been operating with less than a dozen healthy bodies each of the last two years. Hawkins wants17-20 on the roster and will recruit the position until it is well stocked.
"We really believe in a good, solid running game," Hawkins said. "I think the biggest fallacy with our offense is that people think we are just going to chuck it and run around and do those sorts of things, but you have to be able to run the football. Our passing game has been very much a play-action and vertical passing game. We will try to be creative and do some innovative things. We are not afraid to do reverse passes and throwbacks and double passes. Those things are viable options."
The line does have two solid anchors in center Mark Fenton, a first-team All-Big 12 performer in 2005 when he was also a Rimington Award finalist, and guard Brian Daniels, a two-time honorable mention all-conference player who has also applied for the Rhodes Scholarship. These two elite seniors in the interior will provide a solid foundation to build upon, and there is talent in the ranks, but the Buffs will need to avoid the injury bug to help the offense click. That, and the Buffs do have to find suitable replacements for their "two-headed tight end monster," Joe Klopfenstein and Quinn Sypniewski, two of their best overall receivers a year ago, as well a V-back Lawrence Vickers, the team's best blocker.
Coming to Boulder with Hawkins is his reputation as a "high-risk" coach, but don't confuse him with being a gambler. Imagine the Buffs facing a fourth-and-one on their own 21-yard line on their opening series versus Montana State in the season opener. Punt, right? Well, maybe not.
"We're going for it," Hawkins said. "It has to do with the philosophy of deserving to win, deserving to have success. If you've got four downs and need 10 yards, and all you need is six inches on the last down, you probably ought to get that if you deserve to win.
"Sometimes you need a momentum breaker; sometimes maybe you need to force a momentum breaker. That being said, you just don't roll the dice. I think you have to have the right play on the right hash mark and you have to understand how that all fits together."
The 19 lettermen and five starters returning on offense are trumped by the 25 and seven, respectively, back from a defense that at one point late in the year ranked second nationally against the run (eventually finishing ninth, allowing just 110.3 yard per game). New defensive coordinator Ron Collins accompanied Hawkins to Boulder from Boise State, and the two put together a solid staff on that side of the ball, retaining Brian Cabral, one of the nation's top linebacker coaches and recruiters, and luring Greg Brown back to Boulder from the NFL, where he had been since he last walked a college sideline in 1993.
"I really believe in attacking teams and getting after them," Hawkins said of his defensive philosophy. "I think you have to make sure people don't run the ball on you and you have to put pressure on the quarterback and make that guy make fast decisions. We won't be a static team. I think you have to disguise (formations) and move around and change things up."
The Buffs should be the strongest at defensive end, inside linebacker and across the secondary, as those three areas return players with a combined 211 starts (122 by the defensive backs), exactly two-thirds of the total (316) of all returning players.
Senior Thaddaeus Washington and junior Jordon Dizon, the starters the last two seasons, are the likely leaders of the defense that prides itself on stopping the run. CU is fairly loaded at defensive end, returning four players with significant starting experience. Seniors Abraham Wright, Walter Boye-Doe and Alex Ligon, junior Alonzo Barrett and sophomore Maurice Lucas all figure to be in a rotation to keep them fresh.
The secondary returns every player from last season, sans safety Tom Hubbard and bolstered by a healthy Terrence Wheatley, the junior who missed all of 2005 recovering from wrist surgery. Senior J.J. Billingsley returned to form last fall after sitting out the '04 season with a knee injury and is the leader of the group, which still has almost as many non-seniors (four) as seniors (five) that figure to see the bulk of the playing time.
The special teams should benefit from having a coach (Kent Riddle) assigned full-time to coach the unit, with the help of some of the other assistants. Gone are snapper Greg Pace and All-Big 12 punter and Ray Guy Award runner-up John Torp. No less than five players competed in the spring to replace Torp, including Crosby and heralded redshirt frosh Matt DiLallo. Pace was missed during the spring, but why wouldn't he have been? He handled each of the 256 snaps over the last two years, and his backup was also a senior. So in the spring, a slew of players were auditioning for the role, and the Buffs also signed a snapping specialist in recruiting.
The placekicking game comes back unscathed, led by Crosby, who is a threat to put points on the board for CU from midfield on in. He will also benefit from returning holder (Hawkins refers to the position as the "pinner"), Nick Holz. CU fans are undoubtedly ecstatic about Crosby returning for his senior season, but will they get to see him attempt a field goal with the number '7' in front of it?
"Yep. I'll let him (try one)," Hawkins said. "I'm going to let him hit it."
Crosby, with two game winning kicks in 2005, might be called upon again as CU will likely have a few down-to-the-wire games this fall, especially with another tough schedule. True, the opener against Montana State is CU's first-ever game against a Division I-AA opponent, but the Bobcats gave Oklahoma State all it could handle in Stillwater last year. Then a run in non-league play against Colorado State in Denver, Arizona State at home and a road trip to Georgia precede the Big 12 opener at Missouri. The conference slate also includes road games at Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, while CU hosts Baylor, Texas Tech, Kansas State and Iowa State.
"I mean this in all sincerity," Hawkins said. "One of the reasons I came here was a chance to be a part of the Big 12. I've had tremendous familiarity with the Pac-10 and know all of those towns and programs. But part of the appeal of the Big 12 is that you have some really dynamic teams. Texas is on fire and Oklahoma has been recently too; and along with Nebraska have all won national championships as member schools. That really is an appealing thing to me, and it brings a whole lot of variety that I haven't had before.
"I think this is a conference that is really scratching to make strides," he added. "You look at Oklahoma State dumping in a lot of money (into athletics), Kansas dumping in a bunch and Baylor looking to get after it. So everybody is really jumping in on this deal. I think you hear a lot about the SEC and the Big 10, but I really think you are going to see this conference charge here in the next decade."
And Hawkins has every intent of making sure Colorado is part of that charge.
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