Having failed to post a winning record in more than a decade, or to even reach a bowl game since 2007, it’s been a rough stretch for the Colorado Buffaloes.
As the team prepares to kick off spring practice on March 2, Colorado is coming off a disappointing 4-9 season in which the Buffs lost eight of their final nine games. However, because of a few key newcomers joining the Pac-12’s most experienced roster, and the momentum the picked up from several close conference games last season, there is reason to be optimistic that Colorado can finally go bowling in 2016.
5 Storylines to Watch in Colorado Spring Football Practice
1. The quarterback situation
One of the most highly sought-after quarterback transfers of the most recent recruiting class, former Texas Tech QB Davis Webb signed with Colorado and will be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer. Webb spent the majority of the 2013 and ‘14 seasons as the starter at Texas Tech, where he threw for 5,557 yards, 46 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in three seasons. Despite that production, Webb lost his job to Patrick Mahomes, which resulted in him deciding to transfer. He has one year of eligibility remaining, and should feel right at home with former Tech assistant Darrin Chiaverini joining the staff as co-offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator.
Unfortunately, Webb won’t be on campus until June, and Colorado also will go through spring practice without its other top quarterback, Sefo Liufau. A three-year starter, Liufau suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot, which not only knocked him out of the final two games of the season, it also could keep him off the field for all of 2016. Liufau, whose 7,397 career passing yards rank third on the school’s all-time list and are just 334 shy of the record, hopes to be healthy enough to compete with Webb this fall. However, it’s possible Liufau redshirts.
With Webb on the way and Liufau on the shelf, Cade Apsay, Jordan Gehrke and Steve Montez will get the reps this spring. Apsay, a rising sophomore, started the final two games of last season and threw for a total of 582 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions in five games. Gehrke saw the field in three games last year and threw for 116 yards with one TD and one pick.
2. The offensive line and coaching staff shakeup
Liufau is one of the Pac-12’s most experienced and productive quarterbacks, but he was banged up often in 2015. In addition to injuring his foot, the quarterback played with a nagging shoulder issue all year and also dealt with a hurt wrist. A big reason was the constant stress he was put under because of one of the league’s most inconsistent offensive lines.
The good news for the Buffs is that three full-time starters return up front as well as three others that made at least six starts. The bad news is that Colorado allowed 41 sacks in 2015, which was the most in the Pac-12, and the departed Stephane Nembot was the best and most experienced member of the unit.
A restructured coaching staff resulted in Klayton Adams moving from running backs and tight ends to the offensive line – a position he coached at Western Washington (2007-08) and Sacramento State (2009-10) before joining head coach Mike MacIntyre at San Jose State as tight ends coach. Adams will be taking over for Gary Bernardi, who is shifting from the offensive line to tight ends and fullbacks.
MacIntyre also added the aforementioned Chiaverini, which should give a boost of explosiveness to the team’s play-calling, while CU legend Darian Hagan will serve as running backs coach after spending five years in a support staff role.
3. Replacing Nelson Spruce
It’s never easy to replace a record-setting receiver, and no one in Pac-12 history caught more passes than Spruce. From 2012-15, Spruce tallied 294 receptions for 3,347 yards and was on the receiving end of 23 touchdowns. These are just three of the more than 40 school records he set during his time in Boulder. Spruce will be catching passes on Sundays next season, but Colorado returns a decent set of receivers that contributed in 2015 and added five newcomers during the most recent recruiting cycle.
Shay Fields, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound speedster, is one of six scholarship receivers expected to return. Fields set the school freshman record with 50 receptions in 2014 and followed with 598 yards and four touchdowns on 50 catches last year, including a 168-yard, two-TD performance (one of which covered 72 yards) against Arizona. Donovan Lee caught 26 passes for 128 yards in 2015, ranked third on the team with 286 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns on the ground. Devin Ross recorded 25 receptions for 324 yards and two scores.
The most exciting new player on the receiving corps might be Juwann Winfree, who caught 11 passes for 158 yards and two TDs as a freshman at Maryland in 2014. A junior college transfer, Winfree came to Boulder after a year at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. A physical (6-2, 195) wideout, Winfree will be in the mix to start immediately once he arrives on campus, especially since Fields, Lee and Ross are all 5-foot-9 or shorter.
4. Can the defense build on its momentum from 2015?
The 2015 campaign was a tale of three seasons for the Colorado defense – the first for Jim Leavitt as defensive coordinator. The Buffs played great defense during the non-conference schedule, and allowed just 16.5 points and 341.5 total yards over those first four games of the season.
However, the first three games of Pac-12 play were a disaster. Colorado allowed an average of 42.3 points and 548 total yards per game in losses to Oregon, Arizona State and Arizona. Then, things turned around. Over the final five games of the season, the Buffs held opponents to 25.8 points and 402.0 yards per contest.
The Buffs, who excelled against the pass, finishing second in the Pac-12 (218.2 passing ypg), also stepped up their game against good competition. The three ranked teams Colorado played (UCLA, Stanford and Utah) averaged just 160.3 passing yards per game. Oregon threw for just 176 yards, USC had just 204 while Washington State was the only team to surpass the 300-yard mark. Even the Cougars’ 333 yards were 56.2 yards fewer than their average for the season.
Overall, the Buffs made some rather big strides defensively. After allowing 39.0 points per game in 2014, the Buffs held opponents to 27.5 points on average last year – the third-best improvement in the country among Power 5 programs.
Colorado also recorded 27 sacks in 2015, after getting to quarterback just 22 times the previous season. The Buffaloes had 14 interceptions, the fifth most in the conference, and forced a league-high 28 fumbles, though they recovered only eight. Still, the 22 takeaways Leavitt’s unit produced were double that of the previous season.
5. Will experience lead to wins?
Colorado is expected to return 17 total starters from its 2015 team – eight on offense and nine on defense – which give the Buffs the fifth most of any FBS program. That makes the Buffaloes the most experienced team in the Pac-12 heading into 2016 with only USC (9) returning more starters on offense and Colorado tied with Arizona for the most starters on defense.
Of course, just because a team has experience doesn’t mean that will lead to more wins next fall. For one, the schedule is tougher. Colorado travels to Michigan to close non-conference play Sept. 17 and also takes trips to Oregon, USC, Stanford and Arizona.
Pre-Spring Colorado Outlook in the Pac-12
Colorado finished 1-8 in Pac-12 play a year ago, but there were several close calls. Arizona beat the Buffs 38-31, and Colorado nearly knocked off No. 24 UCLA on the road before falling 35-31. The Buffaloes also lost to USC (27-24) and No. 23 Utah (20-14) in one-score games.
Sefo Liufau’s injuries certainly took a toll, as Colorado struggled to move the football late in the season. Over the final four games of the year, the Buffs averaged just 285.5 yards of total offense, and a paltry 69.0 rushing yards per contest. As a result, the unit scored 12.8 points per game and finished No. 11 in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (24.6 ppg), No. 10 in rushing (156.2 ypg), No. 8 in passing (240.6 ypg), and No. 10 in total offense (396.8 ypg).
Looking ahead to 2016, nine starters return on offense (if Liufau is healthy enough to play), plus key newcomers graduate transfer quarterback Davis Webb, junior college transfer wide receiver Juwann Winfree, and four-star running back recruit Beau Bisharat, who had previously been committed to Stanford and should play often as a true freshman. The Buffaloes’ offense also should get a boost from the changes on the coaching staff.
The losses of record-setting wide receiver Nelson Spruce and left tackle Stephane Nembot are big, as is the departure of fellow NFL prospect Ken Cowley, who started 44 games at cornerback for the Buffs, but none is too much to overcome. The Buffs also will add JUCO transfer Drew Lewis in the fall, and the linebacker should be a major contributor immediately.
All told, the road to bowl eligibility is difficult for Colorado, but an experienced roster, some key newcomers, and a restructured coaching staff could finally help the Buffs break through and reach the postseason under fourth-year head coach Mike MacIntyre.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work can also be found on SaturdayDownSouth.com, SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.