Just two years ago, Colorado was the defending Pac-12 South champion with reigning National Coach of the Year Mike MacIntyre leading the way into a title defense. Those days seem like ancient history after back-to-back 5–7 seasons, the firing of MacIntyre and the hiring of former Georgia and Alabama defensive coordinator Mel Tucker in the offseason.
This is Tucker's first full-time head coaching job (he was interim coach of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars for five games in 2011), and he wasted very little time laying the foundation. He's got a "no excuses" attitude and spent the offseason instilling intensity and physicality.
At CU, Tucker doesn't have the talent he had to work with at Georgia and Alabama, but "the cupboards are not bare here," he says. Now, it's Tucker’s task to take that talent and get the Buffaloes back on track.
Previewing Colorado's Offense for 2019
Under coordinator Jay Johnson, CU will have a different look, using pro-style sets and prioritizing the run game. Several familiar faces return, however.
Senior QB Steven Montez has had his ups and downs and is 12–15 as a starter, but he's improved each year and made a positive impression on his new coaches in the spring. Physically, he's got all the tools to be a star, but he will need to take another step above the neck to be elite.
CU is loaded at receiver, and it starts with Laviska Shenault Jr., who was a Heisman Trophy candidate at the mid-point of last season before an injury slowed him down. K.D. Nixon was overshadowed a bit, but he had a great season (52 catches for 636 yards) and can be explosive. Senior Tony Brown is reliable and a great complement to Shenault on the outside, while redshirt freshman Dimitri Stanley and sophomore Jaylon Jackson show star potential in the slot. Tight ends have caught a total of 18 passes in the last three years combined, but that's expected to change. Auburn grad transfer Jalen Harris, former walk-on Brady Russell and converted running back Beau Bisharat lead that group.
While the run game will be essential, CU's scholarship running backs have a combined 11 career rushing attempts — all by sophomore Alex Fontenot, who stood out in the spring. Tucker likes to use multiple backs, so redshirt freshmen Deion Smith and Jarek Broussard and true freshmen Joe Davis and Jaren Mangham could all get opportunities. Fontenot and Smith could be the lead backs, but Mangham might ultimately become the best of the bunch.
CU's line has been a weakness; in 2018, the Buffs ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed (2.83 per game) and 10th in yards per carry (3.8). Grad transfer Arlington Hambright, a part-time starter at left tackle for Oklahoma State last year, could be a major boost. The Buffs will also lean on senior Tim Lynott, who could play center or guard, along with sophomore tackle William Sherman and sophomore Colby Pursell, who started every game at center last year.
Previewing Colorado's Defense for 2019
Tucker has led some of the best defenses in the country in recent years, so his standard is high. It might take some time for the Buffs to reach that standard, however, despite some solid pieces to build around.
Inside linebacker Nate Landman is a hard hitter who is always around the ball, and he's emerging as a leader. The Buffs lack experience around him and dipped into the junior college ranks for reinforcements. At outside backer, Carson Wells emerged last year, but the group has to step up.
Up front, former junior college transfer Mustafa Johnson was a disruptive force in his first year with the Buffs, while sophomore Terrance Lang continues to improve. Several players need to mature in a hurry, though, including redshirt freshman nose tackle Jalen Sami. Nine of the 11 scholarship linemen have never played a snap at CU, and six have never played in a college game.
Senior Davion Taylor, who has sprinter speed and NFL-type athleticism, will be featured in the Star position. At corner, Delrick Abrams Jr. and Chris Miller are talented, but both have to stay healthy and become consistent. There's almost no experience at safety, but several players will compete for starting roles, and the Buffs like the potential incoming freshman Mark Perry. SMU graduate transfer Mikial Onu is expected to push for snaps at safety this fall.
Previewing Colorado's Specialists for 2019
Punter Alex Kinney is back for a fifth year after missing most of 2018 with a broken collarbone. Placekicker James Stefanou comes into his third year healthy after missing a good chunk of last year. Kickoff specialist Davis Price is back for a third year in that role.
CU has been to one bowl game (2016) in 11 years and is desperate to become a consistent winner. Tucker brings a winning pedigree, as he was part of national title teams at Ohio State (2002) and Alabama (2015) and coached in the 2017 title game with Georgia. Colorado is a long way from reaching that level, but talent hasn’t been the Buffs’ issue the last few years, and Tucker doesn’t view this as a rebuild. Tucker’s approach has been well received by players — and those in the athletic department — and the expectation, internally, is to get to the postseason this year.