Mel Tucker’s sudden and shocking departure to Michigan State in February put the Buffaloes in a bind. Karl Dorrell was hired less than two weeks later — about two months after most teams made a change — and it wasn’t a hire that wowed anyone. Then, less than three weeks after he was hired, and just a few days after he completed the assembly of his coaching staff, the sports world shut down because of COVID-19. CU went into the summer without the staff having ever spent time on the field with the players.
Despite the challenges, CU’s administration believes Dorrell is the right fit. He took UCLA to five bowls in five seasons in his only other head coaching job, from 2003-07. He also has deep ties to CU, as he coached six seasons in Boulder during the 1990s. Dorrell didn’t make any excuses for the unique challenges. Instead, he emphasized getting to know his team as much as possible, and his calm, mature approach has been welcomed.
“We have a lot of work to do and we’ve got some ground to make up, but … their attitude is right about what they want, what their desires are, what they’re shooting for,” Dorrell says. “We’re going to ride that and stress them and put them in tough situations to get ready to play.”
Previewing Colorado's Offense for 2020
Dorrell has more than 30 years of experience coaching offense, and Darrin Chiaverini returns to the coordinator role. The influence of both will be evident as they develop a multiple attack. CU wants to go fast and emphasize the pass but also be effective when slowing down and utilizing the run game.
Of course, Dorrell says, “It starts with a quarterback.” That’s where not having spring practices hurts the Buffs, as they are trying to replace three-year starter Steven Montez. Junior Tyler Lytle was the top backup last year, knows the offense and the personnel and has become a leader, but he’s thrown only six career passes. True freshman Brendon Lewis is a pass-first dual threat who enrolled early and has already set quarterback weight room records. Senior Sam Noyer has the most game experience, with 41 career passes. Noyer moved to safety last year, entered the transfer portal in the winter and decided to stay when offered a chance to return to quarterback. Lytle might be the favorite to start, but the competition will be wide open.
At running back, Alex Fontenot and Jaren Mangham formed a good 1-2 punch last year, but true freshman Ashaad Clayton could get into the mix as well. At receiver, K.D. Nixon has a lot of versatility, Daniel Arias has star potential, Dimitri Stanley is a threat in the slot and La’Vontae Shenault, younger brother of Laviska Shenault Jr., is an exceptional talent in his own right. CU also has one of the better tight ends in the Pac-12 in junior Brady Russell.
Two starters return to the offensive line, which is developing good, young talent. The group is led by tackle William Sherman, center/guard Colby Pursell and guard Kary Kutsch.
Previewing Colorado's Defense for 2020
Dorrell retained coordinator Tyson Summers, and that should provide continuity for a group that got better as 2019 went along.
The Buffs run a base 3-4 defense, but they’ll look to add more four-man fronts. Ends Mustafa Johnson and Terrance Lang and nose tackle Jalen Sami return as starters. CU didn’t lose anyone up front who played last year and added to the depth. A wild card is Antonio Alfano, the nation’s top recruit in the 2019 class who signed with Alabama but transferred to CU over the winter. In the spring, he was suspended for violating team rules. Alfano remained indefinitely suspended in the summer, and it's uncertain if he will be able to return to active status on the roster for 2020. If he plays, he should make the Buffs much better up front.
The unquestioned leader is inside linebacker Nate Landman, a hard hitter who has led the team in tackles the past two years. Inside linebackers Akil Jones and Jon Van Diest and outside linebacker Carson Wells also return after starting several games last year.
In the secondary, cornerbacks Mekhi Blackmon and Chris Miller are returning from injuries and have starting experience. Corner K.J. Trujillo and safety Derrion Rakestraw were regular starters last year, and Mark Perry is an emerging playmaker at safety or the hybrid Star position. If healthy, it’s a solid group.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2020
Previewing Colorado's Specialists for 2020
Senior James Stefanou had offseason surgery to fix a nagging hip injury that’s bothered him for two years. He is 34-of-47 on field-goal attempts for his career and has elite ability. Australian Josh Watts, who signed in December, takes over at punter after four-year starter Alex Kinney graduated.
Tucker brought some excitement back to the program and seemingly had the Buffs going in the right direction. However, last year was the Buffs’ third consecutive 5–7 season — even with a veteran QB and a star receiver. There’s now a new head coach, new quarterback, Laviska Shenault Jr. is gone and the Buffs didn’t get to go through spring practices. Dorrell says the players are frustrated with how the last three years have played out, and “they’re ambitious” to turn things around, but the odds are certainly against the Buffs. They’ve played in just one bowl game in the last 12 years, and it’s going to be a tough climb to get to the postseason this year.