A year ago, Coach Mike MacIntyre said the ladder was poking out of the deep hole the Colorado football program had fallen into. (photo courtesy CU athletics)

The Buffs Climbed Out of the Hole.
Now What?

By Larry Zimmer

“Nobody really knows what’s going on with our team besides the people who are on the inside. We knew what we could do last year and we went out and proved it. Now we want to come back and prove it wasn’t a fluke.” Those are the words of Colorado Buffalo captain and offensive tackle Jeromy Irwin.

Offensive players expected to lead in 2017 include wide receiver Bryce Bobo. (photos courtesy CU athletics)

A year ago, Coach Mike MacIntyre said the Colorado football program had fallen into a deep hole, and that in 2016 the team was climbing out of that hole and the ladder was poking out.

The Buffaloes rocketed out of that hole. They surprised the football world, finishing the regular season with a 10-2 record and winning the Pac-12 South Championship. But then the wheels came off. In the Pac-12 Championship Game, Colorado lost to Washington 41-10. Gone were dreams of the conference championship and the Rose Bowl. The Huskies went on to play in college football’s Final Four. Then, the Buffs had a chance to finish the season on a positive note in the Alamo Bowl against former Big 12 rival Oklahoma State. The Cowboys won 38-8. It hurt at the time, but objectively, after 10 straight losing seasons, there’s no question it was an outstanding year.

MacIntyre was recognized by the American Football Coaches Association with the prestigious Coach of the Year Award, and was also named the Comeback Coach of the Year. He won seven other national coach-of-the-year awards: Walter Camp, Eddie Robinson, Bobby Dodd, Associated Press, ESPN/Home Depot, SB Nation and Scout.com. He was the Pac-12 Coach of the Year and the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame’s King of the Hill. He was rewarded with a contract extension through 2021 worth $16.25 million.

But now it’s 2017, and what about those two lopsided losses at the end of last season? MacIntyre explains, “We were ranked in the nation’s Top 10 and playing other Top 10 teams. We just were not a Top 10 team. Top 20? Absolutely. We must get to the next level. The teams we played had been in those big games; we had not.”

National Media: CU Was a One-Year Wonder

Is it realistic to believe that CU can get to the next level in 2017? The national media are cool to the idea, thinking the Buffaloes were a one-year wonder. Captain Irwin says, “The lack of respect is not surprising. We’re CU. It’s what happens when you only have a few successful seasons in a 15-year stretch. But honestly, that stuff doesn’t matter to us.”

Among the offensive players expected to lead in 2017 is No. 1 Shay Fields. (photos courtesy CU athletics)

Why no respect? Let’s start with the graduation of record-setting quarterback Sefo Liufau, a fixture for nearly four years. He holds some 100 CU records and is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The defense was the heart of the team in 2016, and eight starters are gone. Three members of the stellar secondary were drafted—Chidobe Awuzie (1st round, Dallas Cowboys), Ahkello Witherspoon (3rd round, San Francisco 49ers) and Tedric Thompson (4th round, Seattle Seahawks). Then there was the departure of the man who built that defense, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, along with two secondary coaches.

MacIntyre shrugs off the preseason predictions. “They didn’t predict what we would do last year, so why bother with what they think now? Nobody stays the same—you either get better or get worse. I feel good about the program. We have good players returning. We have recruited well and developed them.”

Offensive lineman and team co-captain Jeromy Irwin. (photos courtesy CU athletics)

First, the quarterback. Steven Montez (6-5, 225, sophomore, El Paso, Texas) will be the man to fill Liufau’s big shoes. He is more athletic than Liufau, is a playmaker with his arm, and he can run. Because of an injury to Liufau, Montez was forced into a starting role against the Oregon Ducks in Eugene and became the first CU quarterback in history to pass for 300 yards and rush for more than 100 yards in a game. He led the Buffs to a 41-38 win. The next week he led the Buffs to a 47-6 dismantling of Oregon State. Still, Montez must conquer the intangibles—showing the toughness and leadership of Sefo Liufau. Senior wide receiver Bryce Bobo says not to worry. “Montez has it down already. He’s been taking a leadership role ever since Sefo left,” he says. “He’s really stepped it up. You can see he’s taking it really seriously.”

MacIntyre calls Montez a special talent who had an excellent spring practice. He is confident that Montez is ready.

One of MacIntyre’s early recruiting priorities was speed and size at wide receiver, and this year we should see the results. The four top receivers return. Shay Fields has career numbers of 144 receptions for 1,929 yards and 17 touchdowns. Bobo, who has speed and size, made catches that were featured in highlight reels a year ago. Devin Ross is a quick inside receiver, as is Jay MacIntyre. Senior Kabion Ento had an excellent spring, and Juwann Winfree returns. He was the talk of fall camp last year, but a knee injury sidelined him for the season.

Phillip Lindsay, the senior running back from Denver South, gives the Buffs a solid starter at running back. From 2015 to 2016 he improved his rushing yardage from 653 to 1,189, his touchdowns from seven to 17 and his receiving from 26 catches to 47. Running-backs coach Darian Hagan says Lindsay has worked hard in the off-season and feels he can make another significant jump. Backing him up will be senior Michael Adkins II, who has battled injuries in his career; Kyle Evans, who will be back after a hip injury; and talented sophomore Beau Bisharat.

Four starters return in the offensive line that sometimes struggled last year. MacIntyre expects improvement. He says, “At times the opponents’ defensive line would wear our guys down. They have worked hard in the off-season to get bigger and stronger. Jeromy Irwin is a leader. Senior Jonathan Huckins will move from guard to center to replace graduated Alex Kelley, and Gerrad Kough, Tim Lynott, Aaron Haigler and Josh Kaiser now have gained experience.”

Defensive Players Are ‘Younger but Talented’

As to rebuilding the defense? The system that elevated CU to the number-two defense in the Pac-12 and 19th nationally will be the same. The new defensive coordinator, D.J. Eliot, coached the 3-4 defense at Kentucky. MacIntyre was familiar with Eliot. “We talked to D.J. in the process of hiring Jim Leavitt. He inherits players who have played a lot of football. They are younger, but talented.”

(photos courtesy CU athletics)

2017 CU Buffs Game Schedule

Date | Opponent | Site
Sept. 1 | Colorado State | Denver
Sept. 9 | Texas State | BOULDER
Sept. 16 | Northern Colorado | BOULDER
Sept. 23 | Washington | BOULDER
Sept. 30 | UCLA | Pasadena, CA
Oct. 7 | Arizona | BOULDER
Oct. 14 | Oregon State | Corvallis, OR
Oct. 21 | Washington State | Pullman, WA
Oct. 28 | California | BOULDER
Nov. 4 | Arizona State | Tempe, AZ
Nov. 11 | USC | BOULDER
Nov. 25 | Utah | Salt Lake City, UT

Eliot’s first impression while studying last year’s film of his new team? “They played hard, extremely hard,” he says. “That’s what we want to build on. We’re pushing these guys to reach that intensity level each day. We’re relying on those players who were here last year to lead. They may not have been the leaders last year, but they sure are the leaders now.”

While he is replacing the fiery and popular Leavitt, don’t expect Eliot to be the same. He says, “Every coach has a different personality and coaches within his personality.”

Joining Eliot on the defensive side will be two veterans. Ross Els will coach the linebackers. He played at Nebraska and most recently was defensive coordinator at Purdue. ShaDon Brown will coach the secondary after five seasons at Army. Rounding out the staff is defensive-line coach Jim Jeffcoat, who came to Colorado with MacIntyre.

Jeffcoat has the challenge of replacing all three starters in the defensive front, but Leo Jackson III, Jase Franke and Timothy Coleman have played a lot of football. Blinn College transfer Javier Edwards, at 6-3, 350 pounds, will be a presence in the middle.

Rick Gamboa, whom the coaches describe as a “coach on the field,” will anchor the linebackers, and senior Derek McCartney is set to return from a knee injury he suffered in the third game last season, which ended what appeared to be a banner season in the making.

Ready to step up in the secondary are fifth-year senior Afolabi Laguda, Nick Fisher, Ryan Moeller and Isaiah Oliver, all of whom had extensive playing time in the past.

The kicking game gave the Buffs problems last year, after they lost Diego Gonzalez for the season in the third game. MacIntyre is pleased with the off-season work of kickers Davis Price and Chris Graham, and a sleeper could be 29-year-old James Stefanou, a star soccer player in Australia, who attended an American football camp to prepare him for a college career. Junior punter Alex Kinney shook off early-season problems in 2016 and finished strong.

As MacIntyre looks ahead, he says, “I am ecstatic that we will be at the University of Colorado for the foreseeable future. There’s no place my family and I would rather be. We absolutely love it here. The people have been great and I truly believe this is just the beginning. We want to build the consistency that this program had in the 1990s. Last year, ‘The Rise’ was real—now, we have to keep rising.”

Larry Zimmer retired in 2015 after 50 consecutive years of broadcasting college football. In addition to 42 years as “Voice of the Buffs,” Zimmer was play announcer for the Michigan Wolverines and Colorado State Rams. He also broadcast Denver Broncos football for 26 years. Winner of the 2009 Chris Schenkel Award, Zimmer has been inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, the CU Athletic Hall of Fame, the Broadcast Professionals of Colorado Hall of Fame, and the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.