Ready to Rumble
by Larry Zimmer | photos courtesy University of Colorado
Two years ago, Colorado rose from the ashes of 10 straight losing seasons to win the Pac-12 Southern Division with a 10-2 record. They were the most improved team in the nation. Coach Mike MacIntyre was toasted as the National Coach of the Year, as well as the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, and he won seven other awards.
There was some chest thumping by the players heading into the 2017 season. Perhaps they should have paid more attention to decisive losses the previous season in the final two games—The Big 12 Championship to Washington and the Alamo Bowl to Oklahoma State. Coach MacIntyre explained, “We just were not a Top 10 team. Top 20? Absolutely. We must get to the next level. Nobody stays the same, you either get better or get worse.”
Finishing 5-7, the Buffaloes got worse. Alumni and fans need to look at the big picture.
When MacIntyre arrived six years ago he didn’t only have to build a football team, he had to build an entire program. He had to build a culture and a reputation inside and outside of the University. He has done that on and off the field.
Consider. In the last six years Colorado has opened a new football facility (Champions Center) that is second to none in college football. It has built a recruiting program that now ranks in the upper echelon of the Pac-12. It has won a division football championship and academically more than 90 percent of the players who reached their senior year have graduated (106 of 119). The number for the last two years is more impressive, 50 of 54. Take into consideration that some didn’t complete their studies, because they prepared for the NFL and are currently playing.
Much of this is behind the scenes; consequently, success is measured by wins and losses on the field. What happened in 2017? MacIntyre has put much thought and study into answering that question.
“Last year we lost a few close football games that we won the year before,” he says. “The level of competition in Pac-12 is such that it will come down to just a few plays to decide the outcome.”
The coach is thinking about the games against UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and Washington. The Buffs had leads late in those games, but couldn’t finish it off.
MacIntyre explains, “We had lost a few players who had played a lot of football. This year we’ve got guys back who understand what it’s going to take to be successful. Some played in 2016 and endured 2017. ”
So, what do you work on to “finish games?” MacInyre’s answer: “In practice, you put the players in those critical situations. You work to get players to handle the emotional parts of the game, which is often like a roller coaster. We must be more physical in the trenches. Last year it was the first time for many of the guys up front and the season wore them down. They have spent a lot of time in the weight room getting stronger.”
MacIntyre had to endure what is perhaps the hardest thing for a head coach to do: Make staff changes. A football staff spends a lot of time together, so do their families. Sometimes change is necessary. Sometimes assistants seek a move on their own. Case in point. Only three assistants remain from MacIntyre’s original staff in 2013.
New this year are Ashley Ambrose, who will coach cornerbacks (he was on the CU staff 2008–2010, and had a great desire to return to Boulder), Kwahn Drake, defensive line (a young coach who brings a lot of enthusiasm and passion), and Kurt Roper, quarterbacks, a 22-year veteran, who is perhaps the most significant addition. He is a former offensive coordinator at Duke, South Carolina and Florida, and he helped develop Eli Manning as the quarterback coach at Ole Miss. MacIntyre and Roper were together as assistants at Ole Miss and Duke, both proteges of legendary Dave Cutliffe, who is currently head coach of the Duke Blue Devils and widely recognized as a quarterback guru. Consider that when Peyton Manning was with the Denver Broncos, he spent a week every summer at Duke to work with Cutliffe.
MacIntyre and Roper have mutual respect. MacIntyre says, “I have a great history with Kurt. He brings energy and phenomenal fundamentals for the quarterback position, and brings a lot of expertise to the offensive staff room. Roper on Mac, “I am happy to reunite with Mac. I always felt he was a rising star, a dynamic young coach, one of the best I’ve been around. ”
Roper’s job is clear, Work with junior quarterback Steven Montez, a key to the Buffalo season. Montez has had his moments in the past, but he must be more consistent. Montez is already ninth in school history in passing yards with 3,992. Last year he passed for 2, 975 yards and 18 touchdowns with only two interceptions. At a physical 6-5, 230, he is a threat to run.
2018 Colorado Football Schedule
Date Opponent Location
Sept. 1 Colorado State Denver
Sept. 8 Nebraska Lincoln
Sept. 15 New Hampshire Boulder
Sept. 28 UCLA Boulder
Oct. 6 Arizona State Boulder
Oct. 13 Southern California Los Angeles
Oct. 20 Washington Seattle
Oct. 27 Oregon State Boulder
Nov. 2 Arizona Tucson
Nov. 10 Washington State Boulder
Nov. 17 Utah Boulder
Nov. 24 California Berkeley
Nov. 30 Pac-12 Championship Santa Clara
Roper has been working with him since January and says Montez has command of the offense, but cautions, “Being a quarterback takes constant work. It never stops. Steven must improve his mental approach and be a leader. ”
Montez is on the Maxwell Watch List for the award given to the college player of the year. Over the summer, he attended the legendary Manning Passing Camp in Thibodaux, Louisiana, with 38 other top college quarterbacks, calling it “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The offense will have a different look. Co-offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini will call the plays as well as coach the wide receivers. Chiaverini promises an up-tempo aggressive style.
CU will be counting on veterans Kyle Evans, Donovan Lee and Beau Bisharat, along with redshirt freshman Alex Fontenot and graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, Travon McMillian, to replace Phillip Lindsay, who gained more than 1,000 yards each of the last two years. It won’t be easy. MacIntyre says, “We’re going to miss Phillip, but Phillip left a lot of himself here. In the locker room and away from football, he was such a leader; he infused our guys with his work ethic and toughness.”
Jay MacIntyre leads a group of receivers, who Chiaverini calls “dynamic guys, a lot of playmakers. “MacIntyre has 66 career receptions and is a key target on third downs. After off-season surgery on his foot, he is healthy as are two other receivers who have battled injuries—Juwann Winfree and Kabion Ento. As a true freshman, Laviska Shenault Jr. showed he can make big plays. K. D. Nixon and Texas Tech transfer Tony Brown will be in the mix.
The offensive line will be rebuilt with veterans Aaron Haigler, Tim Lynott and Josh Kaiser playing a major role. Redshirt freshman Colby Pursell is taking over the center job and others figuring to play a lot are Brett Tonz, William Sherman, junior college transfer Kary Kutsch (6-4, 300) and Jake Moretti, a top recruit from Pomona High School who suffered a knee injury prior to his senior year and has spent the last two years rehabilitating. MacIntyre says, “He is working hard. We’ll have to keep a play count on him. ”
Defensive coordinator D. J. Eliot thinks his unit will be much stronger. The defensive line will be anchored by starters Javier Edwards (6-3, 340), Chris Mulumba (6-6, 275) and Jase Franke (6-3, 280). Depth will come from young players such as Lyle Tuiloma, Terrance Lang and Mustafa Johnson.
Depth is not a problem at inside linebacker. Led by returning senior starters Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis, who combined for 236 tackles last year, this position seems strong. As backups, Nate Landman played a lot last season and Akil Jones was the “most improved linebacker” in spring drills.
The Buffaloes hope to improve the pass rush this season, and the outside linebackers are a key. Nu’umoto Falo Jr. is back after being suspended last year. Jacob Callier was used as a pass-rush specialist, but seems ready to move into a starting role. JC transfers Alex Tchangam, Shamar Hamilton and Davion Taylor will play. Taylor bears watching. He was on the CU track team in the spring and runs the 100 meters in 10.51. MacIntyre says, “It’s amazing. A 225-pound guy running that fast. ”
The secondary is being retooled. Trey Udoffia and Dante Wigley bring experience to the corners. JC transfer Mekhi Blackmon will play, as will redshirt freshman Chris Miller and Ronnie Blackmon. The safeties are solid with Nick Fisher and Evan Worthington. They will be pushed by talented young players like Isaiah Lewis, Kyle Trego, Kevin George, Aaron Maddox and freshman Ray Robinson.
The kicking game is solid with punter Alex Kinney returning for his fourth year starting in that position. Former soccer player, James Stefanou, from Melbourne, Australia, had a great debut season in 2017. He was named as a first-team Freshman All-American by ESPN and was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award. He was also named CU’s outstanding freshman.
The addition of three new coaches in the Pac-12 South, all with outstanding pedigrees, doesn’t seem to concern Coach MacIntyre. Chip Kelly returns to the conference, this time at UCLA. Herm Edwards, who coached the Jets and Chiefs in the NFL, is at Arizona State, and former Houston and Texas A&M mentor Kevin Sumlin takes over at Arizona. MacIntyre’s comment: “They are all excellent coaches. It’ll be fun coaching against them.”
The Buffs must be ready out of the gate. Traditional rivals Colorado State and Nebraska are the first two games. Says MacIntyre, “Playing your biggest historic rivals back to back in the first two weeks, 98 percent of the teams in the country have never done that. It’ll be rare air. Our young men will be excited about it.”
Champs or chumps? Check back in three months.