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the Gekko Files: previewing Colorado Buffaloes football in 2017

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Born from the ashes of a complete programmatic meltdown, Colorado looks to sustain success.

Colorado v Colorado State Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Whenever I have thought about the Colorado Buffaloes this offseason, the song “I’ll Melt With You” by Modern English pops into my head.

“I’ll Melt With You” happens to be my favorite one-hit wonder song of all time. Some of you might have similar inspiration if you’ve happened to ponder the prospects of the South Division’s representative in the 2016 PAC 12 Championship game.

Maybe it was Tony Basil’s “Mickey”. Perhaps you are a fan of Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting”. I know my wife still likes Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” and is eagerly awaiting his next brilliant release.

She might be waiting a while.

Some of you might think of one-hit wonders in a different light. Ickey Woods in the NFL, Brady Anderson in MLB and Buster Douglas in boxing each had their legendary “moment in the sun” in their profession only to put up otherwise unremarkable careers. Oregon fans saw this with the bust that was Akili Smith following what was a remarkable one-year output in his senior season preceding his pick as the #3 player in the 1999 NFL Draft.

Colorado fans enter 2017 having experienced, as Bill Connelly calls it, “a dream season” in 2016. Everything came together for a Colorado team that ran all the way to a South division championship. Tough defense, strong offensive line play and consistent team health all complemented a deep roster that head coach Mike MacIntyre had sacrificed three seasons of results in order to develop.

But 2017 is more of an unknown. The Buffaloes are losing eight defensive starters not to mention three defensive coaches. Their star QB has graduated. On Phil Steele’s vaunted “experience chart”, the Buffs enter 2017 ranking just 88th overall.

You can forgive Colorado fans if they are worried about 2016 becoming a one-hit wonder. For a school that gave us one of the great one-hit wonders of all-time - RB Rashaan Salaam and his 2000 yard 1994 Heisman campaign - the notion that success can be fleeting is as real as a Colorado sunset.

We are opening the Colorado Gekko Files for 2017. Stand back, y’all. As Right Said Fred once warned, “I’m too Sexy” for this blog.

Colorado’s Offense

Colorado Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
WR play team explosiveness QB Steven Montez WR Juwann Winfree (Inj)
offensive line experience QB consistency WR Shay Fields RB Beau Bisharat (RFr)
RB Phillip Lindsay RB Alex Fontenot (TFr)

The first thing that you notice when you look at the Colorado offense is that four-year starter and all-time tough guy QB Sefo Liufau has finally moved on. Liufau will forever be the face of the Colorado turnaround. For the three years between 2013 and 2015, Liufau gutted through exactly two PAC 12 wins before making last year’s 8-1 campaign that much more savory. Despite his limitations as a passer, he leaves an enormous legacy comprised of loyalty, courage, optimism and leadership.

Big cleats to fill, no doubt.

But the cupboards are not bare. In fact, you might even argue that last year’s offense - one that was characterized more by its ability to grind out yards and move sticks than it was able to generate big plays - might actually have been more of an appetizer than a main course. Fun fact here: Colorado led the nation in third down conversion attempts last year with 236 but converted only 44% of them (31st in the nation).

Pac-12 Championship - Colorado v Washington
Is Steven Montez ready to take the reigns for Colorado?
Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images

When UW fans last saw the Buffs’ offense, it had pretty much run out of gas in the passing attack managing just 81 yards and 3 INTs in the PAC 12 championship. Whatever magic was leading to first down conversion throughout the year had faded. Those woes continued into the Colorado bowl game with the Buffs producing no TDs and one INT against 256 yards in the 38-8 blowout loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

Could the Colorado Offense be better in 2017? I think that opportunity is a distinct possibility. I am really enamored by what the passing attack is going to look like for Colorado this season. It starts with an offensive line that is one of the more veteran in all of the PAC 12.

There are no stars on the Colorado O-line. But what they lack in celebrity status, they make up for in experience and depth. All five projected starters (seniors Gerrard Kough, Jeromy Irwin, and Jonathon Huckins and sophomores Aaron Haigler and Tim Lynott) have started football games for Colorado. This is a really solid unit comprised of a mix of legacy guys and high-upside young players. The depth is provided by a couple of bright up-and-comers in sophomore Isaac Miller (6-7”, 280lbs), junior Josh Kaiser and incoming freshman Jake Moretti. This unit was good a year ago and will be better, particularly in giving the QB a pocket, this year.

QB Steven Montez is certain to take advantage of the time his line will give him. In his three starts and various relief outings a year ago, Montez always showed a willingness to push the ball harder down the field and to take a few chances. Occasionally, (Oregon St, Oregon) that worked out very well. Sometimes (USC, Washington) not so much. Though he has a lot of game experience, Montez is still a young QB. I expect that he will have some ups and downs with the occasional Favre-ian spectacular string of plays offset with some Favre-ian boneheaded meltdowns.

His receiving corps should be able to help control those lows. The Buffs return 213 of the 214 receptions made by WRs from 2016 with a unit that features big-play threat Shay Fields, slot Devin Ross and steady Bryce Bobo. All of these guys are weapons and must be accounted for by opposing DCs on every play. Fields is the first priority due to his ability to get behind a defense which creates opportunity for the other two guys. If that were not enough, uber athlete Juwann Winfree, who missed 2016 with an ACL injury, is back. At 6’3” and 205 lbs, Winfree is the big receiver that is the missing piece for this unit.

RB will be manned by three year captain Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay is a versatile back who won’t really beat you with his explosiveness, but chisel away at you with his forward gains and as a relief valve in the passing game. There isn’t a great deal of depth behind him, but RS frosh Beau Bisharat is a tantalizing option at 6’2” and 215 lbs. Senior Michael Adkins provides the depth for a group that is solid if not glamorous. Kind of like the Proclaimers (“I Gonna Be (500 Miles)”).

Summed up, Colorado projects as a solid, top-half of the conference offense with more explosive play upside than what they had a year ago. There aren’t any real weaknesses thanks to the solid foundation the offensive line provides. Their upside potential is only regulated by the development curve of their young QB.

Colorado’s Defense

Colorado Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
size in the secondary pass rush CB Isaiah Oliver DL Javier Edwards (Txfr)
overall experience DL depth / experience LB Drew Lewis DE Chris Mulumba (Txfr)
team speed LB Rick Gamboa CB Chris Miller (TFr)

When Jim Leavitt bolted to Oregon to become the PAC’s highest paid DC, he took with him confidence that Colorado can survive the graduation / retirement of eight defensive starters on a unit that was the bedrock of the Buff surge in 2016. Enter former Kentucky DC DJ Eliot who inherits a roster that lacks some of those big names like Tedric Thompson, Jimmie Gilbert, Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode but possesses an enviable share of seasoned players who’ve spent time in Coach Mac’s system.

Washington State v Colorado
Isaiah Oliver is the next “big” thing at CB for the Buffaloes.
Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Let’s start with the defensive line. Gone are the top three linemen from a year ago which leads most Buff fans to an instant state of panic. In this case, it might be justified. There is depth here - most of the projected rotational players are juniors and seniors - but questionable talent. Junior Jase Franke is an undersized NT at 285 lbs who will be flanked by the experienced if not flashy Leo Jackson III. A couple of JC transfers - 350 lb NT Javier Edwards and DE Chris Mulumba are going to be counted on to provide significant contributions. There are a couple of other serviceable guys who can provide relief, but Eliot is going to really be counting on the emergence of some young players. Keep your eyes on sophomore DE Frank Umu - a big end who could be a real factor in rush defense.

Things start to get better as you work your way back. The linebackers are clearly losing some big pieces with the graduations of Gilbert and Olugbode and the medical retirement of Gillam. The steady Richie Gamboa is back and will likely be joined by former Husky Drew Lewis - who really turned heads with his speed last spring - on the inside. Junior N.J. Falo - is there a more odd two-letter abbreviation first name than NJ? - will finally get his chance to start while a name that many will recognize, senior Derek McCartney, will man the other outside spot after missing most of last season with injury.

Everybody is wondering if the Colorado secondary will collapse following the graduations of Thompson and the twin tower CBs in Ahkello Witherspoon and Chidobe Awuzie. Those three players alone generated 49 pass breakups in 2016. 49!!! That’s six more than the entire WSU team and only 12 less than UW as a team generated. That’s a lot of production that must get replaced.

I think people might be surprised by what Colorado might present as an encore, even if it isn’t quite as good as last season. CB Isaiah Oliver was last year’s version of Kevin King for Colorado. He is another tall CB who was pretty much an unofficial starter. He’ll move outside and become the Buffs’ top corner. I’m bullish on Oliver and expect that he’ll be a well-known name before too long.

Keeping in mind that Colorado is all-in on the idea of big players in the secondary, the rest of the unit will be built on lesser known players who have more tools and experience than you think. Afolabi Laguda (6’1” 205) is going to move from FS to SS where his physical skills are a better fit. Senior Ryan Moeller (6’1” 215) will cover slots and play the middle of the field. A couple of young players in junior safety Nick Fisher and sophomore CB Anthony Julmisse (6’1” 180lbs) will also be significant contributors. I’m eager to see what Julmisse has to offer as he gains more experience. He has the most speed among the Colorado secondary and his size makes him an ideal “lock-down” corner candidate if he can master his technique.

I don’t think that Colorado is facing nearly the kind of step back on D that many are fearing. The defensive line is clearly an issue and the one area on the team that I think can really limit Colorado’s upside, but the the depth of experienced players all around the back seven is a nice offset. Colorado might have trouble keeping up with the faster teams and the up-tempo teams in the conference, but they should have the tools to compete.

One Breakout Player

WR Juwann Winfree

Because of how much experience Colorado possesses, it was hard to find someone who even fit my loose definition of “breakout eligible”. You can’t really count guys like DB Oliver, QB Montez or OL Haigler as breakout guys given how much they’ve already started. Still, there are a few candidates worth keeping tabs on including some guys I mentioned above like DB Julmisse, DL Mulumba and OL Miller.

However, I think Winfree is the clear-cut difference-maker here. Colorado’s receivers are going to have to generate more than the pedestrian 21 TDs they produced last year in order to take some of the load off of the defense. Winfree with all of his physical tools is going to be at worst an effective decoy and at best a red-zone machine for Montez to work with. Since there are so many effective receivers on the roster, Winfree only has to add a few scores and move a few extra chains to make a real difference on this team. I could see him catching 35 balls, scoring four or five TDs and converting 15 first downs on the year. If that happens, that would be huge.

Projecting Colorado

In my mind, Colorado is right there with Utah and UCLA in chasing after USC in the South. I give them points for overall balance between position groups, deep overall experience levels across their two-deeps and strong coaching. They don’t necessarily have the same kind of athletes that the LA schools have and they clearly have questions along the defensive line. That mix of pros and cons sets up a really interesting drama for the South division.

I do like Colorado’s schedule. Though they only have four conference home games, their misses are Stanford and Oregon - two teams that they don’t match up well against. They have a couple of winnable road games - @ Oregon State and @ Arizona State - which you always like to see and they have a very manageable OOC slate. The big concern is that their BYE week comes in the second to last weekend of the season just after they play their home showdown against USC. Ouch.

Still, Colorado has the gift of depth which Coach Mac has painstakingly developed over the past several years. That ought to help him ride out the bumps and bruises that come along with a schedule like that. Ultimately, I think Colorado is right there in the mix in the South.

They could win between four and six conference games depending on a few breaks here and there. I’m not sure that they can repeat their trip to the PAC 12 title game, but don’t expect the Buffs to go the way of Nelson.

This is a good football team primed for a good season.