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the Gekko Files: Previewing Colorado Buffaloes Football in 2018

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Can coach Mike whack the Mac back after the colossal dud of last season?

Washington State v Colorado Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

I’ve often thought that we tend to overvalue returning starters as a metric for projecting the prospects of a college football team in any given season.

That’s not to say that live-game experience isn’t valuable. It might be the most valuable thing, in fact, that goes into the development of a young player. But coaches like David Shaw and Chris Petersen have shown us over the last decade that experience can be cultivated without necessarily dedicating starts to young players. Stars such as Bryce Love, Ben Burr-Kirven, and Justin Reid are all examples of guys who played a lot before they became leaders and starters.

With that mindset, you might think that we here at the Gekko Files are not intimidated by the rebuild job facing Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre when we see tweets like this:

Well, hold on a second. Let’s rethink this whole premise. Ten starters back? On a team that didn’t go bowling just one year after winning the South? In a division with a lot of up and coming teams? Talk about testing your mettle.

Should we be cool like Kobe?

or more like...

Don’t know? Put down your basketballs and green jello, my friends. It’s time to open the Gekko Files and get some answers on the enigma that is the Colorado Buffaloes.

Colorado Offense

Colorado Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
QB potential overall efficiency QB Steven Montez RB Alex Fontenot (RFr)
big play potential OL athleticism WR Juwann Winfree RB Travon McMillan (Txfr)
RB experience OL Tim Lynott OL Colby Pursell (RFr)

Quick: name one player on the Colorado offense not named Steven Montez.

If it feels like Colorado is completely rebuilding on offense in 2018 it is because they are. The graduation of their top three receivers, their four-year starting running back, and the entire left side of their offensive line have co-offensive coordinators Darrin Chiaverini and Klayton Adams scrambling to identify new contributors to fill out the offense.

Montez is a good starting point. He remains a great-looking prospect with quick feet and a strong arm. At 6’5, 225, he’s got all of the physical tools that a college coach could wish for and that an NFL scout would drool for.

But those tools have to translate into production starting now. Montez did not take the proverbial next step in his first year as a starter despite having the services of three excellent receivers in Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields, and Devin Ross available to him. Accuracy was a problem, as was his unwillingness to push the ball downfield in a manner similar to his freshman campaign. He often looked like the player who had too much going on in his head at any given time—bad timing and lots of mistakes. That said, we’ve all seen the playmaker potential in Montez and it would be foolish to think that it will not eventually resurface.

California v Colorado
This is squarely Steven Montez’s offense now. Can he carry it?
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Even if it does, the question of who he throws it to has to be answered. Counting RB Phillip Lindsay, four of Montez’s top five receivers from a year ago have to be replaced. Only Jay MacIntyre—the coach’s son—returns. He is at best a steady slot guy who will be helpful in moving the chains but little else.

I really like what Juwann Winfree brings to the table. I tagged him a year ago as a breakout candidate and he didn’t disappoint in his sophomore season. The 6’4” senior only caught 21 balls and 2 TDs, but he had the best catch rate (75% of all the balls thrown his way were caught) and highest yards per catch (15.9) on the team. I can really see him emerging as one of the top 10 receivers in the conference now that he has ascended to top gun status among Colorado playmakers.

After him, depth thins out quickly. Kabion Ento is back after a redshirt season. He’s a faster outside player who averaged over 20 yards per catch in 2016. Texas Tech transfer Tony Brown will be a factor. Sophomore Laviska Shenault is another guy to watch. He is a stud athlete who at 6’1, 220 lbs resembles a young Kasen Williams.

The running back situation is also under significant remodeling. Lindsay finished his Colorado career with nearly 5000 yards in total production. A trio of players—junior Beau Bisharat, redshirt freshman Alex Fontenot, and senior grad transfer (Virginia Tech) Travon McMillian—look like the best candidates to step into the void. Bisharat is a strong athlete who looks physically capable of carrying the load but hasn’t produced much in spot duty. Fontenot is the versatile young slasher whose potential really intrigues fans. McMillian has been a starter before but struggled in his last season under new head coach Justin Fuente.

My best bet is that you will see a rotation of the three for the early part of the season with (if I had to put real money behind that bet) Fontenot and McMillian emerging as the primary runners. McMillian, in particular, could be a real stabilizing force if he can show ball security and crank out 5 yards per carry—something he has done before facing Power 5 competition. He will certainly be given every opportunity.

Of course, it could end up being a season where all three rotate with a spattering of spot carries also being taken by experienced seniors Donovan Lee and Kyle Evans.

Either way, the offensive line must improve or it is all for naught. Though they are down three starters, the Buffs do return four guys with starting experience. That might be the only thing they have going for them.

This is a unit that a year ago failed to create consistent running zones for the rushing attack. Worse yet, it surrendered a horrid 39 sacks (10th in the PAC) in pass protection. The best player among them—and maybe the best offensive player not named Steven Montez—is C Tim Lynott, but he missed spring due to an Achilles injury. What Lynott ends up bringing this fall remains to be seen.

After Lynott, the field gets muddled. Three young players, all of whom with big potential, seem destined to get playing time after part-time starts a year ago. Those players are junior G Aaron Haigler (6’7”, 295), senior Ts Josh Kaiser (6’5”, 300) and Isaac Miller (6’7”, 280). Also in the mix as a breakout candidate is redshirt freshman C/G Colby Pursell, a young player about whom that the coaches have been raving.

Where all of this ends up remains to be seen. Montez and Winfree each bring big-play potential to the field and seem like sure bets. You also have to appreciate the fact that MacIntyre has recruited depth for all of the positions that he now has to backfill. We get to see if there was development going on behind the scenes with that depth. Their time is now.

Colorado Defense

Colorado Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
depth at most positions pass rush S Evan Worthington CB Chris Miller (RFr)
strong up the middle defensive line play LB Drew Lewis LB Davion Taylor (Txfr)
cornerback potential LB Rick Gamboa DE Mustafa Johnson (Txfr)

While not quite as onerous as the offensive rebuild, Colorado has a lot of work ahead of them in restocking the defense.

That work will have to build around the nucleus of the Colorado linebacking unit. Former Husky Drew Lewis emerged last season as the leader of the Buff D after posting a strong season from his ILB position. He led the team in tackles (94), tackles for loss (6), and tackles success rate. He is joined on the inside by another quality senior in Rick Gamboa (90 tackles). Together, they form a very quick and sure-tackling inside duo who racked up a ridiculous 1700+ total defensive snaps a year ago. If they ever need a breather, young Nate Landman is a star in the making ready to take on some of the burden.

Colorado v UCLA
Drew Lewis has emerged as the heart of the Colorado defense.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The problems begin when you start to consider where the pass rush will come from. Colorado generated just 19 sacks a year ago (better than only OSU) and lost their best pass rusher, OLB Derek McCartney, from that unit. Lewis, with his athleticism, is probably the best pass rusher on the team right now, but his value only translates in blitz packages.

Colorado normally only plays with one outside backer on the field. It is usually up to that player plus the defensive ends to generate pressure from their base D. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of candidates. Seniors Chris Mulumba, a native of Finland, and Jase Franke are back. Both are steady contributors but won’t be confused with pass rush artists anytime soon (though Mulumba certainly has the physical skills). Redshirt freshman DE Terrance Lang could be a guy that emerges as might juco transfer Mustafa Johnson.

There are also a couple of outside backer types to watch. Junior Nu’umotu Falo returns after a redshirt season, as does high-potential sophomore Jacob Callier. Another name to watch is juco transfer Davion Taylor, though he projects more as a drop-into-coverage kind of OLB as opposed to a pure pass rusher.

Much of the success of the pass rush is likely to come from how well the interior linemen perform in locking up opposing offensive lines. Big Javier Edwards (345 lbs) is the main NT. He’s a strong player, but is not all that well conditioned and requires a lot of rotational breaks during a game. Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot of depth. True freshman Jalen Sami has some potential and will likely have to play. Junior Lyle Tuiloma is a big body (310 lbs), but someone who has been “just a guy” heretofore in his career.

Colorado’s secondary is also in transition. Two key contributors—S Evan Worthington and CB Dante Wigley—both return after posting pretty good seasons a year ago. Worthington is a legit NFL prospect while Wigley, now a junior, is viewed as the top corner on the roster. Beyond that, it is an open scrum for playing time.

CB Trey Udoffia is back after posting some starts a year ago. He’s reliable but isn’t a real replacement for the now-departed Isaiah Oliver. Redshirt freshman Chris Miller and juco transfer Delrick Abrams (a rangy 6’3” outside player) are two guys to watch in the cornerback competition.

Joining Worthington at safety is journeyman Nick Fisher. Competition will come from senior Kyle Trego, redshirt freshman Isaiah Lewis, and a couple of true freshman. To be sure, Colorado can’t endure much attrition at this position.

One Breakout Player

CB Chris Miller

I’m intrigued by what Miller might bring to an otherwise thin defensive secondary. At 5’11” and 185, he doesn’t wow you with his size. However, every time I pulled up some kind of report on Colorado’s spring, Miller’s name kept popping up. He seems to have the versatility to play inside or out and has impressed coaches, not only with his pass coverage but his ability to make tackles in run defense.

While he might not emerge as a ball hawk like some other Colorado DBs before him, Miller seems destined to see a lot of the field this year. With some people I know already calling him “Chidobe 2.0,” I have no choice but to call him out as a breakout candidate.

Projecting Colorado

You may get the sense that I’m not too bullish on Colorado this year. That is probably true. However, I must admit that I’m operating a bit on intuition here given the relative unfamiliarity I have with all of the players that will be contributors. The good news is that there are options and depth at most positions. The bad news is that almost all of it is inexperienced.

I’m a bit more optimistic about the offense than the defense. The key will be big plays. The inconsistency of the line and the inexperience of the rushing attack will make it hard for Colorado to operate as a highly efficient offense. They are going to need Montez and Winfree to become one of the premier big-play combos in the league if they are going to put points on the board.

I do think that the defense has some strength up the middle, in particular with Lewis, Gamboa, and Worthington in the back seven. I also think that the cornerback situation will turn out pretty good with the trio of Wigley, Miller, and Abrams eventually working into the core of a cohesive unit.

The pass rush looks to be a big problem. I’m also not all that optimistic that the inside of the line will be all that effective in keeping opposing blockers off of the backers. This feels like a unit that is going to give up a lot of third downs and a lot of red-zone scores. If they can’t do significantly better than the 0 turnover margin that they posted in 2017 and create extra possessions for their offense, this is going to be a bottom-third defense when it is all said and done.

The schedule isn’t brutal, but it’s not all that helpful either. The out-of-conference features two road contests (@ Colorado State, @ Nebraska) to start. The in-conference is front-loaded with their hardest contests coming in their first four games. That stretch includes both LA schools and a road trip to UW. If they can come out of the first half of the season with three wins out of their first seven, they will have a shot at getting bowl-eligible.

The way things are lining up for Colorado, that might be the best they can hope for. But, hey, nobody saw Colorado coming the last time. If MacIntyre is as good at stocking up and waiting for talent to develop as we think he is, they may surprise again. If not, well...we might be bearing witness to the end of the Mac Attack era in Boulder.