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NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

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the 2019 Gekko Files: Previewing Colorado Buffaloes Football

Mel Tucker is bringing an SEC mindset without the SEC talent as he takes over in Boulder

My how quickly things can change for a football program in the NCAA.

Flashback to the 2016 season. The Colorado Buffaloes under coach Mike MacIntyre took the South Division by storm. A shockingly efficient 44-7 win over Colorado State to open the season and maybe an even more shocking competitive loss to #6 Michigan put the conference on notice that the downtrodden Buffs were about to get rolling. They parlayed that early success into a rousing win over the Ducks in their PAC 12 opener on their way to a 9-1 finish and a spot in the PAC 12 championship game. Buff fans were engaged. The long climb back to relevancy had finally crested.

Of course, things went sour from there. The Buffs would go on to lose the PAC 12 championship (to Washington) and their subsequent bowl game (to Oklahoma State) by a combined score of 79-18. That by itself wasn’t a conviction of the program. It is, after all, hard to sustain such a rapid catapulting from the very bottom to the very top of competitiveness in the NCAA.

However, Colorado’s bad fortunes endured into 2017. The program struggled with injuries and Mike MacIntyre was unable to even get the team back to bowl eligibility falling to a 5-7 record with their only conference wins coming against Cal and OSU. Things bounced back a little bit in 2018 as Mac opened up with five straight wins to start the season. But an injury to star WR Laviska Shenault seemed to portend doom for the entire program. Colorado would go on to lose seven straight to end the season effectively dissolving any sense of success the program had achieved in 2016 and ending the tenure of the coach that brought them back to relevancy.

Colorado begins again in 2019. New head coach Mel Tucker, plucked straight out of the Nick Saban family tree, takes over the reigns of the Buffalo program. He inherits some really good players, but also some really significant headaches. Does Tucker’s vision of an SEC style team in the Rockies have merit? Can a first time head coach who brings with him two coordinators that each served as quality control assistants a year ago reestablish a sense of confidence in a program that has seen the highest and lowest of points over the past two years? Is there even enough talent in Boulder to make it all work in the 2019?

Good questions. Let’s ask the Gekko.

The Offense

Despite the presence of a couple of NFL caliber players in QB Steven Montez and Shenault, 2018 was not a good year offensively for the Buffaloes. They were eighth in the conference in total offense and 85th in offensive S&P+ per Bill Connelly. When you peel that onion back, you can easily see that poor offensive line play (10th in the conference in sacks allowed and 107 TFLs surrendered), even more so than inconsistent QB play and injuries, was the primary culprit dragging down this offense.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Colorado
A healthy Laviska Shenault is the face of the Colorado program.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

So, can Mel Tucker reverse fortunes up front? I’m not sure.

The Buffaloes will be moving to an SEC style ground-and-pound offense that will definitely involve a different style of offensive line play than what the Buffaloes deployed last season. While the learning curve might be difficult, playing with more forward movement and overall aggressiveness (fewer decisions to make) might better suit a unit that has size but lacks athleticism and experience. The star of the unit is LT William Sherman who earned All-conference consideration after making 9 starts as a true freshman. OG Tim Lynott is the most experienced and heady of the starting unit. Oklahoma State transfer Arlington Hambright is also expected to make an immediate impact. Beyond those guys, there are a whole lot of unknowns making this unit hard to project.

The rushing attack will feature a new crop of running backs now that Travon MacMillan has graduated and Beau Bisharat has moved to an H-back role. Alex Fontenot is the presumed starter as he is the only guy who has ever recorded a carry in an NCAA game. True freshman Jaren Mingham - a 215 lb slasher- had a breakout spring and is expected by many to quickly become the star back on the roster. There are several other inexperienced bodies here, which is a good thing. The Buffaloes expect to run the ball a ton in 2019 and will need as many pairs of fresh legs as they can get, even though they lack experienced players to do so.

The return of Laviska Shenault will provide Colorado with the ability to gain chunk plays when playing behind the sticks. If healthy, Shenault is one of the best players in all of college football. Full stop. He was a surprise Heisman candidate before injuring his foot halfway through last season. Even still, he finished with 86 catches and over 1000 yards receiving. And, oh yeah, he can run the ball too. He finished with 105 yards rushing and 5 rushing TDs on the year.

The rest of the receiving corps is a strength. K.D. Nixon is a proven veteran in the slot who has speed and shows very reliable hands. Senior Tony Brown is a great complementary piece who can catch and is known to love doing the dirty work. Beyond those three, several younger players will be looking to make their marks including 6’2” RS frosh Dylan Thomas and Laviska’s little brother: true freshman Vontae Shenault.

Oh, and let’s not forget the tight ends! Everyone figures that the long forgotten position in Boulder will see a rebirth under Mel Tucker. Though it is interesting that Bisharat has made the move into this group, the name to watch is Auburn transfer Jalen Harris. He is more of a blocker than a receiver, but at 6’5” he presents a big dump-off target and is certain to take many snaps for this offense. I would also expect a breakout player from among the four or five other players in this unit as developing this group will be a point of emphasis for the offensive staff. But who among those newcomers will emerge as receiving threats remains to be seen.

That leads us ultimately back to the QB position. Can we all agree that Steven Montez is a legit pro prospect going into his senior season? At 6’5”, 230lbs with a big arm and plus plus mobility, he checks all of the boxes that pro scouts covet. So there should be no debate about potential.

But I think we can also agree that Montez has yet to show that he can harness that potential. He’ll have moments of brilliance (22 of 25 for 338 yards and 4 TDs vs Colorado State) mixed in with moments of ineptitude (16 of 33 for 170 yds with 2 TDs and 3 INTs vs Cal) that just boggle the mind.

All that said, there is reason to believe that Montez could see an efficiency spike in 2019 even if his gross numbers decline overall. For one, his new offense will force defenses to pay more attention to the run providing his receivers with a few more winnable 1 on 1 opportunities. I also like the fact that this new offense will lessen his dependency on his offensive line as he’ll have fewer overall dropbacks. The key for me will be to see how Montez performs playing inside a pocket with his coaches trying to repress his urges to break out of the pocket and improvise outside. That is a huge developmental point for Montez and one that will probably take some time to master.

The best case for Colorado is that all of this comes together and the Buffs get a big jump in overall efficiency. I think, in fact, that this is almost a certainty. I remain concerned about the state of the offensive line and the fact that the playmaking falls on the shoulders of one man. Thus, I think explosiveness will be an issue for this offense.

The Defense

Most of you know that Mel Tucker’s background is in defense. As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise that instilling a more confident and aggressive defensive culture is a top priority. The good news for Tucker is that Colorado’s defense is starting from a pretty decent position, especially as it relates to rush defense where the Buffs finished fifth in the PAC surrendering a decent 3.7 yards per rush last season.

Linebacker play is the strength of this team. Even with the losses of Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis to graduation, the Buffaloes boast some high quality players. Nate Landman is a tackling machine ILB who plays with great technique and decent speed. His stat sheet from a year ago is eye-popping: 89 tackles, 15 TFLs, 4 sacks, 3 PBUs, 2 INTs and 2 forced fumbles. He plays aggressively downhill and is excellent at making tackles even when engaged with blockers.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Washington
Mustafa Johnson is a raging Buff when it comes to chasing down opposing QBs.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

He will be joined on the outside by senior Davion Taylor who plays a S/LB hybrid role. Taylor is an emerging star in his own right after having recorded 10 TFLs and 48 tackles a year ago. The rest of the LB unit will be made up of players most of us have never heard of including three JUCO transfers brought in by the new staff. The one name to look out for is four-star JUCO transfer Jash Allen. He fits the mold of a Cory Littleton type of player who has great speed and versatility.

Similarly, the secondary is probably going to be better than many pundits think. CBs Delrick Adams (6’3”) and Dante Quigley (6’1”) both have great size and are capable as one on one defenders. Safety is a bit of a concern with two new starters being broken in, but the top candidates including juniors Aaron Maddox and Derrion Rakestraw have on-the-field experience. True freshman Mark Perry is expected by many to also contribute meaningful snaps. This is definitely a group that could surprise people in 2019, especially if they are able to secure a few more than the four INTs the entire unit recorded one year ago.

If there were one unit to really worry about, it would be the defensive line. Mustafa Johnson is an absolute stud and might be the best player on the Buffalo defense, Landman included. He’s a 290lb 3T who can move all around the line and create havoc from every position. Last year he recorded 15.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks.

Things get sketchy on the depth chart after Mustafa. Sophomore Terrence Lang is a physical specimen (6’7”, 275 lbs) at the other end position and carries with him hopes of a break out season. Consistency and motor are the concerns about Lang. After that, there are literally no other players who have played a down of FBS football. Tucker is bringing in a couple of JUCO transfers to help shore up the interior line. But one piece, Auburn transfer Jonta’vius Johnson (6’2” 326lbs) has re-entered the transfer portal after his wife and child were involved in a car accident. It isn’t clear that he’ll ever play a down at Colorado.

Netted together, I think Colorado’s defense has the potential to create some havoc and make some plays. That said, the state of the defensive line is a serious red flag and one that does not engender a lot of confidence.

One Breakout Player

RB Jaren Mangham

Count me among those that have very little confidence in RB Alex Fontenot becoming a true every down kind of back. The future of the Buffaloes rushing attack lies on the shoulder pads of Jaren Mangham and I doubt Mel Tucker is going to take very long to figure that out. Mangham has all the tools to succeed even if he is playing behind a less-than-inspiring offensive line. He’s going to get a healthy volume of carries in this offense and I expect that he’ll end up in the neighborhood of 700 yards and 6 or 7 rushing TDs. If he can manage to protect the ball, this level of productivity would be a great outcome for Tucker’s offense.

Projecting the Colorado Buffaloes

I’m not going to lie. I don’t see a lot of success in Colorado’s immediate future. When the two weakest units on your team are the defensive and offensive lines, winning football rarely ensues. I will admit that I think there is the potential for an upset or two to happen. The presence of havoc-creating defenders like Tayor and Johnson along with long-ball producers such as Montez and Shenault imply that Colorado has the potential to get over the top if a game gets close at the end. Unless most of these JUCO transfers become major contributors, Colorado will nevertheless suffer on the “every down” kinds of plays and too often find themselves on the wrong side of the sticks.

The schedule isn’t going to be all that helpful. The Buffs have a difficult OOC game with their week 2 home contest against Nebraska and then will get challenged by Air Force in what looks like a classic trap game. The in-conference schedule has just four home games this year, but three of them are against teams (USC, Stanford, and Washington) that Colorado probably isn’t ready to compete with. Thus, bowl eligibility is likely going to require that the Buffs find three wins on the road. I don’t see those wins on this schedule.

I’m going to chalk this one up to a rebuilding year for Mel Tucker and his new staff. Though I know he does not see it that way, the truth is that overhauling the culture and the system in the manner that he wishes to will take some time and an investment in players who may not yet be fully ready to compete at a PAC 12 level. The goal for this team should be getting in a position to compete for the South title in 2020.


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