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2023 Team Talent Preview: Colorado

Well this is awkward

Washington v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

How’s that for timing? I’ve been consistent with my Monday, Wednesday, Friday release schedule going in order. Which means that today is Colorado. Has Colorado been in the news at all this week? I’ve been off the grid and haven’t checked. Well the Buffs are still in the Pac-12 in 2023 just like UCLA and USC which means they’re still getting covered the same way everyone else is. For now.

For more information on how those numbers came about, check out the intro for the WSU post. And while you’re there, go ahead and read the whole thing then come back. We’ll wait for you.

Past Teams- 12. Washington State Cougars, 11. Stanford Cardinal, 10. Arizona Wildcats, 9. California Golden Bears, 8. Oregon State Beavers

(Names in bold are projected starters by Phil Steele. Otherwise, names are listed in order of scoring in the talent ranking system)

TOTAL OFFENSE- 964.3 (9th)

Quarterback- 115.2 (6th)

Starter- Shedeur Sanders (94.4)

Reserves- Ryan Staub (41.7), Kasen Weisman (30.6)

Every team these days deals with quarterback defections to the portal but rarely do teams have literally an entire position group transfer out. Of course, there are a lot of firsts when it comes to the Colorado roster this year. There’s no suspense as to who will start as Deion’s son Shedeur will take the opening snaps. He put up great numbers at FCS Jackson State (3,743 yards, 40 TDs, 6 INTs) but it was at FCS Jackson State with a tremendous talent advantage on his roster. Can he do it not just at the FBS level but on this Colorado roster?

There are drawbacks to naming your son the starting quarterback the second you arrive on campus even if he’s quite good. Namely, that it’s going to be really hard to bring in a quality backup when everyone knows there’s not going to be a quarterback competition. A pair of 3-star true freshmen make up the rest of the room. We’ll get to the offensive line in a moment but if Sanders were to get hurt then it just about completely sinks Colorado’s chances of competing (and those chances aren’t that high to begin with).

Running Back- 123.4 (4th)

Starter- Alton McCaskill IV (84.2)

Reserves- Anthony Hankerson (78.3), Sy’Veon Wilkerson (68.7), Kavosiey Smoke (57.0), Dylan Edwards (52.4)

My system doesn’t have any type of adjustment for players coming off a serious injury but that’s the only concern with Houston transfer Alton McCaskill IV. As a true freshman he ran for nearly 1,000 yards and 16 TDs before tearing his ACL in the offseason. If fully healthy it seems likely he’ll be an upper half back in the Pac-12.

Behind him sophomore Anthony Hankerson was one of the few returners on the roster and got a surprisingly high PFF grade despite averaging 4.0 yards per carry with no catches in his first year in college. Sy’Veon Wilkerson started his career at Delaware State before serving as the starting RB for Jackson State and rushing for over 1,100 yards and 9 TDs last year. Kentucky transfer Kavosiey Smoke averaged better than 5 yards per carry in 5 years in the SEC as a scatback while true freshman Dylan Edwards was a high 4-star recruit.

There is some serious skill position talent here. The question is whether they will have any open running lanes.

Wide Receiver- 277.4 (9th)

Starters-Jimmy Horn Jr. (75.6), Xavier Weaver (70.9), Javon Antonio (58.5)

Reserves- Adam Hopkins (50.2), Omarion Miller (50.1), Jaylen Ellis (44.4), Jacob Page (40.3), Willie Gaines (39.9), Asaad Waseem (39.2)

The wild card at the receiver position is how much will CB Travis Hunter play on offense? The #1 overall recruit in the 2022 class caught 17 balls for 187 yards and 4 TDs at Jackson State chipping in on that side of the ball. I’m only counting him at corner for these calculations but it’s possible he also starts at receiver.

Otherwise, Deion imported the starting receiver corps from South Florida taking both Horn and Weaver in the portal. That duo combined for nearly 2/3rds of the Bulls’ receptions and about half of their receiving yards and touchdowns. It wasn’t a very good passing attack but still. Colorado got a late addition from FCS Northwestern State standout Javon Antonio who could be the 3rd starter if Hunter isn’t. There are also a few 4-star true freshmen that will have a chance to compete for immediate playing time in Hopkins and Miller.

Tight End- 69.7 (10th)

Starter- Erik Olsen (53.3)

Reserves- Caleb Fauria (32.8), Elijah Yelverton (19.5), Louis Passarello (6.1)

Colorado thought they’d added one of the more sought after tight ends in the portal, Seydou Traore from Arkansas State, but he bolted after a few months to Mississippi State. Now the position looks like it will incentivize OC Sean Lewis to go with 4 WR sets. Three tight ends return to add to an Iowa transfer and they’ve combined for under 350 career snaps.

Erik Olsen was highly sought after as a local fringe 3/4-star recruit in the class of 2021 but has just 5 career catches for 21 yards. Caleb Fauria isn’t much better with 3 for 23 and no one else on the roster has a reception. Steele has Passarello listed as the starter presumably for his blocking but regardless this isn’t an exciting group.

Offensive Line- 378.5 (10th)

Starters- RT Savion Washington (69.6), LG Tyler Brown (57.7), RG Jack Bailey (53.7), C Van Wells (49.7), Landon Beebe (47.1)

Reserves- Reggie Young II (44.1), LT Gerad Lichtenhan (44.1), Isaiah Jatta (41.5), Jack Wilty (36.4), Kareem Harden (31.7), Hank Zilinskas (26.3), Carter Edwards (22.6)

(A note that my listed starters here are the 5 highest scorers even if some of them play the same position. If the backup right tackle has a higher rating than the starting left guard, the LG gets bumped to reserves above.)

If things go wrong this year for Colorado (like really, really wrong) then the offensive line is likely going to be the culprit. Last year this was one of the worst units in college football so it seems reasonable to think they’ll be better almost by default. Like every position for the Buffs there was a substantial influx of transfers. The two returners are C Van Wells and LT Gerad Lichtenhan who each started 8 games with below average PFF grades for Colorado. The hope is they give the line a tiny bit of continuity.

Coach Prime wasn’t able to get experienced power conference-level talent around them though. The five most likely to see playing time came from Kent State (x2), Louisiana, Liberty, and FCS Missouri State. My formula thinks RT Savion Washington has the best chance to flourish given his well above average PFF grade playing under head coach (and now Colorado OC) Sean Lewis. Phil Steele is highest on the other Kent State transfer RG Jack Bailey and put him on his preseason 3rd team all-conference.

Colorado has to hope that core group of 7 (2 returners, 5 transfers) is able to both be good and stay healthy because there’s no experienced depth behind them. Spots 8 through 11 in my formula go to true freshmen as the Buffs added a quartet of mid-tier 3-star OL recruits. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see 1 or 2 pressed into service at some point. As mentioned in the QB section though, if Shedeur Sanders gets hurt then it pretty well dooms Colorado’s offense. It’s unclear if this line can keep that from happening.

TOTAL DEFENSE- 1,070.1 (4th)

Defensive Line- 167.8 (9th)

Starters- Shane Cokes (64.4), Chazz Wallace (59.1)

Reserves- Arden Walker (54.1), Bishop Thomas (34.5), Leonard Payne (29.1), Jibran Hawkins (24.9)

The other side of the line isn’t much better for Colorado. FCS transfer Shane Cokes was one of the best linemen in the Ivy League with 4 sacks each of the past 2 seasons. He’s 275 pounds though. The only lineman with anything close to Pac-12 size is Fresno State transfer Leonard Payne at 6’3 and 308 pounds. He had 6 sacks as a starter when Kalen DeBoer was still his coach but struggled a bit last year.

There’s absolutely no depth at this spot however and over half of the players listed along the DL above played more of a defensive end role on their previous team. I’m sure they’ll spend the offseason trying to bulk up and add muscle but there’s no question this is an undersized and undermanned unit. Expect teams to have a lot of success just running it up the middle against Colorado.

Edge Rushers- 213.4 (4th)

Starters- Derrick McLendon (73.2), Sav’ell Smalls (72.6)

Reserves- Jordan Domineck (70.7), Khairi Manns (64.6), Taijh Alson (61.3), D’Vion Harris (53.79), Taje McCoy (43.8), Chance Main (39.1)

One thing Colorado should theoretically be able to do is rush the passer. They brought in 10 nominal edge players via the portal even though some of them will play inside for the Buffs this season. Compared to some other places there is a bit more of proven depth. Five of the players listed above came from power conference programs and have at least 600 career defensive snaps. Husky fans will of course recognize Smalls who ascends in the talent rankings by virtue of his 5-star high school history more so than his time on the field in college.

There shouldn’t be too much of a question with this group though. McLendon comes in from Florida State where he combined for 9 sacks over the past 2 seasons. Likely to start next to him is 6th year senior Jordan Domineck who had 8 sacks for Georgia Tech last year and 9 over 2 years before that with Arkansas. That duo doesn’t quite stack up to UCLA or UW but is right up there. If any unit on the Colorado team can withstand an injury or two it should be this one.

Linebackers- 159.3 (8th)

Starters- Jeremiah Brown (60.9), Lavonta Bentley (58.6)

Reserves- Morgan Pearson (43.8), Marvin Ham (35.8), Demouy Kennedy (35.1), Victory Johnson (34.7)

This might be one of the most intact position groups on the roster. Four players return from a season ago although only Marvin Ham actually contributed on the field. They’re joined by three true freshman the most highly rated of which is Morgan Pearson. It’s reasonable to think at least one of them will see a decent amount of time this year.

Phil Steele is betting on pedigree with his projected starters. Lavonta Bentley comes over from Clemson where he started 2 games and has 59 career tackles. Demouy Kennedy is a former nearly 5-star but only played 6 snaps across 3 seasons trying to crack the Alabama depth chart. Regardless of whether Kennedy breaks through we still should see a decent amount of Jeremiah Brown who was a starter last year for Deion at Jackson State at outside linebacker putting up 34 tackles and 7 sacks.

Cornerbacks- 316.1 (2nd)

Starters- Travis Hunter (94.7), Myles Slusher (81.1), Omarion Cooper (75.1)

Reserves- Cormani McClain (55.2), Carter Stoutmire (41.7), Kyndrich Breedlove (33.6), Jahquez Robinson (25.1)

With Deion as the head coach you would expect this to be the most loaded position group on the team and it definitely is that. Former #1 overall recruit Travis Hunter was very good as a true freshman but it was at the FCS level. Let’s see how he fares in the Pac-12. He was named preseason 1st team by the media and 2nd team by Phil Steele so confidence is high at the moment. Joining him is 5-star true freshman Cormani McClain. We’ll see whether he instantly breaks into the starting lineup.

There is also former 4-star experienced depth beyond that here too. Myles Slusher started 15 games as a nickel corner/safety for Arkansas and I think wins that nickel job in fall camp. Steele thinks it will go to Alabama transfer Jahquez Robinson but he managed just 27 snaps in 3 seasons for the Tide. There’s also Florida State transfer Omarion Cooper who started 6 games in Tallahassee and has 3 career interceptions.

Between the cornerback play and the edge rusher depth it’s clear that defending the pass should be the strength of this entire Colorado team.

Safeties- 213.7 (3rd)

Starters- Shilo Sanders (75.7), Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig (72.5)

Reserves- Trevor Woods (66.3), Rodrick Ward (64.6), Travis Jay (48.7), Vito Tisdale (48.3)

This is another position that has a solid level of depth on the 2-deep but drops off quickly. A pair of Jackson State transfers score the highest grades above with another Deion son (Shilo) and Silmon-Craig. Sanders transferred to Jackson State from South Carolina and played a reserve role for them last year after a really good 2021 season. I’d tend to bet on Deion’s kids starting for his team but he’ll at least be heavily in the rotation. Silmon-Craig excelled as a do-everything guy for Jackson State with 6 sacks and 5 interceptions starting the past 2 seasons. But again, will it translate from the FCS level?

The other likely members of the rotation are returnee Trevor Woods who was graded by PFF as Colorado’s best defender last season. Joining him is FCS Southern Utah transfer Rodrick Ward who balled out with 4 interceptions and 9 pass breakups last season. And we ask yet again, will it translate from the FCS level?

OVERALL TEAM- 2,034.4 (7th)

I was very curious going into this exercise to see where Colorado finished. Middle of the pack seems about right ultimately. Whatever you think about Deion’s methods, he injected more talent into this roster than existed when he showed up. But the starting point was one of the worst P5 teams of all-time.

My system admittedly overrates Colorado in a couple of ways. One of the good things about using both PFF grades and recruiting ranking is that it usually helps adjust for players that put up huge numbers at FCS programs. Those players were almost always unranked coming out of high school and so it doesn’t assume they’ll be awesome with a jump up in competition. However, Deion got very highly ranked recruits to Jackson State and many of them are now transferring with him to Colorado. My system doesn’t have a built-in way to adjust for performance when a 4-star moves up a level.

There’s also the matter of depth along both lines of scrimmage. My system had the Buffs towards the bottom but not dead last in either category. It’s also not focused on positional fit or continuity. It seems more likely than not that the whole won’t be equal to the sum of its parts in that respect.

Throw on top of all of that the culture that Deion has created with his actions, concerns over his health, and the lack of overall coaching experience he has and it’s hard to imagine Colorado overperforming. Having a ceiling of 7th in the Pac-12 means that Colorado is a much bigger story now than they will be in 2 months but given where the program was last November, I’m guessing many Colorado fans will take it.


Top-10 Players (with position rank and conference rank)

  1. CB Travis Hunter*, 94.7 (1st, 5th)
  2. QB Shedeur Sanders*, 94.4 (4th, 6th)
  3. RB Alton McCaskill*, 84.3 (7th, 43rd)
  4. CB Myles Slusher*, 81.0 (6th, 59th)
  5. RB Anthony Hankerson*, 78.3 (12th, 69th)
  6. S Shilo Sanders*, 75.6 (7th, 89th)
  7. WR Jimmy Horn Jr.*, 75.6 (15th, 90th)
  8. CB Omarion Cooper*, 75.1 (13th, 94th)
  9. ED Derrick McLendon*, 73.1 (12th, 105th)
  10. ED Sav’ell Smalls*, 72.5 (14th, 113th)

*Incoming transfer