2011 Spring Fish Wrap - CU Buffs Edition

Written by Sean Hawkins on .

Happy Friday Cougs, and as always, here's hoping you are well as you wind down the week.  And with that, we roll into opponent #4 on the Cougs' 2011 schedule, the Colorado Buffs!  And hey, if you've been following along with these fish wraps....and judging by the traffic lately, you haven't.....but this is the fourth glance at WSU's upcoming schedule on a team-by-team basis.  You can check out Idaho State, UNLV and San Diego State if you feel so inclined (/end shameless self-promotion...).  Anyway, WSU will be coming off a bye before arriving in Boulder on 10/1 to take on one of the newest members of the Pac-12.  It will be a strange new world with CU and Utah now in the conference, but in a good way.  WSU has played CU in recent years, both in Boulder and in Seattle, so it's not like this will be a completely foreign experience.  Still, seeing that Pac-12 logo is just....different.

And on top of that, things have really changed in Boulder!  Not only a new conference, but a new head coach as well as the Dan Hawkins reign of terror finally came to an end after last year.  And in kind of an interesting twist, CU will be the third opponent out of WSU's first four of '11 that will be breaking in a brand new head coach (only UNLV, with second-year man Bobby Hauck, is returning their head coach from 2010).  But is change a good thing here?  How does CU look rolling out of spring ball?  Here we go.....

So CU starts over at head coach, as Jon Embree assumes the helm of a program that has struggled a bit the last few seasons.  After making five bowl bowl games out of seven seasons between 2001 and 2007, CU has now logged five consecutive losing seasons, including a 6-7 bowl loss year in '07.  But was it really THAT bad under Dan Hawkins?? 

Well, out of his five seasons, they did win at least five games in three of them, including that six-win bowl season in 2007.  Obviously that isn't great, and there were some bad losses in there - Montana State in '06, horrible losses to Missouri in '07 (55-10) and '08 (58-0), Toledo in '09, and a 52-7 blowout at a non-bowl team last year in Cal.  But Hawkins did manage to pull off a few upset wins as well, including a 27-24 win over Oklahoma in '07 as a 23-point underdog.  But the whole era was, well, kinda weird I guess?  Hawkins is an odd duck as it is, and had some bizarre press conference moments and such in his time at CU.  Plus there was the whole "nepotism" deal with his son, QB Cody Hawkins.  Even though Cody ends his CU career as the Buffs' all-time leader in TD passes, still, some people in dark corners the last few seasons were suggesting that he was getting snaps at QB just because of the blood lines more than anything else.

Meanwhile, if you ask the majority of CU fans today, many of them will admit that going to year five on Hawkins was a mistake.  After all, the team did go 3-9 in year four, and that's usually a bad sign(!?).  Hawkins survived to fight for year five for a variety of reasons, from financial to even the way the team fought at the end of '09 with close losses to Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Nebraska to end the year.  One could have argued that hey, those last three games could have gone either way.  Instead of 3-9, they could have won those suckers and ended up at 6-6!  What's the harm in keeping him for his fifth year?? 

So 2010 happens, and the start is promising - 3-1, including a win over Georgia - and the decision to keep Hawkins was looking OK.  But it all blew up with a five-game losing streak after that 3-1 start, and they finally pulled the plug in November, ending his run in Boulder at 19-39.

But that's all in the past.  As is said many times here and elsewhere, if you live in the rearview, you will stay in the rearview.  So it's Jon Embree's gig now. 

So what does Embree bring to the position?  Well, he's a former CU tight end for one, who played back in the late '80's.  And he's been an assistant all over the place, but spent 10 years at Colorado coaching various positions.  He also had a stint at UCLA for a few years, so he knows the west coast when it comes to recruiting, etc.  His last stop was with Mike Shanahan and the Redskins, and at age 45, is in the prime of his coaching life as the opportunity to lead his alma mater was too good to pass up.

OFFENSIVE SYSTEM:  New coordinator Eric Bienemy leads the CU offense, and he should keep things traditional.  CU lists a tight end and fullback as starters, so look for more of a pro set attack.

2010 OFFENSIVE STATS:  85th in the nation in rushing offense (137 ypg), 59th in passing offense (222.7), 84th in scoring offense (24.2 ppg), and finally, 79th in total offense (359.7).

RETURNING STARTERS (Offense):  8, including QB Tyler Hansen, running back Rodney Stewart, and four offensive linemen.

TOP RETURNING OFFENSIVE PLAYER:  Tyler Hansen could be a shining star at QB in '11, and if he can stay healthy he has showed he can play at a pretty high this level.  But he was injured midway through the year last year, so it's hard to really say he's the top returner.  No, instead we'll go with running back Rodney Stewart.

Stewart burst from obscurity last year, rushing for a surprising 1,318 yards, as well as totaling 10 TD's on the ground.  The 5-6, 175 lb jitterbug does it with speed and moves, and is clearly the most dynamic weapon in CU's offensive arsenal.  Check it:

             

One of the most impressive things about those highlights is that it isn't like Stewart just took a bunch of handoffs on a fly sweep option or something like that.  He definitely showed the ability and lack of fear for running inside and not just trying to win every play with his speed on the outside.  Hansen may be the trigger man at QB, but Stewart clearly is the heart and soul of the offense!

RETURNING STARTERS - DEFENSE:  7

2010 DEFENSIVE STATS: 48th in rushing defense (140.2 ypg), 110th in passing defense (259.8 ypg), 91st in scoring defense (30.8 ppg), and finally, 83rd in total defense (EXACTLY 400 YPG!).

DEFENSIVE SCHEME:  CU goes back to the traditional 4-3 under new d-coordinator Greg Brown after messing around in 3-3-5 land the last few years.

TOP RETURNING DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Some talented defensive backs have left Boulder and moved on to the NFL with Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown both selected to play on Sundays.  But even with a decent amount of starters coming back on D, it was kind of hard to pick a true "headliner".  With that, we'll go with rising linebacker Jon Major as the top returning defensive player.

Simply put, Major was a bad ass last year, averaging over 8 tackles per game (8.1) in seven games.  However he was lost for the season due to an MCL injury vs. Texas Tech in October and he missed the last five games.  He led the team in tackles over his last four games that he started, and was really emerging as the man at linebacker.  He had a strong spring session, and the junior-to-be should be the leader of the rebuilding defense.

TOP POST-SPRING QUESTIONS:  1)  Is it FINALLY Tyler Hansen time?  It sure looks that way.  Hansen flip-flopped from starter to backup in his time at CU, and when it finally looked like it was his job last year as the starter to begin the season, he was knocked out with a ruptured spleen against Texas Tech (ouch!).  Anyway, Hansen is now the clear-cut guy at QB, and he looks like he is ready for one final curtain call his senior year.  However, he is surprisingly inexperienced in terms of sheer starts, with just 16 overall and 20 total games played heading into 2011.  But he was sharp as can be in spring ball, and in three spring scrimmages, he dominated by throwing for 531 yards and five TD's with zero picks. 

Not a huge dude at 6-1, 180, Hansen is strong and moves well with an ability to make plays with his feet.  And Hansen received praise from Jon Embree after spring ball, basically declaring him as the leader of the offense.  If he stays healthy, and with Stewart back at running back plus 4/5ths of the offensive line returning, he could have a huge senior year.

2)  What about the passing defense?  Here's a scary thought - CU had two starters in their secondary picked in the first four rounds of the NFL draft this year.....and they still finished 110th in pass defense!?!?  And opponents completed almost 70% of their passes against them?  Can the secondary actually be worse this year??  It's hard to fathom, but then again, they are going from one pass-happy spread offense type conference in the Big 12 to another conference in the Pac-12 that loves to throw the ball all over the yard.  They do have some decent looking players back there in Anthony Perkins and Ray Polk, both projected starters at safety.  But there are big shoes to fill in replacing Smith and Brown at corner, and not a lot of game-tested experience out on the edge.  The pass rush should be pretty good, as the D-line has a lot of bodies back, including leading sacker Josh Hartigan, but they better get after it with their hair on fire to help protect the secondary!

3)  And that schedule??  Give CU credit, they aren't afraid to play some heavyweights!  They open up 2011 at Hawaii, and as we know, that's never a picnic, especially when you, you know, have trouble stopping the pass!?  Then in week two they host Cal in their inaugural Pac-12 opener, the same Cal team that waxed the Buffs in 2010.  After the neutral-site rivalry game in week three vs. CSU, they then travel to Columbus to take on THE Ohio State University Buckeyes.  Finally, in week five they get the Cougs coming to Boulder.   Overall they have seven road games on their 13-game schedule, and to top it all off?  NO BYE WEEK in 2011!  Yikes.

POST SPRING RAMBLINGS, DOT-DOT-DOT STYLE.....One area to be encouraged about with Hansen is his completion percentage.  After throwing in the 50-percent range his first couple of years in limited play, he completed an impressive 68% of his throws in 2010.  He looked even better in the spring, reportedly completing 74% of his passes in three scrimmages.  The INT's are still a bit of a concern however, as he now has more interceptions (17) than TD's (15) in his career.....Colorado has struggled on the road against non-conference BCS teams.  After losing to Cal last year, they are now 5-14 with 8 straight losses away from Boulder vs. BCS competition.  Doesn't make the task of heading to Columbus sound any easier, does it?.....CU is 4-2 all-time vs. WSU, winning the last match-up in Seattle in '04, 20-12.  That game saw WSU's all time leading passer Alex Brink make his NCAA debut, and he nearly led the Cougs back before a last-second fumble near the CU goal line ended the game.  Interestingly enough, WSU outgained CU 416-117 in total yards for the day, but the Buffs did just enough to win the game.....In recruiting, the first class for Embree wasn't all that exciting, but that's usually the norm when a new coach takes over the program with just a couple of months to put together a class.  Overall, Scout.com ranked CU's class of 2011 61st in the country.  The team ranked one slot ahead of them?  WSU, at 60th.  But there is hope that Embree and Eric Bienemy can really hit the So Cal area hard over the next several years as CU restocks the shelves......Some of the top CU football sites include AllBuffs.com, a really great CU site by the fans, for the fans; BuffaloSportsNews.com, part of Scout.com; RalphieReports.com, part of SB Nation; Buffzone Blogs, part of the DailyCamera.com coverage; and CUBuffs.com, maybe one of the best school-run sports sites I've seen out there......Finally, if you are headed to Boulder to see the Cougs and Buffs get at it on 10/1, don't forget to check out our own DaniBuff's gameday advice article from last summer.  It's a good look on what to do if you are headed that way, so check it out!

All for now.  Enjoy your Friday, and as always, GO COUGS!