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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...COLORADO BUFFALOES
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


College football coaching honeymoons ain’t what they used to be. Which might be a bit unsettling for Colorado’s second-year HC Jon Embree.

The name Turner Gill is all that is needed for confirmation.

Hired amid great fanfare two years ago by the University of Kansas, Gill was fresh off a remarkable job putting the moribund University of Buffalo program on the map. Returning to Big XII country where he had served with distinction as an assistant at Nebraska, and long before that as a decorated QB for the Cornhuskers in the days of the old Big 8, Gill was considered a homerun hire by many Jayhawks, who were convinced that Gill was the man to quickly resurrect a KU program that had deteriorated in the final years of the combustible Mank Mangino regime.

But less than two years later, after a couple of rough campaigns, Gill was out of a job at Lawrence, with the Jayhawks instead preferring another scale-challenged coach (like Mangino), Charlie Weis, to lead the program back to prominence. Or so KU hopes.

Where, then, does Embree (right) fit into this analogy?

Consider that regional sources suggested last fall that various movers and shakers in Boulder had soured on Embree long before the conclusion of the 2011 season, which was a difficult 3-10 slog for the Buffs, believing the school had made a mistake with the hire that coincided with CU making the jump from the Big XII into the expanded Pac-12. Thankfully, for Embree’s sake, he bought himself a little more time, and temporarily quieted his naysayers, when CU salvaged some respect at the end of the campaign by winning two of its last three games, including a rousing 17-14 road upset over Utah in the season finale, a result that denied the Utes a chance to win the South Division of the Pac-12.

But some Pac-12 sources say those developments could merely be a stay of execution for Embree. That’s because the “old rule” and days of coaches getting five years to put their programs on track are long forgotten. Especially in Boulder, where the powers-that-be endured five seasons of the preceding Dan Hawkins regime (which even netted a bowl bid in his second year, 2007) and granted “Hawk” an extra year in 2010 when a vast majority of loyalists wanted to pull the plug after a desultory 3-9 mark in 2009.

And 2010 is considered a year wasted by Buff backers, as Hawkins was dismissed before the conclusion of another disappointing and losing campaign.

Regarding Embree and his future, the Gill comparison might be a bit harsh, but it illustrates a new-found reality in college coaching. Three years, four maximum, are now the norm for coaches to get things moving in the right direction at major (and not-so-major) programs. Especially in Boulder, where no one wants a replay of the Hawkins fiasco that lasted a year or two longer than many boosters believe it should have endured. Buff backers also know that the move to the Pac-12 means that CU has to put a product on the field to appeal to West Coast recruits, who provided the base of the renaissance the program experienced for Bill McCartney in the mid-to-late ‘80s.

It is also not lost upon many CU backers that the reasons for hiring Embree in the first place hardly suggested he was the man to lead the program (which hasn’t finished with a winning record since the 7-6 mark in 2005 that included four losses to end the season and a 70-3 humiliation endured at the hands of Vince Young’s Texas in the Big XII title game, all hastening Gary Barnett’s exit). Those reasons include Embree’s ties to Colorado, where he starred as a tight end for McCartney’s Buffs in the ’80s before a short NFL playing career, then served as an assistant coach for a decade; pro football coaching connections (five years as an assistant with the Chiefs and Redskins); and a warm spot in the hearts of Rocky Mountain faithful who had followed Embree’s career and that of his father, John Embree, a long-striding WR with the Denver Broncos in the late ’60s (check out You Tube footage of Pop's 86-yard catch-run TD pass from Steve Tensi in a 1969 game vs. the Oilers, highighted above left).

However, more pragmatic Buff backers know that Embree, who had never served as a head coach before, also appealed to CU administrators because he would work more cheaply than most of the other candidates for the job. Embree’s salary of $725,000 is not chopped liver but isn’t close to the upper tier of college coaches earning several times that amount.

In fact, some believe the school, which was reportedly too cash-strapped to buy out Hawkins after the 2009 season, hired Embree primarily because he wouldn’t cost all that much.

But the Buffs, like their other Pac-12 brethren, are suddenly entering a new period of prosperity based upon new league TV contracts that will reportedly be worth nearly $20 million annually for each member university. CU soon figures to be a bit more flush with cash and able to pay more for a football coach. Which might soon be someone other than Embree if the program doesn’t begin to commence a turnaround, and soon.

Unfortunately for Embree, those prospects look a bit iffy entering the fall, when another year of rebuilding likely keeps the Buffs far away from their first bowl bid in five years. Indeed, some believe that CU could be utilizing more true and RS frosh than any Pac-12 entry, if not any major team in the country, in 2012.

Moreover, spring drills included several setbacks, including the knee injury that will likely keep the top returning offensive threat, WR Paul Richardson (40 catches despite missing three games to injury LY), out for the 2012 season. Another key returnee, soph QB Nick Hirschman, who played with some flair in a few brief looks in 2011, missed spring work due to a broken foot, though he is expected to be ready to compete for the starting job in the fall.

Hirschman’s injury, however, allowed Texas transfer QB Connor Wood to take most of the spring reps with the first string and get the inside track on the starting job for the September 2 opener in Denver vs. Colorado State. The 6'3, 225-lb. Wood, who hadn’t played in game-like conditions since a January, 2010 Texas state high school all-star game, looked pretty sharp in the Buffs’ spring game when completing 7 of 10 tosses for 137 yards and 2 TD passes.

But only four starters return from last year’s offense, which besides the injured Richardson also doesn’t include versatile workhorse RB Rodney Stewart, who gouged for 854 hard-earned rushing yards in 2011 along with 45 pass catches. Scatback-sized soph Tony Jones, who gained 297 YR in limited work last fall but stands only 5'7 and weighs 175, might not have the durability to fill Stewart’s shoes by himself. Another sub-200 lb. RB, jr. Josh Ford (right), looks a candidate to share some of the workload after starring with 141 YR in the spring game.

The one area of relative experience on the attack side, the OL, which returns three starters, was mostly ineffective last year and was often sieve-like in the spring, allowing an alarming number of sacks. Last year, the OL also didn't much help the Buffs’ ground game, which featured the graduated Stewart and not much else, as it ranked a poor 106th nationally at a mere 109 ypg. Colorado QBs were also sacked 31 times and often running for their lives last fall.

Meanwhile, Richardson’s absence is also a red flag for a receiving corps that returns few other accomplished weapons outside of soph-to-be Keenan Canty, who caught 14 passes while filling in for an injured Richardson last year. Expect some RS frosh (watch speedster Nelson Spruce) or any number of well-regarded true freshmen, including a trio of Dallas-Fort Worth prospects (remember the names Gerald Thomas, Peyton Williams, and Jeffrey Thomas), to compete for playing time, but future results are very hard to gauge, especially with a new QB in the fold. And the final verdict on the switch of once-ballyhooed DE prospect Nick Kasa to TE, a major storyline during spring, will not be rendered until the fall.

The fact is there are questions almost everywhere regarding this strike (out?) force and o.c. Eric Bieniemy, another one-time CU hero and acknowledged recruiting whiz but whose credentials as a coordinator remain a bit sketchy. The Buffs’ switch last season to a pro-style offense, with more under-the-center snaps and fewer shotguns formations than the Hawkins years, was hardly smooth, and that was mostly with a sr. QB, Tyler Hansen. Last year’s Colorado “O” ranked a lowly 109th in scoring (19.77 ppg) and 92nd in total offense, as well as that aforementioned, poor 106th in rushing.

And asking for help from a bullet-riddled defense that ranked 102nd overall and 109th in scoring (a whopping 37 ppg) a year ago could be begging for more trouble. Six starters are back from a platoon that sorely lacked playmakers, reflected in the mere 15 takeaways for all of 2011.

The pass defense is a particular concern after allowing a whopping 34 TD passes and 65% completions a year ago when ranking a sorry 115th nationally. Breakdowns were commonplace and often startling, such as the coverage mixups that gifted an early-season game to Washington State. There might be room for the highest-regarded Buff recruit, New Jersey product Yuri Wright, to crack the lineup at a CB spot alongside soph holdover Greg Henderson. Keeping touted but oft-injured jr. SS Patrick Orms healthy (he missed spring work with hamstring issues) would also be a plus.

The strength, such as it is, for d.c. Greg Brown’s platoon likely is at the LB spots, where all starters return in the Buffs’ 4-3 alignments. That’s especially so if sr. ILB Doug Rippy is beyond the knee surgery that kept him out of spring drills.

But the frosh brigade will likely have to pull their weight along the DL, where only one starter, sr. DT Will Pericak, returns. Expect as many as five or six true frosh in the rotation up front, with new arrivals DTs Josh Tupou and Justin Solis good bets to eventually start games this fall.

Elsewhere, Embree’s critics have extra fuel when pointing to the Buffs’ lack of discipline in 2011, when CU was the third-most penalized team (ranking 118th) in college football, even worse than it had been it Hawkins’ final season when the Buffs ranked “only” 85th in that category.

Pointspread-wise, note that the upset win in the season-ender at Utah broke a debilitating 11-game spread losing streak as a visitor. The Buffs, just 4-9 vs. the number in Embree’s debut campaign, are a mere 9-16 vs. the spread the past two seasons.

Summary...This fall, Embree is likely to test the patience of Buff backers, who were mostly unimpressed by the product CU put on the field last fall. The likelihood of a quick recovery seems unlikely with new starters penciled in at almost every key offensive position, and the prospective QB (Texas transfer Connor Wood) not having taken a snap in a real game in almost three years. Anything less than a sweep of a forgiving non-conference slate (FCS Sac State plus Fresno State and nearby rival Colorado State, the latter two both with new coaches) could signal an extremely difficult Pac-12 ride, although the youth-laden Buffs figure to improve as the campaign progresses. Most Pac-12 insiders believe Embree isn't quite yet under a "bowl or else" edict and probably has one more year after this one to at least get CU headed in the right direction. But some Buff backers already believe hiring Embree was a mistake, and if CU looks bad in another losing campaign, don’t forget what happened to Turner Gill after his two brutal years at Kansas.


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