BOULDER - Early last Saturday evening Jon Embree approached Kenneth Crawley in a Los Angeles Coliseum parking lot where Colorado's team buses were waiting to shuttle the Buffs to LAX.
Crawley, a CU freshman cornerback, probably felt like he already had encountered a greyhound. Southern California receiver Robert Woods caught eight passes for 132 yards and a school-record four touchdowns - a pair of them over Crawley - in the Trojans' 50-6 win.
Embree pulled Crawley aside before he boarded his bus for a conversation that the second-year CU coach has had more than once this season with a first-year player. Crawley, of Washington, D.C., has designs on being an NFL corner, and Embree told him, "You just got a dose served to you. You were going against a top ten pick at receiver and maybe the top pick in the draft (Matt Barkley) at quarterback - that's what it looks like.
"You've got two choices: you can mope and feel sorry for yourself - but nobody else will - or that can be impetus to come out and work that much harder, work on your technique and continue to improve and understand you're going to be that guy."
"That guy" is a corner who is good enough to make teams throw to the other side for fear of interceptions, having passes routinely broken up, or making the quarterback hold the ball and get sacked.
Crawley and fellow freshman corner Yuri Wright, said Embree, have that capability. But Embree also knew that playing the two first-year corners "would be a baptism by fire - and that's OK." He said Greg Henderson, who started last at corner as a freshman, "had some moments that affected the outcomes of some games. I look at him this year when he's been in there . . . he's played really well."
Henderson, after returning from an ankle sprain, is a markedly better tackler this season. But not so much last season - and Crawley and Wright are experiencing that painful first-year learning curve as well. Henderson also has progressed with his aggression, said Embree, and his overall ability to be in position to make plays is better.
"But he's had 845 snaps to get to (that point)," Embree said, laughing. "I'm sure Crawley's on that page, and now that Yuri's back (from a concussion) he'll be on that page. It's part of the deal; they're going to make some plays and they're going to have days like (Saturday)."
Senior safety Ray Polk cited the difficulty of playing as a freshman, noting that as an upperclassman, "You just stay with those guys and tell them the things they need to hear at the time. They've been working hard and will continue to improve a lot."
His post-game advice to Crawley was "keep your head up, you've got three years after this. It's great that you came in and were a starter for us; we needed it. But you can't expect to come into a program and be a shut-down corner automatically. A lot of these things take time. It's a skill and you have to sharpen that skill. If he keeps his head up and keeps pushing through it, he's going to be a great player by the time he's done here, along with the rest of the freshmen."
The realization that freshmen are prone to mistakes and occasionally getting burned didn't just occur to Embree. "It is what it is, but they'll be better for it and we'll be better for it," he said. "But I see a lot of improvement in a lot of places and in a lot of our players. My mindset and focus is to keep on getting that improvement."
He has stated on several occasions that disappointment over this season's downward turn is acceptable, but discouragement is not. The number of players who "continue to improve, who keep working hard and showing up and keep doing it - that by far outnumbers anyone who may be discouraged," he said. "The guys who travel have been awesome."
Monday's brief practice, Embree said, "was really good . . . and it's translating to a certain extent to games in bits and pieces. It's getting to where it's who we are all the time - and that's that consistency we just don't have. Part of it is you've got to have a guy like Paul Richardson who can make a play . . . part of it is growing up."
One of the lessons this young team is learning, Embree noted, is that games are lengthy and early mistakes must be dismissed. He also said some of his players haven't learned the necessity of going all-out all the time, citing a screen play against USC that was thwarted by a tackler who came from the far side of the field. The tackler should have been blocked by a Buff who might have believed his man was too far away to make a play.
"That's the difference," Embree said. "It's all part of the maturation process, all part of understanding what your role is and what your effort should be . . . when you're playing a team like USC or Oregon, those issues magnify themselves if you don't play like that."
The Buffs (1-6, 1-3 Pac-12) play at No. 2 Oregon (7-0, 4-0) on Saturday (1 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network). The Ducks are 47-point favorites.
REINHARDTS RETURN TO EUGENE: Former CU tight end Ed Reinhardt, a teammate of Embree's on the 1984 Buffs squad, will attend Saturday's game at Autzen Stadium with his father.
Reinhardt suffered a blood clot on his brain in CU's 27-20 loss to Oregon on Sept. 15, 1984. With the help of Ed, Sr., he has battled to return to an active life.
The Reinhardts decided this summer to make another trip to Eugene - they've visited several times since '84 - to see the Buffs play the Ducks. Embree, who also played in the '84 game, said if the trip is meaningful to the Reinhardts it is no less so for him.
"Ed is a huge reason for what I am today," Embree said. "He was a guy who always drove me, a guy I competed against. If I wanted to be all-league or all-state or whatever (Embree played at Cherry Creek, Reinhardt at Heritage), he was the guy I had to beat out."
Embree said that thought drove him during summer workouts: "I couldn't stop at 10 of anything knowing Ed was doing 11 or 12 . . . it was that kind of relationship."
Embree and Reinhardt only played together for just over a season, but said, "I think we could have done a lot of great things if he wouldn't have been injured."
Oregon, Autzen Stadium and the Ducks fan base remain special for Embree, the Reinhardts and college football, said Embree: "That program has always held a unique place in my heart . . . it'll be good for him to be back there and be around those people. I think they're tremendous fans, that's why it's a hard place to play. They're classy, respectful; it's just a unique environment.
"But they've always been like that. It's not something that just happened . . . it'll be good having him and his father up there."
HOBBS CITES FIRST-YEAR PROGRESS: Tight end Vincent Hobbs caught a career-best four passes for 51 yards against the Trojans. He said last weekend's game was the first where things began to "slow down" for him: "At first it was really fast . . . but once you get used to it, it gets slower. I'm progressing at it goes."
CU suffered six turnovers (three interceptions, three lost fumbles) at USC, which Hobbs said was indicative of how the Buffs have self-destructed this season: "We shoot ourselves in the foot, the other team doesn't beat us, I don't think. The film speaks for us. We play these good teams and they do us the way they do - that doesn't mean anything. If you look at the film we shoot ourselves in the foot. If we don't do that we can upset a lot of these teams we play."
THE STATE OF CU'S QBS: Quarterback Jordan Webb threw a season-high three interceptions at USC but will remain the starter this week. Embree said backup Connor Wood, who played sparingly last Saturday, has "got to keep coming, keep improving and get consistency. There are things he needs to get better at to get more playing time."
Embree credited Webb's mental toughness in coming back from those three picks, saying Webb "really could have gone in the tank" afterward. "He was trying to make plays, and I understand it to a certain extent. We did a lot in that game to try and make plays - double passes, throw-back passes . . . trust me, we're trying offensively to create because we don't have a Paul Richardson (injured), we don't have anyone like that on that side of the ball who can be that explosive."
Embree said he wasn't "slamming" the skill position players that are available, rather he was stating facts.
BUFF BITS: Polk, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of the opener, returned against USC but admitted he was rusty. He also said he wasn't sure if his ankle would return to 100 percent this season. "It's just something you have to work around," he said . . . . Hobbs said he grew up an Oregon fan. "Playing them is a great experience for me," he said. "Hopefully it will be a breakout game and one of the best games we play." . . . . He also professed a love for the Ducks' uniforms: "Dude (Phil Knight) that created Nike went there, so you know I'm hoping the Nike uniforms are as great as they look (on TV)." . . . . Embree on his team's offensive mistakes against USC: "Some of it is the guy was just better than him on that play . . . that was a very good team with a lot of future NFL players." . . . . Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Embree are in agreement that the O-line played its best game of the season last weekend. Said Embree: "They set a standard of how they need to play consistently. If they can play like that consistently we'll continue to move the ball and have success."