BOULDER – At least three true freshmen – and possibly a fourth – will be in Colorado’s starting lineup when the Buffaloes open the 2011 football season on Sept. 3 at Hawai’i.
CU’s post-camp depth chart, released on Monday by new coach Jon Embree, features freshmen Darragh O’Neill and Will Oliver, respectively, in the No. 1 punting and placekicking roles, and Greg Henderson in the starting right cornerback spot.
Additionally, freshman Tyler McCulloch is listed as a co-starter with senior Toney Clemons at the X wide receiver position. If McCulloch opens at Hawaii, he would become the first freshman in school history to start a season opener at wide receiver.
“Tyler has earned it and we need Toney to keep coming,” Embree said. “The guys on the offensive staff believe we’ve got to continue to bring Tyler along; we just don’t want to throw him in the fire. That’s why they’re co-starters right now.”
In all on the two- or three-deep chart, five true freshmen are listed on offense, six on defense and three on special teams. But that total could change before the Buffs travel to Hawaii; Embree said freshman D.D. Goodson will be given a long look this week at punt returner.
“I feel good about our two-deep, even some of our ‘threes’ in the D-line,” Embree said. “Actually, I feel really good about our first 30 or 35.”
The coaches are now listing the base defense as a 3-4, instead of a 4-3 which has been in place at CU since 1995; the Buffs last lined up in the formation in Bill McCartney’s final year as head coach in ’94. A newly titled position, “jack” outside linebacker, now complements the two inside linebacker spots (“mike” and “will”) and the opposite outside one (“sam”). Josh Hartigan is the jack OLB, with the former defensive tackle now becoming left defensive end and manned by Will Pericak and Curtis Cunningham. Conrad Obi (nose tackle) and Chidera Uzo-Diribe (right DE) are slotted next to the left end.
Other starting positions of interest:
- Senior Travis Sandersfeld, a savvy former safety, joins Henderson as a starting corner (left). CU’s corner position came under the most scrutiny during camp as defensive coordinator/secondary coach Greg Brown sought to replace graduated seniors Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown.
“Both of those guys showed more consistency in camp than the other candidates,” Greg Brown said of Sandersfeld and Henderson. “Travis has been around the block here and played a lot of football here. He knows both positions and how to get it done. (Henderson) was thrust into action and just answered every bell and challenge. He stepped up and claimed the job.”
Added Embree of his new corners: “I feel really good about both of those guys. I think both had very good camps. Once Greg (Henderson) kind of figured it out, he played really well. He’s around the ball a lot and has good instincts and he’s physical. I’m happy about him.
“And Travis is a guy who’s always at the right spot. He’s smart, savvy in figuring out pattern read and recognition – those things. I’m very pleased with both of them.”
Brown said his secondary still has “a long ways to go” in developing enough depth to face passing opponents such as Hawaii: “It’s always a scary proposition when you play these teams that throw the ball quite a bit out of three and four-receiver sets.”
- At tailback, redshirt freshman Tony Jones is listed as senior Rodney “Speedy” Stewart’s backup, with sophomore Josh Ford moving to No. 3 ahead of senior Brian Lockridge and, according to Embree, Ford is threatening to overtake Jones.
Embree said Ford “has done it every time” in practices and scrimmages. Embree was unsure of Lockridge’s health, noting, “I don’t know if that’s contributing to some of the issues. We need to find that out; he’s not saying anything. So I don’t know. This is the first I’ve seen him play, because he didn’t go through spring. I don’t know what he’s capable of.” Lockridge still is listed on the first kickoff return unit.
- In the offensive line, redshirt freshman Daniel Munyer and sophomore Gus Handler are listed as co-starters at center, and Embree said “both will play a lot for us.” Junior Ryan Dannewitz will back up both starting tackles, while Embree said senior Sione Tau has proved to be a better fit at guard. He will be senior Ryan Miller’s backup on the right side.
- Aside from cornerback, one of the defense’s mostly hotly contested positions was the “Will” – or inside – spot. Sophomore Derrick Webb is listed as the starter ahead of senior Patrick Mahnke.
- At quarterback, walk-on freshman John Schrock earned the No. 3 position behind starter Tyler Hansen and backup Nick Hirschman.
The punting competition, which saw O’Neill edge out incumbent sophomore Zach Grossnickle, was among the closest in camp. “It’s not like it was overly cut and dried,” special teams coach J.D. Brookhart said. “No one dominated the competition, but somebody won it.”
A former all-state basketball player at Fairview High School, O’Neill had never played organized football before walking on last spring. “What’s surprising to me is how far he’s come in five months,” Brookhart said. “Originally he came trying to be a kicker. I thought he was OK, but said, ‘Why don’t you give this (punting) a shot and we’ll look at you again.’
“He came out the middle of spring ball and just took off. I think that shows a little bit of his athleticism . . . he’s an athletic kid that’s good in those pressure situations. So that’s good for him. He’s got that mentality of having been in those situations and I think that helps.”
Still, Brookhart said O’Neill was only “slightly above” Grossnickle in hang time and distance. “He showed improvement,” Brookhart said of O’Neill, “but neither of the guys are exactly where I want them to be at this point. They’ve still got a lot of room to grow, which is good, too.
“I wish we were there, but at this point we’re not. So now it’s (O’Neill’s) chance to shine in the spotlight.”
With O’Neill and Oliver, Embree’s first CU team will feature a revamped kicking game. Embree said he hopes O’Neill and Grossnickle respond like Oliver and his chief competitor, sophomore Justin Castor, did after Oliver was named the starter early in preseason camp.
“Will kind of took off once he got the job,” Embree said. “Actually, Castor kind of took off once he realized it wasn’t his. He’s done great with kickoffs and working on longer field goals. Hopefully this will have the same effect with both of those guys from a punting standpoint.”
Embree has told Grossnickle, who averaged 39.5 yards (35.7 net) punting last season, to work on both punting and placekicking. “I asked what he’s better at and he said probably kicking, so we’ll see how it works for him,” Embree said.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW . . . : With fall semester classes beginning Monday, the Buffs began an afternoon practice schedule for the rest of the semester. Monday’s on-field work is the first since a Friday scrimmage that didn’t please Embree.
But after two days to evaluate the scrimmage and reflect on his first preseason camp, Embree’s mood had changed.
“Talking with other coaches – some guys whose opinions I value – and reading what other programs in our conference are doing, I feel better,” he said. “There’s a lot of programs trying to (develop depth and avoid injury) and that’s the only way to develop the depth you have. No matter how ugly it may have been, that’s what we had to do to evaluate . . . I feel better about it from that standpoint. I’m still not happy with the results, but I understand it’s part of what camp has to be.
“When I look at camp as a whole, I feel like we had 17 really good practices. I mean really good practices. We had one that was OK, and we had the one that I felt was not good enough. So when I look at the big scheme and the roster from a health standpoint, camp was good. Some of the other guys I talk to have (injury) issues; we’re good from that standpoint.”
BOHN TO SPEAK AT DENVER PRESS CLUB: CU Athletic Director Mike Bohn will be the featured speaker at a special CU sports luncheon at the Denver Press Club (1330 Glenarm Place, downtown Denver) on Thursday.
Buffs fans and college football followers in general will learn about CU’s move to the Pac-12 Conference, the selection of new head football coach Jon Embree and the Buffs’ prospects for the 2011 season. There also will be a Q&A session with Bohn.
Doors open at 11 a.m., with a buffet beginning at 11:30. The program featuring Bohn follows at about 12:15 p.m. The price for lunch and the program is $14 for Denver Press Club members, $16 for non-members, and includes drawings for several door prizes, including tickets to the Rocky Mountain Showdown between CU and Colorado State on Sept. 17.
Register at www.blacktie-colorado.com, or call the Denver Press Club at 303-571-5260.