After their hiring last winter, head coach Jon Embree and his first Colorado football staff scrambled hard to assemble their initial recruiting class by the first week in February.
On National Signing Day, with his full staff in place less than a month, Embree estimated all of 13 days had been invested in his Class of 2011. Time is more of an ally in putting together his Class of 2012, but what about the Buffaloes' 1-5 start this season?
Embree contends that record hasn't made the sales job any more difficult. He also says the same "key questions" that were posed to prospects last winter are being re-run this time around - and undoubtedly will be asked again of future Buffs recruits.
Of the dozen-plus prospects who have verbally committed for 2012 and among those still being pursued, Embree said CU "has been very well received. A lot of them see opportunity, and a lot of them just want that opportunity. A lot of them kind of understand what's going on on the inside. They've been here on trips already and have seen it from the inside out. So (the 1-5 record) hasn't been an issue."
It sounds overly simplistic, but upon their arrival in Boulder last winter, Embree and his staff immediately set out to identify "the football players" among the returning Buffs. That also was their task in their first recruiting forays for CU, and it's their priority for their next class.
"There's some key questions you ask kids," Embree said Tuesday during his weekly media briefing. "When I was in the (NFL) and you go to the Combine, there's certain questions you ask kids and you can tell if they loved football, if it's important to them."
Embree said when players reach the point of auditioning for the NFL, they usually have done so on "athletic ability . . . (but) the hardest jump is from high school to college. You come in as an 18-year-old boy and you're competing against 23-year-old men. That's really the biggest jump.
"For you to be able to make that quicker, rather than later, you have to have a certain mental toughness and self-confidence that you can do this - and not be worried about the circumstances surrounding you."
Some freshmen, Embree said, are uncertain about dealing with that scenario: "What you have to find out is how they're going to react when they get to your school and it might take them two years to play. Are they going to keep working or look for the easy way out? Those are all important things you have to have; as you keep building, you have to have football players who love football and understand the game, the little things that go on within it to have success and start winning consistently."
Since he and his staff arrived, Embree said, "We've been trying to identify who the football players are. Who are they? We've done that as we've gone through this recruiting process. I think it's a testament to the guys who have played for us as freshmen about their ability to handle this.
"Our schedule . . . it's not like we've put all the freshmen and played dear old Tech University and let their feet get wet. For some of these guys, their first one is at Ohio State or Stanford. They're playing on big stages against legitimate opponents - and they're answering the ball and not blinking."
Through the first half of the 2011 season, CU has played 13 freshmen, including one - linebacker Woodson Greer III - who debuted last weekend at Stanford. The other 12: Greg Henderson (CB), Tyler McCulloch (WR), Will Oliver (PK), Darragh O'Neill (redshirt, P), Paulay Asiata (OL), Alex Lewis (OL), Will Harlos (DB), Juda Parker (DE), Brady Daigh (LB), K.T. Tu'umalo (DB), Austin Vincent (WR), Kyle Washington (DB).
Embree said those first-year players "haven't blinked. They've been ready for the stuff we're asking them to do. They don't make a lot of mistakes. They understand the scheme and they're going out physically and doing it . . . . Our ability to identify football players and what we've been doing is on track. We just have to keep going."
For the Class of 2012, CU is targeting more tight ends and what Embree termed the "usual suspects - cornerbacks and defensive linemen." But, he added with a laugh, all of his assistants are "pleading their cases" for six scholarships at their positions.
ANOTHER WEEK, ANOTHER MODEL PROGRAM: Before the Buffs traveled to Stanford last weekend, Embree acknowledged that he envisioned CU emulating that football program in both its formative process and what it has become.
He looks at Washington - CU's opponent Saturday in Seattle (1:30 p.m. MDT) - in much the same way. The Huskies haven't yet achieved the Cardinal's "already there" status, but Embree believes UW is on the right track under third-year coach Steve Sarkisian. The Huskies are 4-1 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-12 Conference. "Sark" was 5-7 in his first season (2009) and 7-6 in his second (2010), highlighted by a 19-7 Holiday Bowl win against No. 18 Nebraska.
"I don't know in his mind what his plan was, what they looked like when he first got there," Embree said. "But I think the little I've seen this year and from 'Sark' . . . they're by no means a finished product. He wants to keep improving, get better. He probably thinks they can do a lot of great things if they're on the path they're on."
Embree says he sees "a lot of similarities" in UW's slippage before Sarkisian arrived and CU's recent decline, and how both programs are going about their corrections. Both traditionally have looked to California as fertile recruiting ground.
"When (UW) has been successful, it's been with the California kids," Embree said. "When CU has been successful, the elite playmakers have been for the most part from California. 'Sark' has done a good job on the island, recruiting there. You could see the similarities in the footprint, so to speak, of what each program is trying to do."
CU's 2011 recruiting class included a couple of signees that Embree and his staff "flipped" from UW, namely offensive linemen Stephane Nembot and Asiata. Nembot, a converted defensive lineman, is redshirting. Asiata is playing now.
That he and Sarkisian were chasing some of the same players is a good sign, Embree said: "I can see the parallels in our program, the kinds of kids we're trying to get. Obviously, we're on the right kids. In recruiting that happens a lot . . . I'm sure we'll bang heads again this year. There are a couple of kids we're looking at and they're looking at."
Embree and Sarkisian, a member of former Southern California coach Pete Carroll's staff, have a history. When Sarkisian was hired by UW, he and Embree, who was in Los Angeles to visit his son Taylor at UCLA, had a happenstance meeting in LAX.
"I talked to him a little bit . . . he's a good guy; I like what he's doing there (at UW)," Embree said.
Of recruiting against coaches he has a relationship with, Embree said, "It's kind of fun when you're going in a house and another coach is leaving. The parents are freaking out because they think there's going to be a fight in the living room or something like that. It's kind of funny, because invariably in some cases - depending on the relationship you have with the (opposing) coach - usually after the home visits are done you and the coach are going to have some dinner . . .
"It's not quite like they make it out in the movies about the recruiting. When you have a healthy respect for the program and the coach, it's OK. The issue is when you don't have a healthy respect for that coach or that program - then it can be an issue."
PASSING THE EYEBALL TEST: Embree was laughing when he said it, but the guess here is that he's as serious as third-and-one. He's told offensive coordinator/running backs coach Eric Bieniemy to be on the lookout for a big running back in the Class of 2012.
Said Embree: "I've told 'EB' everyone he recruits from here on he has to look up to him. I've kind of got that parameter to start with. I think it's important to have a big back." (For the record, Bieniemy is 5-9.)
Embree and Bieniemy want to establish a physical running game, and both believe a big, powerful running back is the place to start. Again, Embree looks to UW and its starting tailback, Chris Polk, a 5-11, 222-pound junior who is second in the Pack-12 in rushing (122.2 yards a game).
Embree calls Polk "a good back; he'll run through arm tackles, and you have to get more than one guy to the ball. That's really important in the fourth quarter when you're tired and worn down. He's that classic big back who wears you down, then all of a sudden those 2-yard gains are 8, 12 and 14 yards."
CU's current stable of tailbacks is on the small side - 5-6, 175-pound senior Rodney "Speedy" Stewart, 5-7, 175-pound redshirt freshman Tony Jones, and 5-9, 195-pound sophomore Josh Ford.
"I love those guys; they have been and will be good players for us," Embree said. "But it's comforting to have a Chris Brown (former CU back who was 6-3, 220). They wear you down, they help you wear the other team down. When you're trying to put a game away in the fourth quarter, and that big battering ram keeps coming at you, it helps."
CU senior safety Anthony Perkins called UW's Polk "a bigger back, but he also has some light feet. He's definitely going to be one of the better backs we face this year."