BOULDER - Colorado football's second offseason under Jon Embree begins with one goal for 2012 already established: Play in a bowl game.
Whether reaching the postseason for the first time since 2007 is achievable or not for Embree's second band of Buffs, the fact that it can be targeted was made possible by CU's 17-14 season-ending upset at Utah.
Had the Buffs done what the oddsmakers expected, losing by three touchdowns and extending their road losing streak to 25, Embree said eyeing a bowl game for 2012 would have been out of the question.
After junior linebacker Jon Major and redshirt freshman tailback Tony Jones on Tuesday identified playing in a bowl next season among their goals, Embree said, "I agree with them. We can start talking about that because we've won on the road. I don't think you can talk about those goals until you start winning on the road. As this program continues to grow and flourish and progress, that (bowl) should be the next step for us."
In a 3-10 season, two of the Buffs' three wins came in the last three games, and Embree noted the importance of winning in November can't be overestimated.
Winning two of the last three "helps validate some of the things we've been talking to recruits about," he said. "If you're going to get to a bowl game, you've got to win in November."
When future opponents see CU on their November schedules, Embree would like them to recognize that the Buffs "are playing their best football."
HITTING THE RECRUITING TRAIL: The most immediate (and critical) step now for Embree and his staff is recruiting. He expects to sign 28 prospects, using three "held" scholarships to go with the full 25 allowed annually.
Embree isn't into "over-signing" - the practice of signing more than 25 and counting on attrition of some sort bringing the number back to the limit.
"Unless you know you're signing Player X in case so-and-so doesn't qualify or is hurt or is a candidate to gray shirt . . . I'm all for it," he said. "The other way, I don't know. If you sign a kid and then sign someone else you think is better and put that (first) kid out, I'm not for that."
CU's priorities in the 2012 class will be tight ends, cornerbacks and defensive linemen. Embree expects to sign at least three tight ends, five defensive linemen and three or four corners.
At least three recruits are scheduled to enroll for the spring semester, with the possibility of that number increasing to five to seven. Embree said even though finding junior college transfers who qualify under CU's strict admission standards is challenging, "there are some JC guys we're looking at."
Upon his hiring last December, Embree said his recruiters would be unlikely to stray out of the Buffs' established recruiting footprint unless bona fide prospects contacted CU. That apparently has happened with at least four recruits in Washington, D.C., and New Jersey - normally unusual areas for the Buffs to be visiting.
In a geographical breakdown of his staff's recruiting territories, Embree said offensive coordinator/running backs coach Eric Bieniemy and defensive ends coach Kanavis McGhee would visit the D.C./New Jersey prospects because of the positions they play and not necessarily because Bieniemy and McGhee are assigned to recruit those areas.
As Embree promised, CU's heaviest out-of-state focus is on California and Texas, with at least eight staffers assigned to recruit portions of each state. Embree said while "it's been good to get back into Houston and Dallas," San Antonio "is turning out to be pretty good for us. We got a couple there last year and there's a couple with interest this year."
Prospects' overall reception of CU, despite the 3-10 final record, has been positive, he said: "We've had good responses from recruits. There's the athlete that wants to go to a readymade situation. Then, there's still some good athletes out there that want to go play in a good conference and want to be around good coaches . . . those are the ones that we've been hearing a lot from.
"There's some other good players, but because of our record they don't have an interest in us. It'll be like that every year. But as you continue to build and improve on things, I think eventually those kinds of athletes will be interest in Colorado."
RARE REFLECTION BY 'T-CLEM:' Senior receiver Toney Clemons, who graduates in December, said while he's not one to "reflect too often," he did permit himself an in-game look back last Friday in Utah.
"During the game, I was like, man, what could our season have been like if we played like this the whole year?" he said. "What would have become of us if we would have executed and played this hard at the beginning? I asked myself that during the game.
"But I can't go back in time. Now it's just a matter of seeing that for the future and seeing how we played displayed for seasons and classes to come."
Clemons believes the Buffs are "a few recruits away . . . there's a lot coming back. Our coaching staff is phenomenal; they can coach against the best in the country on any level . . . it's going to come down to a couple of spots that need to be shored up offensively on the line, defensively on the line."
He said the most obvious need at any school usually is more skill position players, adding, "If you get the right guys in here, (CU) is going to be competitive. I don't think they're far away at all. I expect them to go out next year and win a lot of games, go to a bowl and be in position to compete for the south championship.
"We were in that position this year but just didn't get it done. I don't see it slacking off or dropping off at all. I think they'll push forward and go out and make it happen."
HOW LOW IS LOW COME SPRING? After losing 28 seniors, CU's numbers for spring practice will be down, forcing Embree to reevaluate how drills will be conducted and ask for input from other coaches who have been in similar situations.
But on a positive note, he said, when spring brings quarterback competition, the numbers shortage "makes you throw the ball around a lot - there are more 'reps,' more seven-on-sevens."
The spring quarterback competition will involve 2011 backup Nick Hirschman, No. 3 QB John Schrock, reserves Stevie Joe Dorman and Brent Burnette, and transfer Connor Wood. At least one QB signee is expected in the Class of 2012.
As for not scheduling as much contact as there would be in a normal spring, "We'll just have to get after it when we get into (August) camp," Embree said.
Spring drills are scheduled to begin on Saturday, March 10, with the spring game - in a format to be determined because of the low numbers - set for Saturday, April 14.
Off-season conditioning work leading into spring drills will begin next month under director of strength and conditioning Malcolm Blacken and will be similar to last winter's work, although Embree said more would be done to heighten competition.
Asked if there might be more of a "comfort level" this winter for returning players, Major said, "I don't about comfort . . . I know there'll be the eye over your shoulder, and that's exactly how coach Embree wants it. There's definitely no relaxing."
But Major also said he hopes the second offseason under Blacken, "Hopefully (won't) be just about weeding out the weak ones; we're looking forward to this offseason."
As for defensive improvement in 2012 on a unit that allowed 475 points (36.5 a game, last in the Pac-12) and 439.3 yards a game (11th in the Pac-12), Major believes CU's linebacker corps "will be one of the best . . . we've got a lot of experience coming back."
He also cited the number of young players who saw duty in the secondary as being beneficial and predicted, "We're going to have to have a really great offseason and spring, but we can put together a pretty good unit."
HEAD COACH, EVALUATE THYSELF: Embree said he's already done a self-evaluation, has asked his staff to evaluate him and that his coaches know their schedules through June 30.
A couple of days before Christmas break, he and his staff will discuss what they did as a whole in the 2011 season, and he will invite feedback from his assistants.
From his own self-evaluation, one issue he already he knows will be addressed is his game-day interaction with his assistants on the headsets. "I have to be better in how I express things to them," Embree said, adding that he expects all of his assistants to return unless one of them receives an offer he can't refuse.