UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIF. - Jon Embree wanted (and got) a strong finish last season from his first Colorado football team. But a bigger wish for his second band of Buffs is a faster start.
In fact, it's even more imperative, Embree said Tuesday, for a team that expects to rely heavily on its incoming freshmen to get rolling quickly in September rather than be rolled. Been there, felt that.
Carrying the momentum created by winning two of last season's final three games and building a base that oozes confidence are two of the most critical early goals for the 2012 Buffs. They'd rather be riding a wave than be in recovery mode when they open Pac-12 Conference play at Washington State on Sept. 22.
"We need to set the tone early," CU junior offensive tackle David Bakhtiari said here after his allotted time on the Universal Studio Gibson Amphitheater stage at the Pac-12 Conference's annual media day. "We just can't come out and stick our toes in the water; we need to start swimming right away."
The tendency is to look at the Buffs' September schedule and conclude the early current won't be as perilous as it was last September. CU opened a brutal 13-game, 13-week schedule at Hawai'i, came home to face California and met Colorado State in Denver before traveling to Ohio State.
Embree's team was bobbing and gasping almost as soon as it entered the pool. It left September with a 1-3 record.
This season, CU opens against CSU in Denver (Sept. 1), plays its first home game against Sacramento State the following week, then closes out non-conference play at Fresno State (Sept. 15). On paper, it might not rival last September's beastly lineup, but Embree cares nothing for the look on paper.
Asked if this schedule is more conducive to a successful start than last season's, he answered, "Not necessarily . . . I think people have the tendency to look at our schedule and go 'we should, we should . . .' What people don't understand is that (opponents) look at us and say, 'we should, we should.' No one looks at Colorado with fear and say, 'Oh no, we have to play the Buffs.' Until we get back to that level there's nothing you take for granted . . . nothing."
Senior safety Ray Polk said the lightly regarded Buffs "have to be that upset" on their opponents' schedules. "Nobody but us knows the hard work we've put in. And we all know that it's not going to come for free. We've got to surprise some teams. That Utah win last year (17-14 in Salt Lake City) was a huge one for us; it just showed us that we can do it. I'm looking forward to surprising some teams this year."
Embree's coaching debut in Hawai'i last season was ragged. The Buffs opened offensively with a botched center snap, trailed 17-0 at halftime and wound up losing 34-17. Embree wasn't mystified by the uneven opening act.
"No . . . because I've been a part of new coaching staffs at UCLA and when Gary (Barnett) came in here after Rick (Neuheisel)," he said. "There were similar type (opening) games and results. It didn't surprise me. There's just a lot of stuff that goes through kids' heads. Starting with warm-ups, almost everything is different . . . kids are creatures of habits and routines. Sometimes if it's so radically different than what they're used to, instead of sitting there thinking about the game, they're thinking, 'Now what do we do?' We had a mock game, but until you do it it's going to be different."
When he addresses his players for the first time training camp - players report on Aug. 5 - Embree will stress the importance of getting out of the gate with a purpose: "It's very important for us . . . we'll talk about that in the first team meeting and the different things that we need to start doing - how we practice and the manner of our practice."
CU will be among the nation's youngest teams in 2012, with Embree intending to give his incoming freshmen ample opportunity in camp to solidify a place for themselves on the two-deep chart. But even with that potential youthful makeup, Bakhtiari and Polk don't believe the importance of a fast start will be that hard a sales job for the upperclassmen.
"They understand it," Bakhtiari said. "I've talked to kids who I think based on summer training are going to play a lot of football and I've told them, 'I can't see you taking a break; I need you up for every play. If you're playing next to me, I need you to understand that.' That's the kind of ego boost they need from a veteran; that really, really helps them take themselves up to the next level."
Added Polk: "It's hard because they haven't been in the program for four years and seen the struggles we've been through. At the same time, they're coming in knowing what they can do. And they're looking at us (upperclassmen) to lead them on the field. It's a drawback in one sense because maybe they don't have that same passion we have from being here for four years. But at the same time they're coming in with heads held high. More power to them; we just have to lead them.
"It's all about the confidence. But with young players you never know how it's going to go once the you-know-what hits the fan. You get that confidence behind them and you go with it. And slowly it builds. If you get it rolling, that's even better. It's all about that. You don't want to throw them in the fire too early, but you have to test them."
Embree listed the secondary, tight end, receiver and the defensive line as positions most likely to be impacted by incoming freshman. The only newcomer he views as questionable at this point is defensive lineman Kisima Jagne, of Phoenix.
"He's the only one we're waiting on. We'll get his test scores and figure out the different options with him. But everyone else is accounted for," Embree said, adding Jagne will be a part of the team but in what way is yet to be determined. It could be now or a "January deal," Embree noted.
'P-RICH' WATCH: Receiver Paul Richardson's progress in rehabbing from April ACL surgery has been ahead of schedule, and Embree said what he's learned about "P-Rich" is "you never count him out. Once he sets his mind to something, he's pretty hard to stop. There's some genetic things going on there that allow him to recover as quickly as he has."
Richardson recently touched a height of 11 feet, 4 inches in a vertical jump test in the CU weight room. But Embree said, "To me, it's how he does some football things - planting, cutting, all that. Because he had a non-contact injury . . . but I'm not counting him out of anything."
Embree reiterated that a decision on Richardson's status for 2012 would involve input from the player's family and taking a broad look at his career. "That's one of the unfortunate things about college football," Embree said. "At what point does it become not worth wasting a year for him? How many games . . . is it seven, eight, five, whatever it is?
"You've got to decide what's worth it for him. It's not going to be an easy situation because I know him and I know his competitiveness and his heart. I know how his teammates feel about him. I just want to make sure we do what's best for his career."
The "cutoff" date for a decision on Richardson's 2012 status could be the week of Sept. 29, Embree said. CU plays host to UCLA on that Saturday in the fifth game of the season. Playing against the Bruins and the rest of the year would give Richardson eight regular-season games in 2012.
BUFF BITS: There is a possibility freshman receiver Peyton Williams can play this season. Embree said Williams has been rehabbing his knee (torn ACL) in Boulder and in Dallas. "I talked to him about four or five days ago just to see where he's at. He'll come back in August and we'll see how he is." . . . . CU's starting quarterback likely will come from the trio of Connor Wood, Nick Hirschman or Jordan Webb. Embree said he hasn't asked for input from his players on how any of that threesome has fared during summer work. Webb, a Kansas transfer, was a late arrival. "I haven't talked with them about any of that stuff," Embree said. "I just want them to go out there and do their thing. I think the best way to be able to make this decision is to be as open-minded as possible. I don't want to have any preconceived (ideas). I don't want to know if this guy did this good or this guy was bad . . . I want to have a completely open mind so whoever wins this competition does it the right way." . . . CU has four remaining scholarships to get to 85, but Embree said there has been no contact from Penn State players possibly considering transferring in light of the recent NCAA sanctions against the school.