The decade is coming to a close, as hopefully will the rollercoaster ride the Colorado football team has been on since the turn of the millennium.
After rising to a national power for most of the 1990s, the 2000s have seen several highs (one Big 12 Conference championship, four Big 12 North Division titles, several noteworthy individual accomplishments) and a few lows (four losing years, accompanied by four times staying at home during bowl season, and the recruiting ordeal fueled by several elements that set the program back in the middle of the decade).
The 2009 season is the fourth that head coach Dan Hawkins will be at the reins of the program, and most observers see the improvement throughout all phases of the program and believe things are this close to being in place to have the Buffaloes return to the kind of national prominence it enjoyed at the end of the last century.
A solid foundation built off the field now waits for one on the field to catch up, and that is foreseen within the next couple of seasons, with the 2009 campaign a vital one in the progress under Hawkins. The Buffs have 51 returning lettermen, almost an equal number of both sides of the ball, including 13 starters, six others with significant starting experience, and 13 more with quality game experience.
Kicker Aric Goodman's overtime field goal against No. 21 West Virginia gave the Buffaloes a 17-14 win and a 3-0 start to 2008.
Hawkins' isn't one for excuses, but injuries in 2008 played a major factor in the eventual demise of the season. Relatively healthy at the start, the Buffaloes would eventually lose 121 man games due to injury or illness, with all but 11 of those games by players who figured in either the two-deep or prominently on special teams. The Buffs were a bit shorthanded as Hawkins & Staff continued to rebuild the CU roster, with 20 on the inactive roster by season's end, when CU was playing with 47 scholarship players after accounting for 16 freshmen that were ticketed to redshirt.
Those games lost to injury helped account for a total of 95 freshmen (true or redshirt) who started games for Colorado in 2007 and 2008, nearly double any previous two-year total in school history. When playing the nation's seventh toughest schedule as determined by USA Today's computer rankings, it made for a challenging set of circumstances for the coaching staff. Not to mention ripple effects from the injuries are often felt most by the scout teams, down into the low teens by season's end.
CU's 'D' did a bang-up job on some of the Big 12's best quarterbacks in 2008.
The final points in CU's 14-13 win over Kansas State were scored when the Wildcats pulled to within one with 10:49 left in the third quarter. The game remained scoreless from that point on, meaning CU held the 1-point edge for a total of 25:49; that was the longest in 72 years CU had to hold on to a 1- or 2-point lead, and was also the longest any team was asked to protect a 1- or 2-point lead in the NCAA in 2008. And the Buffs did that against a quarterback, Josh Freeman, expected to be a first round pick in the NFL Draft.
Though it came to an end, CU's 242-game scoring streak was the third longest in the nation at the time and finished up as the ninth longest in NCAA history.
Dan Hawkins enters his fourth season as head coach.
Turning toward 2009, Hawkins is his usual optimistic self, but always within reason. "We're starting to get guys that have been in the program for awhile that understand how we do things," he said. "We're getting depth in there."
Much of the depth is comprised of sophomores and juniors, with only 17 seniors on the roster. But much of the younger crowd has a decent amount of quality game experience, the only real benefit of the injury-plagued season CU had in 2008, but Hawkins doesn't view it as a disadvantage.
"I never put a fudge factor in there for inexperience," he said. "You throw the playbook at them and you go and see how much they can grasp and run with it. But in reality, with each passing year, the knowledge and experience of how everything works gets greater."
The greatest areas of concern include the defensive front, where the Buffs lose a combined 130 starts with the graduation of tackles George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas, end Maurice Lucas and outside linebacker Brad Jones. Their spots are basically wide open, with sophomores Conrad Obi and Lagrone Shields the early favorites to play opposite Marquez Herrod at end. Curtis Cunningham picked up a lot of playing time a year ago as a true frosh and is likely a front runner for one of
Marquez Herrod is a returning defensive end.
"This will be exciting to watch," Hawkins said of the situation up front. "Normally, things aren't timed up where you lose four guys from the same area with something like 8,000 career snaps between them (actually 7,993 in the regular season, plus another 200 or so in bowls). Losing players up front is never fun, but we have confidence that the new wave will step up. These guys have been in this system for awhile and have an understanding, which helps you a little bit that way."
Junior wide receiver Scotty McKnight (21) has become a reliable target for all of CU's quarterbacks including junior Cody Hawkins (7).
CU had some issues at placekicker a year ago, but much could be attributed to just plain bad luck. Aric Goodman struggled after hitting the game-winner against West Virginia, and Jameson Davis played with an injured knee all year. CU will add a frosh recruit, Zach Grossnickle, to the mix in the fall; he also figures to compete against senior Matt DiLallo for the punting chores.
Quarterback is always a fan favorite when it comes to team discussion, and there is a definite battle brewing that likely won't be decided until the fall. Incumbent starter, junior Cody Hawkins (4,585 yards, 36 TDs in his career), ceded some playing time to sophomore Tyler Hansen (280 pass yards, 261 rushing). The two dueled it out in the spring as the only quarterbacks on the roster after sophomore Matt Ballenger decided to leave the program. Two recruits join the mix in the fall.
Hawkins noted that the player who is named the starter will come to, "Whoever moves the club. There are quite a few things that go into that, including leadership, knowledge, play-making ability, turnovers, decision-making, managing the clock. All of that will go into the decision."
Darrell Scott looks to be a force in the backfield as a sophomore in 2009.
Junior Demetrius Sumler and sophomores Rodney Stewart (CU's leading rusher with 622 yards before going down in the ninth game with a broken leg), Darrell Scott and Brian Lockridge are the frontrunners at tailback, and combined with their running ability in the open field and the fact that all are excellent receivers, they will also provide a spark to the passing game. Jake Behrens has really developed into a solid fullback, with good blocking skills and solid hands to also make him a weapon in the passing game.
The offensive line was expected to be one of the team strengths a year ago, but this was the spot where injuries and ineligibility struck the hardest. It's also the only position in Hawkins' tenure to undergo a coaching change, with veteran O-line coach Denver Johnson replacing Jeff Grimes who moved on to Auburn.
Sophomore Blake Behrens, one of CU's many versatile lineman, could play at center or guard.
The Buffs are solid at tight end, perhaps even six-deep, led by seniors Riar Geer and Patrick Devenny and sophomore Ryan Deehan. This will afford the coaches to utilize several two-tight end formations and the group offers great possibilities.
Shaun Mohler (47) had a solid junior season and helps anchor a talented group of linebackers.
Cornerback is another well-stocked position, with senior Benjamin Burney back after missing 2008 due to multiple surgeries; he's joined by senior Cha'pelle Brown, who often shifted into the nickel back position when CU has gone to five defensive backs the last two seasons. Juniors Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith bolster the group, both having proven to be big play type of guys. Three up and comers strengthen the position, which loses only Gardner McKay from a year ago.
Jalil Brown helps provide CU with a playmaking secondary.
While CU's non-conference schedule isn't as tough as some in CU's recent past, it's still almost if not as challenging. In addition to the annual opener against in-state rival Colorado State, another Front Range rival appears on the slate for the first time in 12 seasons when Wyoming will pay a visit to Boulder. The Buffs will play two non-conference games on the road for the first time since 1994, with two nationally televised weeknight games at Toledo and West Virginia, the most air miles CU will travel in the same season for two out of conference regular season games in its history (4,960 both ways; CU did travel 5,050 in 1990, but that was for two road and one neutral site affairs).
The Buffs keep the same rotation of South Division teams in conference, except at opposite sites which means road games at Texas and Oklahoma State. The good news is that CU has three North opponents at Folsom Field, Kansas, Missouri and the season finale versus Nebraska, along with Texas A & M.
The 2009 season marks the 120th year that Colorado will field a varsity football team; only 12 schools have played the sport longer than the Buffaloes.