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NCAA Cross Country Champions
By: CUBuffs.com
Offensive line coach Denver Johnson: "Protection is all-encompassing -- not just on five guys."
Brooks: O-Line LooksTo Refocus
Release: November 12, 2009
By: B.G. Brooks, Contributing Editor
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BOULDER - At some point in August, maybe even before, the perception seeped out of Colorado's camp that the Buffaloes offensive line was pretty close to being invincible.

The notion might have been based on size - there's a nice collection of 300-pounders - but it couldn't have been based on experience - there's not a senior in the interior bunch and only two juniors among the seven or eight who now play regularly.

In the final month of the season, we're seeing that August perceptions mean nada in November. For a variety of reasons, and except on a couple of occasions, CU's O-line hasn't been the team strength that most believed/dreamed it would be.

The Buffs' running game is No. 11 in the Big 12 Conference (86.2 yards a game). And that ranking leads directly to this: Toss in a mind-boggling sack total - a league-worst 36 (by 10) through nine games, as compared to 33 all last season - and it's not difficult to see why the Buffs are last in the conference in total offense (302.9 yards a game).

No one is more concerned than Denver Johnson, CU's first-year O-line coach and the third man to hold that position in head coach Dan Hawkins' four-year tenure. (The other two were Chris Strausser for one season, Jeff Grimes for two. Strausser returned to Boise State, Grimes left for Auburn.)

Johnson's resume is top-heavy with work in the offensive line, a position he played collegiately and professionally and now rightly calls his "first love" in coaching.

He is not given to excuses, and when the subjects of sacks and protection arise, Johnson's underlying assessment remains unchanged: "We're certainly not where we want to be."

But what's happening "up front" doesn't reveal the big picture in why the Buffs have surrendered 16 sacks in their two most recent games (eight each against Missouri and Texas A&M) and why quarterback Tyler Hansen might have drawn up a living will before finishing out the season.

Of CU's 36 sacks through nine games - and this number comes courtesy of the school's weekly statistics - just over half of them (19.5) have been allowed by Johnson's guys.

Of course, the pointed finger always goes first to the O-line, but Johnson's group isn't solely culpable. The other 16.5 are mostly distributed (and neatly concealed) among the tight ends and running backs, whose weekly stats are focused on catches, carries, yards gained and touchdowns.

Two of the early sacks Hansen suffered against Texas A&M last weekend fell to running backs not picking up corner blitzes; a couple of others could be attributed to Hansen's delay in not getting a pass off quickly enough because of a route or a read not being executed properly, or some other malfunction that can be laid at the feet - literally - of a young, athletic quarterback.

"Sometimes when (Hansen) pulls it down and starts to scramble, it betrays protection," Johnson said. "It happens on every team."

Believe it or don't, but the Buffs offense still is in an adjustment period with Hansen, who is proving to be an adept playmaker when he leaves the pocket, but still is susceptible to losing yardage in large chunks when he improvises.

"He's growing," Johnson said. "And it's safe to say he's improving - just like we all are. But we're throwing the ball an awful lot (see: running game ranking above).

"Sometimes there are route issues and quarterback reads (that aren't made) . . . . Certainly there are a good number of sacks that fall on the offensive line, but protection is all encompassing - not just on five guys."

Against Missouri, CU faced what its offensive linemen called one of the better defensive fronts they've confronted this season. Against A&M, the up-front Buffs faced a front they didn't expect and had to adjust on the fly. (CU surrendered five first-half sacks, two on the first possession, and three in the second half.)

"Missouri's D-line was deeper and more talented, compared to Texas A&M's, but A&M used a little more odd front (3-4) and more odd pressure packages than they'd been using," CU lineman Matt Bahr said.

From now through Nebraska, Bahr and the Buffs can count on odd or unexpected looks becoming the norm.

"Yeah, we'll get scouted really well," Bahr said. "After the last two games, (opponents) are going to try and figure out ways to get even more pressure.

"We'll see some of the same stuff we've seen for the last two games . . . we've just got to figure out how to repair it and build off of it."

CU's O-linemen and tight ends, said senior Patrick Devenny, a member of the latter group, are getting enough "good looks, good blitzes and pressure" during mid-week practices to perform well on Saturdays.

"They're (scout team) trying to do what we're going to see in games," Devenny said. "We've got the physical ability to block them."

 Doing that simply becomes a matter of, well, doing it, and Bahr acknowledges, "We definitely have to focus more (on protection). It doesn't matter that we're seeing a lot of different looks."

At Iowa State Saturday (noon MST, no TV), CU expects to encounter a defense that has featured four down linemen and zone blitzes, with pressure brought off the edges. Linebacker Jesse Smith averages a conference-best 11.0 tackles a game (56 solo, 54 assists), but the Cyclones are last in the league in sacks (12 in 10 games)

That's the scouting report, but based on how the Buffs have dealt with non-conformity, they probably can expect twists, turns and who knows what else.

There will be no wholesale personnel changes, but Johnson said to expect another move inside (to right guard) by sophomore Ryan Miller, who recently has opened at right tackle. There's also the possibility of Bryce Givens reassuming his starting spot at right tackle.

Regardless of who lines up where and how much protection Hansen can count on from his running backs, Johnson said, "We just have to get better up front."

At this point for the Buffs, much - if not everything - depends on it.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU

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