BOULDER - The University of Colorado will open the 2011 football season with a new placekicker and punter. After naming freshman Will Oliver his new kicking specialist on Tuesday, CU Coach Jon Embree on Thursday said the punting competition has been narrowed to a pair of finalists - and incumbent Zach Grossnickle isn't one of them.
"We had a punt-off to get it to two," Embree said. "Darragh O'Neill is definitely in it and I'll see how the others turn out, but it looks like it's going to be (Mark) Brundage and him going at it. I'll know when I see the stats, but that's what it looks like . . ."
O'Neill, a gifted two-sport athlete (basketball, soccer) at Fairview High School, is a redshirt freshman who was enrolled at CU in 2010 but was not on the football team. An all-state basketball player at Fairview, he was recruited in that sport by the University of Denver. But he has never played football.
Brundage is a transfer from Rice, where he graduated in four years and is taking advantage of a seldom-used NCAA rule that allows an unrecruited, non-scholarship player to compete immediately at another school and not sit out the standard transfer year. Brundage did not play for the Owls in 2010 and has one season of eligibility remaining.
Embree said Grossnickle, a sophomore net average last season was 35.7 yards, was "not very consistent" thus far in training camp. But he added that none of the punting trio has "really done anything so far to really jump out and grab my attention . . .
"Part of it's gut instinct, too. That position needs to be better, so hopefully now that we've got it down to two we can see how it happens. That by no means means that (Grossnickle) can stop working. Just like I told (Justin) Castor, keep working. Things happen. Keep working."
Castor, a sophomore whose only field goal attempt last season was blocked, was supplanted three days ago by Oliver.
Embree conceded that he has "probably been more focused on the kicking than the punting, so now I'll turn my attention to (punting)." He said the competition between O'Neill and Brundage would "go into next week, then hopefully mid- to late-week" a No. 1 punter would emerge. That timeline could change if "one guy clearly distinguishes himself" in Friday's practice, which will be heavy on special teams work, or in Saturday's scrimmage (noon-3 p.m., open to the public, lower practice fields).
After Thursday morning's practice, Embree said, "It wasn't like anybody just jumped out (in punting), which is good news for everybody in the competition." But the afternoon work apparently left O'Neill and Brundage with a slight edge.
Embree likened making personnel decisions even before the first camp scrimmage - such as he did with Oliver - to naming a starting quarterback: "The sooner they know, the more they can relax. It's just a different mindset. I'd like them to know early and prove me wrong one way or the other. I just think the longer you let it draw out, especially when we're trying to get some done in our offense and defense, to do the things we need to do in our kicking game and put the pressure on, it's easier when a guy knows if he's the guy or not."
Once the starting punter is named, Embree and special teams coach J.D. Brookhart will have more time to evaluate kick and punt returners. Embree also said Friday's special teams work would help further identify special teams players and their backups, therefore aiding the staff in firming up the travel roster for the Hawaii trip.
Embree and his coaches have had "preliminary talks" about CU's travel squad for the Sept. 3 opener and likely will be more definitive about who makes the trip after reviewing Saturday's scrimmage.
"To the coaches, it's pretty clear cut who the guys are," he said. "We'll come up with our list, then see how the scrimmage shakes out . . . we have guys who aren't very good shorts players, but they're really good in pads. That's why the scrimmage will be so important from that standpoint - for some kids to see if they can separate themselves."
BACK AT IT (ALMOST): A day after being taken from the field in an ambulance, sophomore defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe was back at practice - but as a spectator.
He was taken to a local hospital as a precautionary measure after landing awkwardly on his neck and shoulder during Wednesday morning's practice. Tests were negative and he was released late Wednesday afternoon.
"I'm just sore right now, but everything is fine," Uzo-Diribe said. "I'm looking forward to getting back on the field."
That probably won't happen until next week. Head trainer Miguel Rueda said Uzo-Diribe likely would be held out of Saturday's scrimmage, and Embree said he didn't need to see much more of Uzo-Diribe to know he can play.
"I know what he can do," Embree said. "I'm comfortable with what he can do and with his abilities . . . I want him for Hawaii."
CB UPDATE: The competition to replace departed cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown is far from being settled, but Embree singled out senior Travis Sandersfeld for his early camp play. Sandersfeld has played mostly safety throughout his CU career. "(He) looks good, but there's still open try outs . . . nothing's been settled," Embree said.
The position has been beset by injuries, with sophomore Jered Bell (knee) and freshman Sherrard Harrington (hip) now out of the competition. Sophomore Parker Orms (strained calf) has attempted to return to drills, but Embree said Orms "looked a little gimpy" Thursday morning.
NEW QB SEPARATION: Of the two freshman quarterbacks in camp, walk-on John Schrock appears to be settling in faster than scholarship signee Stevie Joe Dorman.
Embree termed the 6-4, 215-pound Schrock, from the Kansas City area, "further ahead . . . that's been encouraging. Both have a long ways to go, but you have to bring them along as quickly as you can. If you just throw them out there in the middle of the ocean, you might never get them back . . . you let them do what they can do and work accordingly. John has a little better grasp of things right now."
With redshirt freshman Nick Hirschman apparently out for at least another week with a foot/ankle injury, Schrock, Dorman and junior college transfer Brent Burnette have been sharing repetitions behind senior starter Tyler Hansen.
Hirschman entered camp as Hansen's backup, with Embree and position coach Rip Scherer wanting to identify a No. 3 QB. Senior transfer Logan Gray (Georgia) also has experience at the position.
Embree said Hansen was "a little rusty" early in camp but has been crisp in almost every area of his position for the past several days.
BUFF BITS: Senior tailback Brian Lockridge, who has been rehabilitating an ankle injury that sidelined him for most of the spring, has a tailbone bruise, Embree said. "In all fairness to him, too, this gives us an opportunity to look at some of the younger guys. We've got to make sure we're evaluating them, too." He said he believes freshman D.D. Goodson "can help offensively and on special teams; I want to see him and (freshman) Malcolm Creer. Goodson has good quickness, can catch from a return standpoint. He seems real natural; he hits the hole at running back and bounces outside well." . . . . Senior center Shawn Daniels suffered a calf injury in Thursday afternoon's work. It was not immediately known if he would miss any further practices . . . . Thursday afternoon's practice focused on more work for newcomers and players on the third offensive and defensive units . . . . The Buffs practice Friday from 8:30-11 a.m.