BOULDER - The first day of fall semester classes is a day away, the first tests further back than that. Final grades are somewhere south of the formative stage.
It's the same in Colorado football, where new receivers coach Bobby Kennedy rightfully insists his group is a "work in progress," with progress being the daily emphasis. As is the case on the academic side here, the posting of grades can wait. But if you need an insightful peek at how the receivers are progressing and even want an early grade, sophomore Paul Richardson will comply.
"Right now, if I had to give us a letter grade, this group is a 'B,'" Richardson said the other day. "It's a 'B' because, one, we're all pretty banged up right now . . . and, two, because we're more into the playbook and we're playing faster and more comfortable."
The grade offered by "P-Rich" probably requires a footnote. He's saying when total health is restored, when training camp's physical toll has diminished, his group's grade will climb. But he's also saying if he and his mates were less into their playbooks, that 'B' likely would be a 'C.'
Asked if an 'A' is close, Richardson answered, "Very close . . . when we get into school week (classes begin Monday) and begin game-planning for Hawaii, the playbook will be chopped down. There's not going to be 100,000 plays, but plays for a specific team. That's going to help everybody."
In Jon Embree's first preseason camp, you can count on a couple of words being used in every conversation regarding the Buffs' development: Physical and consistent. Kennedy, who joined Embree's staff last winter after a seven-year stint at Texas, says his group is learning to be the former and working hard to be the latter.
"Right now, we're not very consistent, but I see good things every day in terms of effort and guys trying to do it right," he said. "We're not a finished product; we've got a lot of work to do but the effort's there."
And this is always a good thing for a position coach to be able to say when preseason camp begins: There's been a personnel upgrade since the conclusion of spring practice, which means he apparently signed the right prospects.
In Kennedy's case, incoming freshmen Tyler McCulloch (Albuquerque, N.M.) and Nelson Spruce (Westlake Village, Calif.) and transfer Logan Gray (Georgia) joined a receiving corps composed of 2010 contributors Richardson, Toney Clemons, Kyle Cefalo and Jason Espinoza. And swift redshirt freshman Keenan Canty showed promise last spring.
Basically from those eight players, Kennedy will find his top six. But during a brutal 13-game schedule, he emphasizes that everyone who practices must be prepared on Saturdays: "I always say this to the guys: No matter where you are right now, before the season's done we're going to need you all to do something. You just never know . . . we're trying to create depth in the group, but also have competition every day.
"What I've told these guys is none of these spots are locked down yet. They're going to be graded on their performances every day, and then we'll make decisions. We're trying to find one guy first, then two, then three, four, five and six. Every day you have to compete, every day you have to bring it."
Richardson "brought it" (and then some) last year as a freshman, averaging a team-best 15.1 yards a catch (34 receptions, 514 yards, six touchdowns). He's spindly (6-1, 175), but speedy. He's a nightmare in single coverage. And he prides himself on catching almost anything within his zip code.
"He's a special talent," Kennedy said. "What he's trying to work on and what I'm harping on him about is working on the little things - getting in and out of his spots, his hand position catching the ball, ball security . . . all those little things. He's talented; the thing I always talk to these guys about is, you can be the best player at Colorado, then are you the best guy in the league, then are you the best guy in your part of the country, then the best guy in the nation? What he needs to do is keep concentrating on the little things and I think he'll develop into a very good receiver."
Richardson entered camp "really wanting to get better on my route running, so I just wouldn't be looked at as 'speed' guy but a really good route runner, too. I think I've definitely done that," he said.
With Kennedy's help, he believes he's learning to "finish my routes, staying in my break . . . so that I don't give the defender any declaration that I'm going to be stopping."
As for doing what receivers do when the ball arrives, "I'm really confident in my catching ability," he said.
Kennedy's expectations are high for Gray, who enrolled at CU to enter a graduate program (curriculum instruction in education) not offered at UGA and has one season of eligibility remaining. A former quarterback (No. 7 high school prospect nationally), Gray lettered three years at the Southeastern Conference school playing that position, then switching to receiver as a junior. He played receiver and on special teams last season when UGA visited Boulder.
"I'm enjoying it," Gray said of his new environment. "Obviously right now it's still camp and we're kind of in that grind-time period. Everybody feels like they're running in mud . . . your legs are so tired. But it's the same way for everybody in the country. You just keep on pushing through to make sure we're getting better every day because Hawaii is going to be here soon (Sept. 3).
"This is my last year so I'm just trying to make the most of it, and so far I wouldn't say I'm satisfied because I want to keep on getting better and pushing this thing to the max. But I feel like the transition has been good."
He's been used primarily as a slot receiver, but Embree also likes Gray's versatility because of his experience at quarterback as well as on special teams. Gray (6-2, 190) called the Buffs' and Bulldogs' offenses "similar . . . everyone has their own concepts and terminology, that's the biggest thing to learn. But a lot of the actual schemes and plays are the same - just different ways to get into it."
Embree has said the rangy (6-5, 205) McCulloch reminds him of Ed McCaffery - so much so that McCulloch wears the former Broncos receiver's number (87). That's high praise for a freshman, but McCulloch is looking (and practicing) the part.
McCulloch says he's unsure if he's exceeded any expectations he might have had entering his first college camp, but adds, "I think I'm meeting them. I came into camp not knowing really what to expect. I've always had the confidence I could play at the D-I level. This is going real smooth.
"I think I have a good work ethic, and my mindset is to go get the ball no matter where it is. I've been able to get through camp healthy so far. I'm starting to get more reps every day, and that comes from knowing the plays. It's exciting."
Initially a three-sport (football, basketball, baseball) athlete at Eldorado High School in Albuquerque, McCulloch finally settled on football - but not at his current position. He began as a Wing-T quarterback and also played safety, switching to receiver as a high school freshman. He wanted football to take him to a D-I school on scholarship. But in the fourth game of his senior season, he suffered a lacerated liver and spleen and missed the rest of the year.
Contact with D-I recruiters began to dwindle. "I just wasn't there stats-wise; I lost contact with a lot of coaches," he said.
New Mexico and New Mexico State invited him to walk on, but he was aiming higher. "I had sent out some tape, so I think the interest might have been starting to grow a little," he said. "Being the hometown hero (in Albuquerque at UNM) would have been pretty cool, but it was kind of my dream to go play at a big-time D-I school. Colorado was one of my favorites, so when that offer came it was just incredible."
Kennedy calls McCulloch "a pleasant surprise because for a young guy he's come in and picked up the offense really well. But the great thing about him is he's an effort guy."
The 6-2, 200-pound Spruce, says Kennedy, "has made good progress; we're asking him to learn two (receiver) spots. But the thing is, he's really bright and he wants to do well. When he puts it all together I expect him to be a good receiver for us."
Clemons (6-2, 210) has had an up-and-down camp and is at the forefront of Kennedy's call for consistency at his position. "Not only Toney, but all of us have to be more consistent," he said. "Pass routes are such a precise thing and obviously you got to run them right to get open, then there's catching the ball and finishing runs and doing all those things. But we're expecting a lot out of Toney. What we need to see in his last year is a guy who steps up."
Cefalo (5-10, 170) is having a solid camp, and the coaching staff has noticed. That work, plus his off-season efforts, earned him a scholarship for his final year. Kennedy says Espinoza (5-8, 180) and Canty (5-9, 155) have had their moments, but he's still hoping for more productivity from Jerrod Darden, who is 6-5, 210 and offers his position's biggest target.
Espinoza knows all three receiver positions, and Canty, said Kennedy, "is doing some things really well. He's still a young player and is going to make some mistakes. The thing I like about Keenan so far is when he comes off the ball he's going fast. He can stretch the field. He's a guy I'm hoping is in that mix."
CU's offense is putting a heavy emphasis on the running game, and Kennedy's players must block well enough to enhance that. Richardson believes the Buffs' ground game "is going to be dangerous . . . Coach 'BK' and Coach (Eric) Bieniemy have been teaching us how to block. It's just not running out and trying to kill a guy, it's occupying him, giving a running back enough time to get past."
Adds Kennedy: "They're trying to give good effort and get on their guys. Like I said, we're not a finished product. We've got to develop some toughness in our group. But I see little things every day starting to come, and I see the effort."
Blocking among the "good hands guys" is vital, but Embree also is emphasizing how the passing game must become polished enough to play off of his running game.
"You don't want (the passing attack) to be off in a certain game and us not be able to pass," Richardson said. "It has to go hand-in-hand with the running game. That's what we're working hard to do."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Bobby Kennedy, first season on CU staff.
Returning starters: Toney Clemons, Sr.; Paul Richardson, Soph.
Returnees: Kyle Cefalo, Sr.; Keenan Canty, Fr.-RS; Jason Espinoza, Sr.; Dustin Ebner, Jr.; Jarrod Darden, Soph; Alex Turbow, Soph.
Newcomers: Tyler McCulloch, Fr.; Nelson Spruce, Fr.; Logan Gray, Sr.; Drew Ebner, Fr.; Parker Norton, Fr.; Austin Vincent, Fr.; Makiri Pugh, Jr. (moved this week from defensive back).
Key losses: Scotty McKnight, Travon Patterson, Kendrick Celestine (left program), Andre Simmons (left program).
Stat line: Of the Buffs' 237 completions last season, receivers made 127 of them (McKnight 50, Clemons 43, Richardson 34).
Bottom line: CU must compensate for McKnight's productivity and dependability, but there appear to be players prepared to step in. Clemons' consistency and that of the position overall have been camp concerns, but Richardson seems on target for a breakout year. Gray should prove to be a smart and versatile addition, and McCulloch, who appears to be a real find, and Spruce will add depth. Canty's speed can stretch a defense. Newcomers to watch: Gray, McCulloch and Spruce.