Still mirroring his disappointment from Saturday's 37-17 loss at Ohio State, Embree said on Monday that he plans more liberal use of starters on special teams when the Buffaloes play their first-ever Pac-12 Conference game Saturday at Folsom Field against Washington State (1:30 p.m., FCS).
Terming CU's special teams work last weekend in Columbus "obviously pathetic," Embree acknowledged the risk of exposing starters to injury by using them on special teams. But in light of the Buffs' poor showing in those areas against the Buckeyes and with nine league games looming, "It's damned if you do, damned if you don't," he said. "We're at the point if we have to play 30 guys, we'll play 30 guys the whole game. That's where we are."
The Buffs rank near the bottom of NCAA statistics in several special teams categories: 120th (last) in kickoff return yardage (13.85); 119th in kickoff coverage (31.27 average yards allowed); 89th in punt returns (5.4 yards); and 78th in punt coverage (9.7 average yards allowed).
Ohio State averaged 67.5 return yards on a pair of kickoffs, including one 90-yarder, with a 75-yard return of the opening kickoff nullified by penalty. CU, meanwhile, averaged only 12.6 yards returning eight OSU kickoffs. The Buffs also had yet another kickoff that went out of bounds and suffered additional poor field position after a pair of short rugby punts.
Embree said he went into the season's first month realizing his team's lack of overall depth, "So you try to protect some guys . . . for example, how many special teams do you put (freshman) Greg Henderson on? He's your only starting corner. You risk an injury to him. We have that at a few positions where there's not depth behind a starter and you want to be leery of exposing them on those plays and limit the chance of injury.
"You play a team with (Ohio State's) kind of speed and size . . . that's the reason for a lot of those penalties. We had guys who couldn't get in position, so they hold. That's what happens on special teams when you get outrun 30 or 40 yards down the field and you're trying to get a guy - you end up grabbing him because you can't run with him. So the starters are just going to have to go . . . You just hope you can stay injury free."
CU's first three opponents, said Embree, didn't expose coverage or return units manned mostly by backups: "We were able to get away with it some against Hawaii, Cal and CSU, but we won't against Stanford, USC, Oregon - some of those teams that are going to be that same creature you just played.
"We tried to give some guys, some backups, some opportunities - guys who might figure into some things and keep them in the game and help us so they're not going into a regular position cold."
Embree also is contemplating further reducing his travel roster for conference road trips. CU was allowed to take 70 players to Columbus, but Embree elected to travel 64. "I'm not willing to bring a guy just to have a guy," he said. "We could be down to 58, 56, for Stanford, with the changes on (special) teams and some other things. It is what it is. It's got to be guys who are all in. We'll keep on it."
After Saturday's Pac-12 opener, the Buffs have consecutive road games at Stanford (Oct. 8, 5:30 p.m. MDT) and at Washington (Oct. 15, kickoff time TBD).
CU's 20-point loss to what many believed was an average Ohio State team underscored Embree's contention that the Buffs haven't learned to capitalize on opportunities. "They were there . . . but our guys didn't take advantage of some great ones," he said. "That's the great thing about playing the kind of schedule we do here - there are great opportunities to do things every week. If you don't look at it like that . . . being a competitor and getting to go do things, then you're missing out. You don't get to hit reset; there are no do-overs."
The Buffs ended non-conference play at 1-3 - certainly not the start Embree envisioned for his first CU team. "I thought it was critical to get a fast start; I thought that would help their confidence," he said, alluding to the Buffs' 5-7 finish in 2010 and five consecutive losing seasons. "But with Pac-12 play starting (Saturday), we've got nine more games ahead of us . . . there's a lot out there if we take advantage of our opportunities."
Embree heard from several friends and colleagues upon returning from Columbus. Not so surprising was a conversation with his former CU coach, Bill McCartney. But perhaps topping the list of surprising telephone calls was one from Ohio State coach Luke Fickell, with whom Embree said he had "a great conversation for about 20 minutes."
Embree planned to share some of Fickell's thoughts with the Buffs at Monday's team meeting, specifically "what they thought from a personnel standpoint, what they thought from a scheme standpoint. They went into that game amped up; they looked at us as a formidable opponent. There were some (CU) guys they were really trying to key in on. He was a little surprised at the margin . . . yeah, he was a little bit surprised."
In Saturday's aftermath, Embree mused that maybe he was "asking too much" of his players. By Monday at midday, it was clear he had re-thought that. He said he was still "evaluating things" and wanted to gauge some players' responses on "the special teams deal or whatever. Trust me, we're not going to lower the standard. We're going to keep on it. I'm mad at myself because I gave some guys too much of an opportunity to contribute. You'd like to have a lot contributing (and) I felt like there were some guys who could have helped and have been good contributors on (special) teams."
Following the game, he said a number of starters volunteered to play special teams: "They know why I was doing it the way I was doing it . . . but they're like, 'I don't care if I'm on all four (special teams), or two or three of the four.'
"We'll see. It's a fine line, because I'm not lowering the standard. I guess what I've got to see is if the standard's too high, the only way you can fix that is to recruit people in who don't think it's too high. You've just got to keep improving and get them to see it the same way you do."