(Note: Sixth in a series previewing the Buffs position-by-position during training camp. Today: Tailbacks/fullbacks.)
BOULDER - Within the first 24 to 48 hours of training camp - that's by his count - Eric Bieniemy's voice was reduced to something between a rasp, a croak and a wheeze. If camp went any longer, "EB" might require a bullhorn - an unsettling thought for his Colorado tailbacks and fullbacks as well as residents near the practice fields.
Whether April or August, the Buffs' fiery offensive coordinator/running backs coach can find plenty to shout about - good and bad. The bad: Bieniemy's top rusher from 2011 (Rodney "Speedy" Stewart) has graduated and CU's offense still is mastering Ground Game 101. The good: Bieniemy promises that's about to change - and he isn't one to make idle promises.
Said Bieniemy: "We've gotten better, we've studied it more, we've detailed it. It's going to be a lot better; we're much improved."
One reason for his optimism is CU's offensive staff being on the job together for a full season. "We're a lot further along . . . obviously we're one year into it," he said. "We're better as a coaching staff because we're all speaking the same language now that our players have heard us speak for a full year."
Just as vital to Bieniemy's optimism, though, are the return Tony Jones, Josh Ford and D.D. Goodson, the recovery of Malcolm Creer and the arrival of three freshmen tailbacks and two fullbacks that Bieniemy says will "make people remember what fullbacks are supposed to look like."
After Stewart's 854 rushing and 571 receiving yards last season came Jones with 297 rushing and 168 receiving. Stewart's productivity in the offense, said Bieniemy, will be difficult for a single player to duplicate: "Rodney did so much for us. Like I've said, Rodney was a hell of a football player who just happened to play tailback. Tony is growing into his own type of player. He's doing a tremendous job of running the football and doing some great things in protection. To ask if Tony can come out and duplicate what Rodney did, right now that's asking a lot. We'll see."
Jones' off-season was focused on studying tape with Bieniemy and his teammates and reviewing his protection schemes and pass routes. He believes he's already a more complete back than he was in spring drills.
The 5-7 Jones, who has bulked up to 192 pounds, comes into his second season with the rushing bar raised pretty high. Behind the Buffs' team of reaching a bowl game, Jones' personal goal is 1,200 yards on the ground.
If he reaches that, he would become only CU's second 1,000-yard rusher in eight seasons. Stewart ran for 1,318 yards in 2010. Preceding that was Bobby Purify, who had 1,017 in 2004.
Bieniemy believes 1,200 is "very, very realistic" for Jones, but adds with a grin: "You know what? I'm surprised he said 1,200. I'm surprised he didn't say 1,600. He was being very modest. The thing I love about him is that he's a humble kid. He appreciates having the opportunity that he's worked himself into. He's making the most of it."
Jones, of Paterson, N.J., called his first season under Bieniemy a time of unparalleled growth. "He's definitely wanted me to be the best I can be," Jones said. "He's treated me like he treated his guys when he was in the NFL. He wants the best out of me. Since I have a year under him, he holds me to a higher standard. That higher level is something I want to reach; I'll continue to strive for that."
Along with his rushing goal, Jones wants to improve his pass protection. On a 1-10 scale last season, he said he probably was "maybe a seven . . . there's never a time when you might think you're the best at it. When you think like that, you're gonna get blown out by a linebacker or a 'D' end. I just try and get better in technique every day, try to fit up on a linebacker as best I can."
Three other players - sophomores D.D. Goodson and Malcolm Creer and junior Josh Ford - were on Bieniemy's 2011 tailback roster. That season offers each an edge on newcomers Donta Abron, Terrence Crowder and Davien Payne. But any edge is slight because each of the freshman trio showed well in camp's first week.
Said Jones: "They're good; coach Bieniemy wouldn't bring anybody in here who wasn't good. Right now they're trying to learn the system. When they do that, they'll be topnotch."
Bieniemy is waiting until after Saturday's first full scrimmage of camp to determine his depth chart. "Every day it's tossing and turning," he said. "I will say this: we've got some great competition out here. There are some guys who are stepping up and doing some very good things. Some days they get more reps than other days; we try to equally balance it and distribute it so we can get a fair assessment.
"You always want to give guys a chance to go play. Let's see how they can handle it (Saturday) when nobody knows what's going on. I will say this: collectively, these kids work and compete and it's important to them."
At fullback, the lone upperclassman is junior Alex Wood, who is inexperienced but has impressed Bieniemy with his camp work and has the size (6-2, 245) needed at the position. Wood is joined by two new scholarship fullbacks and walk-on Jesse Hiss (6-1, 225).
One of the scholarship fullbacks - Clay Norgard (6-1, 240) - was a January enrollee and had the benefit of participating in spring drills and competing with Wood. So the real August camp newbie is Christian Powell (6-0, 235), and he arrived ready to work. Make that continue to work.
From his recruiting visit until he reported in June, he shed nearly 25 pounds. He said he played at Upland (Calif.) High School at 250, but weighed nearly 260 when he visited Boulder.
Malcolm Blacken, CU's director of speed, strength and conditioning, told Powell, "I need you in shape when you get here . . . I'll get you strong."
Powell complied, shedding nearly 15 pounds - and he got stronger. Upon arriving in Boulder, he was power cleaning 220 pounds. Before camp opened, he was up to 308 pounds in that lift "just because he listened to us and wanted to get better," said Steve Englehart, Blacken's assistant director of speed, strength and conditioning.
Bieniemy was impressed by Powell's weight loss, his strength gain and his first week and a half of camp. Noted Bieniemy: "(Powell) has stood out. He's young, but the thing I like about him is that he's coachable, he listens and you only have to tell him once how to do it."
Powell admitted he had "a lot to learn, but I feel like I'm taking it in pretty good." He also was a defensive end at Upland, where he played with two of his current CU freshmen teammates - Abron and safety Marques Mosley. But Powell was mostly recruited as a fullback and the similarities in Upland's offense and what he's found at CU have helped in his transition.
"I felt like I was a pretty good blocker (in high school)," he said. "There's always room for improvement, but I've felt like I've done pretty well . . . but it's definitely tougher. It's something I've never dealt with before, but I can make it."
Powell said his weight loss resulted from a realization that he "just needed to get shape. And I knew coming up to altitude, it would have been harder for me carrying all that weight. I felt like it was something I had to do."
Powell believes he can do whatever is asked of him. And in Bieniemy's day as a CU tailback (1988-90), the Buffs asked a lot of their fullbacks. Of his current group, Bieniemy said, "I think people are going to remember what fullbacks are supposed to look like. Alex Woods has done a great job. Christian Powell has come into his own. Clay Norgard is doing a hell of a job. I like the competition there."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Eric Bieniemy, second season at CU under Jon Embree; second stint on CU staff.
Returning starters: None.
Returnees: TB Tony Jones, Soph.; TB Josh Ford, Jr.; TB D.D. Goodson, Soph.; TB Justin Gorman, Soph.; TB Malcolm Creer, Soph.; FB Alex Wood, Jr.
Newcomers: TB Davien Payne, Fr.; TB Donta Abram, Fr.; TB Terrence Crowder, Fr.; FB Clay Norgard, Fr.; FB Christian Powell, Fr.
Key losses: TB Rodney Stewart; FB Tyler Ahles; FB Evan Harrington; TB Brian Lockridge; FB Nick Plimpton (left program).
Stat line: "Speedy" Stewart accounted for 854 rushing yards last season, but the Buffs averaged just 3.5 yards per rush (No. 9 Pac-12) and 108.7 ground yards a game (No. 9 Pac-12).
Bottom line: Jones (297 yards, two TDs) gained experience last season filling in for Stewart and should come out of camp as the top tailback. But he's getting competition from the incoming freshmen as well as from Ford and Creer. The Buffs desperately need a punishing runner and more proficient running game. For the first time in a while, CU has three true fullbacks - not hybrids pulled from other positions. That, and an attitude of being more physical, will help in regenerating the run game.
Next: Defensive backs
BUFF BITS: Coach Jon Embree has been telling his players throughout camp that if they work hard in every practice he will "take care" of them at the appropriate time. Thursday afternoon was the appropriate time for care and maintenance. After their meetings, the afternoon walk-through was canceled and a night at the movies was scheduled. Also, Friday morning's practice was moved back 45 minutes, allowing a little extra time to sleep in . . . . Saturday's scrimmage at Folsom Field (closed to media and public) won't differ greatly from some of the Buffs' daily situational work. However, one difference, noted Embree, would be some live special teams scrimmage snaps . . . . By his admission, Embree isn't a "big depth chart guy." He and his staff already have good ideas of their two-deep roster, but Saturday's work should help fill in any blanks. But filling out a depth chart won't head Embree's to-do list afterwards. It might be Sunday or Monday before a depth chart is complete . . . . Among the things Embree is anxious to see on Saturday is improved communication among his offensive linemen. "They're coming together as a unit, but in the offensive line everyone has to be on the same page," he said . . . . Quarterback Jordan Webb played in a mostly spread offense at Kansas, taking mostly shotgun snaps. Embree said his starting QB has handled the move under center very well, with very few fumbled snaps: "If you can't do that you can't play. That's not been an issue for us." . . . . Nick Kasa is a senior but a neophyte at tight end. But with his size - 6-6, 260 - he can be a better than average blocker. Embree said Kasa was improving in that area as well as his receiving: "His run game has really come along, so that's been a positive . . . and he's worked hard catching the football; he's worked hard to make himself a complete player."