On National Letter of Intent Day in February, Colorado football coach Jon Embree predicted that possibly 75 percent of his recruiting class could play prominent roles in the 2012 season. That percentage was tantalizingly close.
CU's post-camp/game week depth chart, released by coaches on Friday, reinforces Embree as a pretty fair prophet as well as a man of his word to his returning players and incoming recruits.
The Buffs' depth chart features 65 percent (15 of 23) of the true freshmen recruits in camp. Some of the freshmen listed on offense and defense also have earned special teams duties. The breakdown of 2012 signees making the depth chart: six on offense, nine on defense, six on special teams (all returners).
Of that total, three newcomers have either nailed down a starting job or are listed as co-starters on offense or defense:
- Josh Tupou, a head-turner from Day One at nosetackle, goes into game week sharing that position with junior Nate Bonsu.
- Kenneth Crawley, one of three signees from H.D. Woodson High School in Washington, D.C., will open at left cornerback against Colorado State (Sept. 1, 2 p.m., Sports Authority Field at Mile High). He'll also be a primary return specialist.
- Christian Powell, one of a trio of signees from Upland (Calif.) High School, emerged from camp as a co-starter at fullback with junior Alex Wood.
Other areas of interest on the depth chart include:
- Backup quarterback . . . for now it's a job-share situation. Sophomores Connor Wood and Nick Hirschman are listed as co-Nos. 2, an indication that the duel to back up transfer Jordan Webb was tougher to call than naming a starter. (Webb was named No. 1 after a mere eight days of camp.)
- The Buffs will go into the opener with the same punter - Darragh O'Neill - and placekicker - Will Oliver - that finished the 2011 season. But both were pressed in camp, O'Neill by Zach Grossnickle, Oliver by Justin Castor.
- Kickoff returns, per the depth chart, will fall to four freshmen. Crawley, slotted as the No. 1 punt returner, and three of his classmates - Marques Mosley, Donta Abron and Gerald Thomas - are the kick returners listed. But as with other positions, that could change.
- The first tailback to spell starter Tony Jones in the CSU game could be . . . a game-day decision. Offensive coordinator/running backs coach Eric Bieniemy said this about his second back in: "I'm not sure who our No. 2 guy is . . . all of them bring something good to the table. I want to see who can handle the pressure. Tony's been there, done that."
Bieniemy's list of candidates (in depth chart order) includes D.D. Goodson, Malcolm Creer, Abron, Josh Ford and/or Terrence Crowder. But that order is fluid, said Goodson: "At the running back position we really don't worry about the depth chart. That's one thing that's not on our minds; 'EB' is coaching us all to be the starters. Every rep we can get we take advantage of it."
Added Bieniemy: "I always I tell them, 'I coach the starter to be the starter, but I coach the next guy to take his job.'"
Through the first two games last season, the Buffs' only tailback to get a carry was senior Rodney Stewart. Bieniemy isn't planning on that being the case with Jones. While conceding how many tailbacks he uses will be "situational," he added, "You'd love to have two or three that you can rotate consistently. As a defensive staff looks at it, it's hard preparing when you've got a number of different guys that are playing. Would I like to get to that? Yes. Are we there yet? Not quite."
Of the large number of tailbacks in play, Embree said all offer "different skill sets (that) give us a lot of flexibility. Those guys have had good camps; they've done good jobs of running and being physical on the runs. Sometimes you get those young guys and every time they want to run and score. A 4-yard run is a good run. Those younger guys understand that . . ."
Among the young defensive linemen, it took about thislong for Tupou to establish himself as a significant challenge for anyone going head-to-head with him.
In the D-line world, bigger is better, and at a solid 6-3, 325 pounds Tupou was practically game-ready when he arrived. "A freshman like that," said D-line coach Mike Tuiasosopo, "is special."
Junior center Gus Handler works daily in Tupou's neighborhood at the line of scrimmage. "He's a big boy," Handler said. "Coming from high school, I knew he kind of used his weight to his advantage to just plow over people. Once he gets things ironed out and understands the defense here, he'll be pretty good. Anyone who weighs close to 330 pounds is a real load."
Tupou is sharp, soft-spoken and appears to be taking it all in before letting anything out. "I don't like to say much," he said. "I just like to watch the upperclassmen and see what they do and follow them. I worked hard in the summer to get where I was (he lost about five pounds before camp opened) and to where everybody else is. It took a lot of work; I just came in with one goal - to get better and do whatever I could to help the team."
If Tupou impressed O-line returnees like Handler, the reaction was similar among CU's veteran players in the D-line. Junior Chidera Uzo-Diribe, a scheduled starter at defensive end, called Tupou "a funny guy, a good low-key kind of guy. But you don't see low-key from him when we get out here (on the field).
"It's crazy . . . you see a 325-pound guy out there chasing down receivers and running backs. He's just got a good motor on him and he's going to be a good player for us. He was just like all the rest of these freshmen: He just got it. He understood about getting in his playbook, taking things seriously in the weight room. He got it from day one."
But like most freshmen, the speed of the college game - even the pace of practice - surprised Tupou. Another surprise also awaited: "I was surprised I was able to pick it up a little faster," he said. "But there's still a lot left to learn."
Even with Tupou's size, he was close to being an under-the-radar recruit early on, with Nevada and San Jose State paying the most attention until Tuiasosopo and the Buffs entered the picture and offered a scholarship. Suddenly, UCLA and Washington State began sniffing.
But almost from their first handshake, Tupou developed a solid relationship with his future D-line coach. "I knew when I first met 'Tui' he could coach me," Tupou said. "The (CU) coaching staff reminded me a lot of my high school coaching staff (at Bueno Park, Long Beach, Calif.)."
BUFF BITS: Embree said he is expecting more out of linebacker Woodson Greer III than the sophomore showed in Friday's practice. Greer, said Embree, has practiced hot and cold - with Friday being on the frigid side. "But he's going to be a guy who makes a lot of plays for us," Embree added. "I'm just, as you can tell, not happy with his performance (Friday). But he has had a good camp." . . . . Several veteran players - the list included linebacker Jon Major; defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe; defensive backs Ray Polk, Parker Orms and Greg Henderson - were in spectator roles Friday. Not to worry, said Embree: "We just want to heal them up; they've got nagging injuries . . . we're at the stage right now where it gives the young guys an opportunity to get more reps, quality reps, with the No. 1 unit. It was a good time to do that with those guys." . . . . The Buffs could enter game week with no captains named. In fact, they might end the season without identifying permanent captains. Embree said captains could be named on a weekly basis, with the team voting at season's end on who did the best weekly jobs, who were the best leaders, and making those players the permanent captains for 2012. "That's what I'm leaning toward," Embree said. But if he elects not to go in that direction, a team vote on permanent 2012 captains likely would take place next Thursday . . . . Only one player is on the injureed list for an extended time at present, with receiver Paul Richardson (knee) still out indefinitely; no one has been lost for the season which has been the case going back at least three of the last August camps . . . . The Buffs have a "mock game" scheduled for Saturday morning that will entail instructions on leaving the tunnel for pre-game warm-ups, how those warm-ups will be conducted, etc. A brief walk-through also is scheduled, followed by team photos. Sunday is a day off, with fall semester classes starting Monday.