BOULDER - No way to support this, but the 2012 Colorado Buffaloes might not have enough seniors (eight) to qualify as having an "old guard." To the contrary, there might be enough sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen (47) on the depth chart to make Buffs coach Jon Embree feel at times like he's running a day-care center.
Nelson Spruce falls into that latter category - he's a redshirt freshman - but it doesn't feel like it to him, his position coach or his teammates. Still, Spruce is set to make his college debut on Saturday when CU faces in-state rival Colorado State in Denver's Sports Authority Field at Mile High (2 p.m., FX).
"He's more like a veteran guy; nothing really fazes him," CU receivers coach Bobby Kennedy said. "He's a guy who's really confident in his ability. He's deceptive in the things he does. I'm really excited for him; I'm expecting a really good year."
Spruce has only spent a year in Boulder, but it's been a year well spent. He arrived last summer about 10 pounds heavier than he is now, believing he should be beefed up to cope with the college game. Not so fast, kid...and he wasn't.
"I think that's a little of what he didn't understand last year," Kennedy said. "More weight wasn't the answer for him...he realizes now he plays faster at a lighter weight."
Spruce's current weight is 195, but with 10 more pounds on his 6-2 frame, "I could tell and coach Kennedy could tell that I wasn't as quick as I needed to be, not as explosive as I could be," he recalled. "Shedding those 10 pounds really helped. I feel quicker in and out of my cuts, going downfield, everything feels better."
The weight loss wasn't Spruce's only gain entering this season. Over his high school career in Westlake Village, Calif., Spruce caught 149 passes for 2,795 yards and 37 touchdowns. But as he tried to decipher and digest CU's offense last summer, said Kennedy, "His mind kind of locked up his body a little bit - but that's like it is for most young players."
Come spring, though, Spruce had a handle on his playbook and was functioning more freely. "He had a grasp of the offense and could play faster," Kennedy recalled. "He was doing a really nice job with routes and was catching the ball."
As much as anything Spruce did to comprehend CU's offensive schemes, a camp adjustment by Embree and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy aided Spruce as well as the incoming freshmen. Last August, said Kennedy, there could be three offensive "installs" in three days of camp. This year, all "installs" were done over a longer period.
Said Kennedy: "It gave all the guys a chance to grasp one part of the offense before moving on to another. They knew it. It helped all our guys with the mindset that 'I've got this, whatever formation I'm in I know the concept.' That really helped (Spruce) and all the rest."
Plus, being in the playbook a second year, Spruce said the Buffs "can expect to be better (offensively). Last year everyone was new to everything; we're more comfortable this year. Even during the spring, the coaches said we were better at that point than the first year."
Spruce won't win many 40-yard dash competitions at his position - maybe not even with a rehabilitating Paul Richardson and certainly not with freshman speedster Gerald Thomas. But he's fast enough and deceptive with more than his speed. If defensive backs go to sleep on him, it's at their own risk.
"He's maybe not the lightning in a bottle, but that's only 20 percent of the time," senior linebacker Jon Major said. "It's better to have almost an 80 or 90 percent guy like that.
"He's one of those rare guys...he's developed really quickly. Even though it'll be his first year, you couldn't really tell by the way he plays."
Inevitably, Spruce has drawn comparisons with former CU receiver Scotty McKnight. Spruce is OK with that because, well, McKnight left Boulder holding school records in career receptions (215) and receiving touchdowns (22).
Here's Major on the Spruce-McKnight play-alike subject: "Yeah, (Spruce) reminds me of Scotty. He's a very clean route runner with really, really good hands. He's reliable; he'll probably be a go-to target because he's consistent. He's going to do everything right."
For the record, Spruce is bigger than McKnight and maybe a tick or two faster, but he's not going to get picky with details. "If I could have the type of career he had and help the offense like he did, that definitely would be good...I'd take it," Spruce said.
"I get that (comparison) pretty often. I think the type of players we are, working out of the slot, guys with kind of good hands, running good routes...there are a lot of similarities. But obviously, there's a lot for me to learn to reach his level."
Kennedy, who coached receivers at Texas before joining Embree's staff two winters ago, has shown his CU bunch one-on-one tapes of NFL receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald, former Bronco Ed McCaffrey, former Longhorn Jordan Shipley and others matched against NFL corners. The lesson, said Spruce, is to help the young Buffs work on their footwork at the line of scrimmage, battling press coverage, etc. Kennedy said the one-on-one tapes entertain his players as well as offer them styles and, more importantly, fundamentals to emulate.
"I've seen with all my guys, but particularly with Tyler (McCulloch), Nelson and Keenan (Canty)," he said. "They see those tapes and I tell them if you want to get there, here's what you've got to do. But if you're satisfied with where you are, no, you don't have to do those things."
Spruce isn't satisfied. "I think he's a guy that strives on competition," Kennedy said. "The neat thing about him is he comes from a really neat family; it's important to them and him that he does well. He's been very reliable; I'm excited to see him in live action."
Spruce is excited to offer Kennedy that chance. "It's slowly starting to hit me that I'm finally going to be on the field," he said. "But I'm ready. I'm comfortable out there."
BUFF BITS: Speaking at Thursday's Boulder Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Balch Fieldhouse, Embree called this summer of work "the best since I've been here" - and he included his time as an assistant coach. He said the Buffs "got better with every practice" with perhaps Wednesday being the exception. "We were a little ragged because we're so excited" for the opener, he said. "We understand what this game's about and what it means." He implored CU fans to be loud at Sports Authority Field on Saturday and at Folsom Field a week from Saturday when Sacramento State visits. "Give us home field (advantage)," he said. "We're going to do our part."...Senior defensive tackle Will Pericak introduced Embree Thursday, calling him "the best coach I ever had...he's a players' coach." Pericak also said he was jealous of freshman nosetackle Josh Tupou because he gets to play four years under Embree and his staff...As of noon Wednesday, CU had sold 33,794 for Saturday's Rocky Mountain Showdown. That figure included 7,250 student tickets.