BOULDER – Quick now . . . when was the last time Colorado went into a football season with a returning starter at quarterback? Brian Lindgren doesn’t remember, but then he shouldn’t be expected to.
Lindgren, about to enter his first August camp as CU’s offensive coordinator/QB coach, knows only that it won’t happen this season – and anything else on the subject is mostly irrelevant. From a trio of relatively untested candidates – junior Connor Wood, sophomore Jordan Gehrke, freshman Sefo Liufau – Lindgren must have one groomed and proficient enough to start against Colorado State on Sept. 1.
Sure, it would be nice to have an experienced guy taking the opening Sunday afternoon snaps in Denver. But lately, returning QB starters at CU have been as rare as palm trees waving on the Flatirons. The Buffs’ last two-year starter at QB was Cody Hawkins (2007-08, portions of 2009-10); their last three-year starter was Joel Klatt (2003-04-05). The last QB to direct a winning season in Boulder was Klatt (7-5) in 2005.
Yes, it's been awhile.
Which brings us to 2013 and Lindgren, who was Mike MacIntyre’s choice to plot San Jose State’s offense and coach its QBs last season and MacIntyre’s pick to fill the same role when CU came calling last winter.
Lindgren, who will turn 33 the day the Buffs open preseason camp (Aug. 6), conceded that the inexperience of his top three QB candidates puts him more behind the 8-ball than he found himself last summer at San Jose State.
“Yeah, I think so a little bit,” he said. “You would like to have guys who have more experience and have played, gotten hit at this level . . . but those three guys (Wood, Gehrke, Liufau) are going to get a ton of repetitions during fall camp. That’s going to make them better. There’ll be learning along the way, but we’ll also be putting them into situations where they can be successful.”
The odds-on favorite to be MacIntyre’s-Lindgren’s pick to start against CSU is Wood, who had the benefit of spring drills in their pistol offense. With the departure of Nick Hirschman and the uncertain status of Jordan Webb (knee injury, legal issue), Wood’s seven games in 2013 give him the most experience at his position. Since spring, Shane Dillon and John Schrock also have left the team, leaving four players (sophomore Stevie Joe Dorman is the fourth) in Lindgren’s group for camp.
Lindgren isn’t ready to scratch Webb for the entire 2013 season, noting Webb’s knee rehab is progressing nicely. But, added Lindgren, “We’re not counting on him early.” He cited the possibility of Webb being available by mid- or late-season, but if that scenario played out it probably would mean one of the other QBs was injured, or one or more of them proved unproductive.
“We’ve got other options, so whatever happens with (Webb) is a bonus,” Lindgren said. “But he’s played enough so that it won’t take him a ton of reps to get back into the flow of things . . . he’s played a lot of football at this level, taken a lot of snaps; that’s certainly valuable. We’ll keep him in touch with the offense, keep him in the meetings as soon as he gets back with us.”
In 10 games last season, Webb completed 144 of 265 passes for 1,434 yards (eight touchdowns, eight interceptions). He was sacked 39 times for losses of 237 yards. He suffered a torn ACL in his right knee early in spring drills, with the initial prognosis shelving him for the entire 2013 season.
Wood played in seven games last season and completed 21 of 42 passes for 252 yards (one TD, four interceptions). Lindgren is hoping that experience plus spring drills and spearheading the offensive players’ summer work might accelerate Wood’s advancement. “It’s a huge advantage,” Lindgren said, adding that Wood “is also mature and very professional in the way he goes about everything. He’s obviously the frontrunner, but he still has to perform.”
Ideally, Wood would solidify his spot within the first two weeks of camp, or after the first major scrimmage. “We want to see a guy separate and name him as soon as we can,” Lindgren said. “It comes down to what coach MacIntyre is comfortable with, but ideally it would be in first week or two. It gives that guy a lot more time to get in sync with his receivers, his line, everybody. It’s going to make the whole offense better.”
Simply because of his experience at the junior college level, Gehrke, who played last season at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College, might offer Wood the biggest challenge. “We recruited him with the intention of him coming in and pushing Connor,” Lindgren said. “I would expect he would be a little further along than Sefo just because he’s a little older and has played a little junior college football. He’s had that year and a half to develop that Sefo hasn’t had. We’re excited about him – it’s why we recruited him. I like his personality and he can really throw it. He’s definitely got that skill set as far as good feet and ability to throw. He’s accurate.”
Lindgren recognizes Liufau's ability and drive, but only in rare instances does a true freshman QB show enough in August camp to become a September starter. Said Lindgren: “I think it’s tough and I told him that. He’s a great worker, really mature, but the toughest part will be applying what he learned in a classroom setting then doing it at game speed, learning to play fast. I think we’ll know from the first week or so. I would imagine he’ll probably be a little rusty to start . . . it’s just a lot to ask of a freshman.”
No matter who’s No. 1, he’ll lack starting experience. And Lindgren doesn’t want to overload him early. The Buffs’ worst-case scenario: the running game is ineffective and the offense too frequently looks to an unproven QB to salvage drives with heroic plays.
“That’s just not going to happen,” Lindgren said. “You want to move the ball (running) and with short passes, some deep play-action, some easier screens. You have to give him some confidence, and as we progress you put more on his plate. The run game will be key for us, huge, particularly early. It’s got to take the pressure off the quarterback. He’s got to be able to make throws where he’s not having to make as many reads, adjustments – just throw it to the open guy. We want to make it pretty easy for him.”
That’s what MacIntyre and Lindgren did last season at San Jose State with David Fales, a junior college transfer who offered glimpses of his promise during spring drills then provided lasting flashes of it in August. But, said Lindgren, the same slow-and-steady approach was taken with Fales, who was instrumental in the Spartans setting 27 school offensive records in 2012.
Fales, said Lindgren, “got better as last season progressed and by the end we were able to open up the playbook for him and give him more opportunities to make plays. What was interesting with him was going through the spring you could see that he could throw it and was skilled physically. But he was still learning the offense and making some mistakes.
“As we went through camp, he continued to make plays, was consistent and improved. But we didn’t really see it until we got into game week and started to work with him as the starter and focused on him. You could really see him develop each week and get better, more comfortable out there.”
On more than one occasion, MacIntyre has credited Lindgren for Fales’ development. Lindgren enjoys his role and should. He played QB at Idaho (2001-04) and was a team captain and first-team All-Sun Belt Conference. He set several school passing records despite this self-effacing self-analysis: “I wasn’t mobile at all. I was a pocket passer with not a very strong arm. But I like to think I was accurate and had pretty good anticipation. I was pretty cerebral as far as learning the offense and knowing defenses – but I had to be given my athletic ability.”
Knowing the game and having played the position have helped him mold players like Fales and, hopefully, Wood & Co. Lindgren still holds high school passing records in Washington – he attended DeSales Catholic in Walla Walla – but says now his football knowledge coming out of high school was scant.
“I learned a lot, saw the other side of it,” he said. “Sometimes as coaches you get a little more advanced knowledge and you forget that players may not know what you know right off the bat. Realizing that and starting from square one helps you with them . . . how to teach concepts, reads, what can you expect them to go out and do – or is it asking too much?
“There’s a whole bunch of factors that people, fans, don’t always see as far as pressure not being picked up, or him having to move off of his spot, or a defense that you hadn’t expected to see. There’s a lot of factors, but going through it as a player is huge in teaching it.”
In Woods, Gehrke or any of CU’s QBs, Lindgren can’t yet tell if he has a budding David Fales on the roster. He does know this: With the exception of Webb, whose availability is in question, his group’s collective experience isn’t ideal.
The ideal situation: Welcoming back a two-year starter and enjoying the continuity that would bring to an offense. “No question,” Lindgren said. “The confidence he gets, getting the rest of the offense to work with him, used to everything from his cadence to how he throws balls and make decisions, how he goes about the game and everyone getting in sync with each other . . . it’s a huge deal.”
At CU of late, it’s been a huge deficit. No continuity at the sport’s most important position has been almost impossible to overcome. Now it’s Brian Lindgren turn to come up with a solution.
PAC-12 MEDIA DAY FRIDAY – If football isn’t in the air, it’s close. Pac-12 coaches and two players from their teams will gather Friday at the Sony Studios in Culver City, Calif., to preview the coming season on Pac-12 Football Media Day.
CU will be represented by first-year coach Mike MacIntyre, junior receiver Paul Richardson and senior defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe.The Buffs contingent leaves for LA on Thursday.
You can hear directly from Richardson, MacIntyre and Uzo-Diribe. Tweet using #pac12fb to ask questions. CU’s turn at the podium is 12:05 p.m.. MDT.
Pac-12.com will offer exclusive video, behind-the-scenes access and a live stream of the main stage session starting at 10 a.m. MDT.
The attendees from each school:
Arizona – Coach Rich Rodriguez, Terrence Miller (WR), Jake Fischer (LB)
Arizona State – Coach Todd Graham, Taylor Kelly (QB), Will Sutton (DT)
California – Coach Sonny Dykes, Bryce Treggs (WR), Nick Forbes (LB)
Oregon – Coach Mark Helfrich, Marcus Mariota (QB), Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (CB)
Oregon State – Coach Mike Riley, Brandin Cooks (WR), Rashaad Reynolds (DB)
Stanford – Coach David Shaw, David Yankey (OL), Shayne Skov (LB)
UCLA – Coach Jim Mora, Xavier Su’a Filo (OL), Anthony Barr (LB)
USC – Coach Lane Kiffin, Marqise Lee (WR), Hayes Pullard (LB)
Utah – Coach Kyle Whittingham, Jake Murphy (TE), Trevor Reilly (DE)
Washington – Coach Steve Sarkisian, Keith Price (QB), Sean Parker (DB)
Washington State – Coach Mike Leach, Elliott Bosch (OL), Deone Bucannon (DB)