(Last in a series of position-by-position previews of the 2013 Buffs to be posted on CUBuffs.com during preseason camp. Today: Quarterbacks)
BOULDER – At long last, Connor Wood has an offense to command. Of more importance, he’s never felt better about being in command.
An arduous and frequently frustrating journey that has taken him from Austin to Boulder and through three coaching staffs has culminated in what Wood has dreamt of all along: to enter a college football season as a starting quarterback.
The 6-4, 225-pound junior will open for Colorado on Sunday against rival Colorado State in the Rocky Mountain Showdown. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. (CBS Sports Network) at Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Wood’s backup will be Sefo Liufau, a gifted true freshman who absorbed enough of CU’s pistol offense and made enough plays in August camp to ease past junior college transfer Jordan Gehrke and third-year sophomore Stevie Joe Dorman.
But the pistol is in Wood’s hands first, and he and his coaches believe he has the right feel for it.
“Since March it’s been a really, really good growing process for me – especially this summer,” Wood said. “It was a big time for me and my maturation in the offense. It served me well.”
“I’ve been pleased with his progress,” Wood’s position coach, offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren, said. “Attending the Manning Academy in the summer was really big for him, being around some starters from around the country. You could tell his confidence was boosted from that. And being selected a captain by his teammates – that’s as big an honor as you can have, in my opinion. It shows the confidence this team has in him.”
A high school All-America selection in Houston (Second Baptist), Wood transferred from Texas to CU in 2011, sat out the mandatory transfer season and started one game (playing in seven) for the Buffs in 2012. His lone start – against Washington – wasn’t memorable: he attempted six passes, completed three for 11 yards, and threw two interceptions.
But with the early spring knee injury to Jordan Webb and the surprising post-spring transfers of Nick Hirschman and Shane Dillon, Wood suddenly found himself as the lone quarterback on the CU roster with any game experience, however scarce. If he had difficulty capitalizing on his opportunity two springs ago, he seized it this spring and summer.
“I know me and the other quarterbacks worked hard and studied film in the spring, then took it into the offense during the player-led (summer) practices,” Wood said. “I feel like now, the many reps we’re getting – ones and twos on one field, threes and fours on the other – we just crank it out. I’ve gotten way more reps than in the previous fall camp. The more and more you do something, the better you get.”
When CU hired Mike MacIntyre last December to replace Jon Embree, MacIntyre brought Lindgren from his San Jose State staff to coordinate his pistol offense and coach his quarterbacks. From tape Wood has studied of the Spartans’ version of the pistol and what MacIntyre/Lindgren have introduced at CU, “There are great similarities. It’s a very, very similar offense and the same terminology that they brought in. Coach Lindgren and coach MacIntyre both expect a quarterback to take command of the offense. It can’t be a system quarterback out there . . . there are a lot of things to do in the post-snap; there’s some thinking that goes on out there. A quarterback in this system has to ad lib a lot.”
Wood said he is comfortable doing that: “I think in this fall camp I’ve done a good job scrambling and finding those windows to throw in. That’s what football is really about; it’s not going to go perfect like it does sometimes in practice – not at all.”
Last season at San Jose State, Lindgren tailored the pistol to suit the talents of junior quarterback David Fales. The Spartans morphed into a highly efficient offense, setting 27 school offensive records and averaging 446.2 yards a game (337.2 passing).
According to Wood, Lindgren tailored CU’s pistol to Wood’s strong suits of “passing the ball and spreading it around. The very, very short throws, the intermediate and deep throws, I think I can put the ball anywhere I want to. I think we do a variety of things and that includes me being under center some, rolling out, running the shotgun, different stuff. We’re going to be multiple in what we do.”
Lindgren said Wood “throws a nice deep ball and has a little stronger arm than some of the other guys, but some of them are a little more accurate on some of the underneath stuff. So each have their strengths, but each one of them has the ability to do it physically.”
Liufau played in a pro-style offense at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash., and took practically every snap from under center. But the 6-4, 210-pound Liufau apparently has settled very comfortably into a new offense and taking the short center snaps.
“I love it; it works to your strengths,” he said. “Coach knows how to work it in. There’s good things for the offense and individually. It feels great back there, being a little further back from the line. I understand it, too; it really hasn’t been that big of a deal.”
That’s undoubtedly due to the instruction of MacIntyre, Lindgren & Co. “They put you in a spot to be successful,” Liufau said. “The amount of teaching they do in the film room and out here on the field even between plays really puts you in a good spot to know coverages, reads, checks and all that. Right now I feel comfortable but there’s always room to improve and I look to do that every day.”
Liufau arrived on campus in early June wanting to challenge for the starting job. “Obviously everyone wants to come out and start, but mainly I wanted to do the best I possibly could,” he said. “The coaches know what we need, what positions to put us in. If the team needs me to play this year, I’ll play. If the team needs me to sit at No. 2 and be ready to play, I’ll do that. If I have to redshirt this year, I’ll do that, too. It’s whatever the team needs me to do.”
The Buffs will go into this weekend’s season-opener, said Lindgren, with practically all of the offense at Wood’s disposal. But how much of it is used in week one will depend on game-planning for the Rams that Lindgren preferred not to discuss.
Said Lindgren: “A lot will be determined by what we like against Colorado State and what Connor’s good at, what he’s comfortable with. We’ll have a fair amount of stuff in; in fact, we’ve got most of our stuff in.”
Wood knows he’s not a finished product, and Lindgren expects him and the trailing trio of QBs to steadily develop through the season. As a group, said Lindgren, their biggest challenge “is the mental part, understanding the concepts we’re trying to teach and understanding defenses – from zones to pressures to coverage – and understanding weaknesses of defenses and how to attack within what we’re calling. That just comes through repetitions.”
A sticking point for Lindgren through August camp was increasing the number of completions by the entire group. Wrong decisions, increased defensive pressure and simply missing throws initially contributed to more incompletions and inconsistency than Lindgren wanted.
“There were times you thought we were really about to be there and it was starting to click,” he said. “Then we’d make a mistake and I’d have to remind myself that for these guys it’s their first year in the system, they hadn’t been in it a full year and they’re still learning. We’re learning as we go, but we’re constantly challenging those guys to be consistent every day in their decision making. We’re getting better but we’ve definitely got room to improve.”
Gehrke (6-1, 190) said the biggest area of improvement for him must come in sharpening his timing with receivers: “Timing is the hurdle. It pays off in the long run when you don’t have to constantly look at your guys. You’re throwing to so many different receivers and you have to learn who can get out of breaks quicker, who takes a little more time. That just comes with time.”
Dorman (6-2, 215) said his biggest strides in August camp were in his accuracy: “I felt like I really improved a lot and had a good camp. From the spring until now, I’m way more comfortable with the offense. There’s not a big difference (in the pistol), but we have more wrinkles out of it. There’s a whole lot more diversity in having a back behind you instead on left or right side because you can run either way. I like it.”
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Brian Lindgren, first season at CU
Returning starters: None (2012 starter Jordan Webb’s status is undetermined)
Returnees: Connor Wood, Jr.; Stevie Joe Dorman, So.
Newcomers: Jordan Gehrke, So.; Sefo Liufau, Fr.
Key losses: None
Stat line: CU’s quarterbacks had a 55 percent completion mark in 2012, with Webb’s completion percentage at 54.3 (eight TDs, eight interceptions). Buffs QBs have to be more accurate in 2013.
Bottom line: New coaching staff, new offense, new starter, new results? CU’s quarterback play has been anything but efficient of late, so maybe wholesale changes in the football program are what it takes to increase the position’s productivity. The receiving corps should be better, but the running game must be too to take the pressure off of an inexperienced starter. Wood, a junior captain with renewed confidence, was the QB to watch throughout a summer of player-led practices and preseason camp and will open against CSU. Liufau and Gehrke are picking up the system and Dorman has had his moments in August. The importance of efficient play at the position can’t be over-emphasized.