BOULDER – The way Daniel Munyer, Jack Harris and their position coach see it, their plates are full enough without focusing too much on the week’s top story in Colorado football.
Or, as Munyer so succinctly summarized the Buffs’ change in starting quarterbacks for Saturday’s out-of-conference encounter with Charleston Southern, “Everyone’s flying around the same; it’s just a different voice back there at the line.”
That has to be the approach for Munyer, Harris, the rest their O-line mates and their coach, Gary Bernardi. But beyond that group, the CU staff is hopeful that last weekend’s switch from junior Connor Wood to true freshman Sefo Liufau produces more of a noticeable change than in mere cadence.
If all eyes Saturday will be on Liufau in his first college start, some eyes – particularly Bernardi’s – also will be trained on what’s happening in front of the freshman. Bernardi has told his guys they must communicate better, ratchet up their productivity and, in turn, help CU’s run game do the same. And, oh yes, let’s protect the young guy throughout his first full college game.
“Each week they’ve improved,” Bernardi said of his line, “but last week I thought they improved in the second half (at Arizona State). I thought they stayed the same in the first half. I tried to point out that we want to go in this direction (up). That’s the number one thing this week: get better as individuals and as a group. That’s each week, and up until the first half last week I thought that they had done that in terms of the little statistics we keep in our room.”
But this was the problem in showing second-half improvement in Tempe, Ariz.: By intermission, the Sun Devils were up 47-6. The first-quarter call to Liufau to replace Wood went out with CU trailing 25-0. By then, a call to Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana or Peyton Manning likely wouldn’t have made much difference in a 54-13 Buffs loss.
What CU coach Mike MacIntyre and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brian Lindgren want to see this Saturday is whether the offense can improve its consistency and productivity under Liufau. He engineered the Buffs’ two scoring drives at ASU and finished his shedding-the-redshirt night 18-of-26 for 169 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions. He also was charged with a fumble and a safety taken after an intentional grounding call in the end zone.
As debuts go, the reviews were mixed. But MacIntyre didn’t waffle on the switch; Liufau will remain the starter as long as he and the offense are efficient.
The Buffs don’t view the change as going back to square one at the position, and neither do they see their running game in that light. But they’ve scored only one rushing touchdown in five games and are No. 10 in the Pac-12 in rushing offense (108.0 yards a game). Their lone rushing TD is the league’s lowest total.
Munyer, the starting right guard, believes “we’re real close” to a ground game upgrade. “We just have to stay on our guys, and blocking at the second level is crucial. I think it’s the whole offensive unit – receivers staying on blocks and running backs have got to make a play at the end of the day.”
Harris, the starting left tackle, said the Buffs are “not where we want to be” in the running game and that has been a topic of discussion in the O-line meeting room. “It’s something we’ve talked about and I think we can continue to improve in the next few weeks.”
The Buffs’ top rushing effort this season has been 154 yards in a 44-17 loss at Oregon State. In the two games since, they’ve totaled 94 yards against Oregon and 99 against ASU. True freshman Michael Adkins II has received more carries in the past three games, with his 98 yards on 14 attempts at OSU the high mark for a CU back this season.
Charleston Southern is allowing 146.4 ground yards a game against an FCS lineup that might send anyone west of the Mississippi to MapQuest. Still, the Buccaneers are unbeaten (7-0) and Bernardi says that speaks for itself.
“They didn’t play ASU or Oregon State, but they’re 7-0,” he said. “Whoever they’ve played they’ve won. Whoever you play against, you win and you feel good about yourself – as a coach and a player . . . I’ve showed our guys film and told them it didn’t make any difference what color helmets they wear, watch how they’re coached. You have to play at a high level. If a team is playing at a ‘10’ and you’re at a ‘7,’ you’re going to get your ass beat. It doesn’t make any difference. You’ve got to get better and you’ve got to play.”
CSU – the Carolina version – is ranked No. 24 in this week’s FCS poll and starts six seniors on defense. “Much like Central Arkansas, they’re a team that has experience in their front seven,” Bernardi said. “They’ve got the ability to do a lot of things because those guys up front are experienced . . . they’re well-coached the way they run their twists and they play hard.”
Of CU’s 11 sacks allowed this season, the highest number (four) was registered by Central Arkansas on Wood in the Buffs’ 38-24 win. Liufau was sacked once by the Sun Devils, and being a first-time starter he undoubtedly expects the Buccaneers to target him with those D-line twists and whatever else. CSU’s seven-game sack total is 23, with senior defensive end Will Hunt (6-5, 253) accounting for six sacks and eight tackles for loss.
“They use a lot of field and boundary blitzes,” Munyer said. “We’ve got to handle whatever they throw at us and keep the quarterback clean.”
Protecting the freshman will receive the same priority as protecting whoever plays the position. If there is a difference between Wood and Liufau, said Harris, it might be in their pocket presence: “Every quarterback has a little different pocket presence. It’s not whether that’s good or bad, it’s just different. (Liufau) likes stepping up in the pocket a lot. He’ll take a five-step drop, then step up . . . that’s a little different, especially for tackles.”
Predictably, Harris’ and Munyer’s jobs haven’t changed with the QB change, or as Bernardi put it, “Same plays . . . they’ve got 11, we’ve got 11.” Added Harris: “We can’t even worry about what’s going around us. We just have to focus on what we’re doing and get better at that. We can’t let anything get to us.”
Liufau has impressed the upperclassmen with his poise. “He carries himself as a fifth-year guy,” Harris said. And Munyer noted, “I’ve been in the huddle with him; nothing’s changed. He has good composure. When he went in there (at ASU) he didn’t seem rattled to me, he just seemed confident. He was ready for his opportunity and that’s good to see in a freshman quarterback. I’m looking forward to seeing him play (Saturday).”
Obviously, Munyer is not alone.