BOULDER – Conventional wisdom implies that the second time around in anything should proceed more smoothly, with fewer errors and more productivity than the first attempt.
At least that’s the way Mike MacIntyre envisions his second set of spring practices unfolding as Colorado’s head football coach. As for how his second season unfolds, that’s TBD – with some of that determination depending on this set of spring drills.
The Buffaloes begin their allotted 15 spring days on Friday morning, targeting Saturday, April 12 for their annual wrap-up in Folsom Field. Friday’s first practice and those that follow before spring break ( March 22-30) “should be a lot smoother,” said MacIntyre, whose first CU team finished 4-8 overall and 1-8 in the Pac-12 Conference.
“Last year (players) were trying to learn snap counts, how we do our drills . . . they’ll be more familiar with that,” he continued. “There won’t be a learning curve there. We have to improve in emphasizing certain areas; I thought our tackling improved but we’ve got to get better still. We’ve got to improve our leverage – a lot of things to work on there. We’ve got to cause more turnovers and keep holding onto the ball, reduce our penalties . . . we’ll emphasize those areas every day in practice.”
To enhance off-season individual instruction, MacIntyre and his assistants met with those players who logged the most time by position during the 2013 season. Each player was shown tape of what MacIntyre and his staff deemed “30 good plays and 30 bad plays so they’d really understand” what is expected of them – and know that MacIntyre does expect more in Year 2.
Overall offensive and defensive goals for 2014 are fundamentally similar for units that ranked in the bottom third statistically in the Pac-12 as well as the FBS.
Offensively, MacIntyre hopes to score more touchdowns and kick fewer field goals. “We need to concentrate on once we get across the 50 finding a way to get in the end zone. That’s a high emphasis for us,” he said.
At 369.9 yards a game in MacIntyre’s debut season, the Buffs were last in the Pac-12 – 87th nationally – in total offense. Scoring 25.4 points a game, they were 11th in their league – 86th nationally. The running game averaged 120.8 yards (10th Pac-12, 108th) with the passing game’s 249.1 yard average making CU 8th and 47th, respectively.
Defensively, MacIntyre wants to make opponents kick more field goals and score fewer touchdowns. “It’s not a bend-don’t-break (defense),” he said. “It’s a find a way to stop them on third down, find a way to make them kick more field goals and miss some of them, too. It’s just the way the offenses are in our league.”
Stouter play in the red zone and its outer fringes as well as stiffer third-down play are two more defensive goals. The Buffs weren’t very formidable in making third-down stops in 2013, allowing opponents to convert 38.8 percent of the time (73-of-188). Said MacIntyre: “We have to have more stops, there’s no doubt about that. But in today’s crazy football, to think you’re going to go out there and hold them to 300 yards and 14 or 15 points and it’s a good day . . . it doesn’t happen in our league. None of the teams do that much when you really look at it.”
CU’s defense made strides from 2013, but still finished 11th in the Pac-12 (468.0 yards allowed a game) and 106th nationally. In scoring defense, the Buffs also were 11th in their conference (38.3 points) and 112th among all FBS teams. Their rushing and passing ‘D’ numbers, respectively, and their Pac-12/national rankings: 208.5 rushing yards allowed (12th, 101st); 259.5 passing yards allowed (9th, 102nd).
From a personnel standpoint, atop the list in areas of spring interest is the search to replace receiver Paul Richardson, who elected to forgo his senior season and declare his eligibility for the 2014 NFL Draft. In a record-setting junior season, Richardson finished second in the Pac-12 in receptions (6.9) and yards per game (111.9).
TO REPLACE THE BUFFS’ MOST potent offensive weapon and true game-breaking threat, MacIntyre’s first spring looks will be at sophomore Devin Ross and redshirt freshmen Bryce Bobo and Elijah Dunston, as well as true freshman Lee Walker, who already is enrolled.
All are speedy, said MacIntyre, but speed alone won’t elevate one or more of the candidates. “We want to find out who can makes plays in a crowd, on vertical balls,” he said. “Some guys can run by you but they can’t catch it all the time. We have to make sure they can do that. It’ll be a big emphasis for us in the spring.”
Elsewhere on offense, replacements need to be identified for departed left tackle Jack Harris and center Gus Handler. Sophomore tackle candidate Jeromy Irwin will miss spring drills with a foot injury, creating an opportunity for someone else to rise.
Missing the pre-spring break portion of drills will be running back Christian Powell and fullback/H-back George Frazier, both out after knee surgery to repair meniscus damage. MacIntyre said their expected post-break return offers a chance to evaluate other running backs and receivers in the first half of spring drills, then switch the evaluation to tight ends and fullbacks/H-backs in the second half.
Dividing spring drills with spring break affords players like Powell and Frazier more healing time, as well as other players who might be injured in the opening half of drills. It also allows weight lifting and strength training to continue. Plus, noted MacIntyre, the prospect of spring break keeps players fresh and focused: “They push knowing they’ve got a break coming. Without a game right around the corner, that’s important for them.”
Among the running backs the Buffs offensive staff wants to scrutinize in Powell’s early absence is redshirt freshman Phillip Lindsay, a Denver South product who suffered a knee injury in high school but has successfully rehabbed it. MacIntyre said the 5-8 Lindsay has gained six to seven pounds, now weighing about 175, and figures to be a spring focal point with returning sophomore running back Michael Adkins at the position.
Lindsay is “real physical and quick,” MacIntyre said. “I can’t wait to see him now that his knee is completely well. He really looked good in the last half of the fall on the scout team when he started moving without having to think about it. He could help us on special teams – returning and covering.”
Sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau, who took over as the starter in the fifth game last fall, should show the benefits of a full off-season conditioning program. Liufau’s targeted areas of improvement: “Better accuracy and timing, and knowing where to go with the ball,” said MacIntyre. In the running game, “He should know what right runs to get us into and if something’s coming, how to get us out of it . . . he got better there last year, but these things should be automatic. And he’s got to make good decisions in the red zone to get us points.”
CU’s pistol offense, imported from San Jose State by MacIntyre and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren, will be tweaked “according to personnel,” said MacIntyre. “You’ll find a lot of that as spring goes along. There are things we realize Sefo can do better, other things we’ll add to because of his strengths. Same with (Jordan) Gehrke; he’s got a few different strengths than Sefo and we’ll develop the playbook according to those.”
LIUFAU AND GEHRKE WILL BE the only two scholarship QBs in spring drills. Former manager Trent Sessions, who played the position in high school, will be a spring walk-on to add depth. MacIntyre said he was anticipating the competition between Liufau and Gehrke: “I want to see how much they’ve grown from last year after being in the system. I hope to see some big jumps in different phases in the spring.”
Aside from the personnel-related tweaking of the offense, change will be minimal, said MacIntyre: “We’ve done a lot of study (in all areas) but you don’t do a lot of wholesale change because it would be like doing everything brand new . . . that’s not right. But I think the kids understand things we can improve on and I think we (as a staff) understand some things we can implement in our offense and defense and special teams.”
MacIntyre expects upgraded competition in the secondary with the return of safety Terrel Smith, who sat out 2013 after shoulder surgery, and the addition of junior college transfer Ahkello Witherspoon.
“I think our secondary, through recruiting and some of the kids getting bigger and stronger, has really improved,” MacIntyre said. “But we’ve got to find a way to solidify our secondary – the nickel back, the dime back and the corners . . . I’m looking forward to those battles.”
Identifying a defensive end to replace sack leader (4) Chidera Uzo-Diribe is a priority, as is finding a replacement for Will (inside) linebacker Derrick Webb, who finished second in total tackles behind freshman Mike (middle) linebacker Addison Gillam (119-99).
Linebacker also gets a new face in Pittsburgh transfer Daeyshawn Rippy, the cousin former Buffs linebacker Doug Rippy. A 6-2, 210-pounder, Rippy will compete at the Sam (outside) spot with sophomores Ryan Severson and Kenneth Olugbode. Also, MacIntyre said charting the progress of linebacker Woodson Greer, who was sidelined late last season with a shoulder injury, is a priority.
After a full year under Director of Sports Performance Dave Forman, MacIntyre expects the Buffs to be stronger overall this spring than last. But he said definitive word won’t come until after several spring practices and then as August camp begins: “ You look at it in segments – that guy’s gotten strong, but what will he look like in August? Are they on their way? I do feel like strides were made, but I’ll know better when I watch a guy hit a guy or another guy roll his hips or another get off the ball and not get overpowered. You start seeing it then and on film.”
He said he knows the Buffs are “in a lot better condition than this time last year – and that’s important in gaining strength, avoiding injuries and how we practice. One of our goals is to stay stronger longer. We did a tremendous amount of squatting to get bigger legs and butts, get more power in that area. You notice that when you’re watching games, seeing your guys getting off blocks, knocking guys back. Really, just in winning the line of scrimmage.”
As he did last April, MacIntyre will save the final spring practice – No. 15 on the Monday following the spring game – for a review/preview session, mainly laying the groundwork for player-run summer practices. Players are scheduled to report for preseason camp on Aug. 3, with practice beginning the next day and the first practice in pads on Aug. 8.
CU opens the 2014 season on Aug. 30 in Denver against Colorado State.