BOULDER – Here’s the best-case post-spring scenario for Troy Walters: By the middle of April, when the pads have been stored until August, Colorado’s receivers coach will have identified one, maybe two, possibly three new receivers who will chip in to make Paul Richardson a distant memory.
OK, that’s probably a ridiculous stretch, because “P-Rich” was one of the more memorable, most productive wideouts to ever suit up for the Buffaloes. Forgetting him for Walters might be like forgetting to breathe. But the hard truth for Walters and the CU offense is this: Richardson’s routes this fall likely will be run in the NFL.
Life and football go on, and the Buffs will try and move forward in 2014 with a new playmaker – or three. While coach Mike MacIntyre and Walters believe there are worthy candidates to replace Richardson, they’re still waiting for them to show the explosiveness, the sure hands and stretch-the-field, catch-the-ball consistency that helped Richardson stamp his name among CU’s top career receivers.
“We’re going to have to do it collectively,” Walters said. “I think the guys know that everyone has to contribute in some way. If we get two or three guys to do what ‘P-Rich’ did then we’ll be in good shape. Then, we need Nelson Spruce to continue what he did last year – particularly at the end of the year when he had a few monster games.”
Of course, the Buffs’ 2014 offensive needs don’t stop with Spruce, whose final three games last season produced 18 receptions for 268 yards and two touchdowns. Against California, Spruce made eight catches for 140 yards. When Richardson declared his eligibility for this spring’s NFL Draft, Spruce suddenly became CU’s top returning receiver after catching 55 balls for 650 yards and four TDs last fall.
By comparison, Richardson’s 2013 productivity – 83 catches for 1,343 yards and 10 TDs – more than doubled most of Spruce’s numbers. The statistical slack to be taken up by Richardson's departure exceeds significant, but Walters believes it can be done.
Immediately behind the steady Spruce, a junior, in last season’s stats was D.D. Goodson, a senior who should benefit from a full season and a spring at his relatively new college position. Primarily a slot receiver last fall after switching from running back, Goodson made 22 catches for 306 yards and two TDs. His chemistry with quarterbacks Sefo Liufau and Jordan Gehrke should be improved come August.
WALTERS HAS THREE OTHER returning receivers with experience – seniors Tyler McCulloch (14 catches, 138 yards, one TD) and Keenan Canty (3 catches, 33 yards), and sophomore Devin Ross (six catches, 24 yards).
Among three promising freshmen receivers signed in 2013, Ross was the only one who didn’t redshirt. The other pair – Bryce Bobo and Elijah Dunston – are joined by Lee Walker, a 2013 Arizona signee who failed to qualify but straightened himself out academically and is already enrolled and participating in spring work.
“I’m definitely getting acclimated now,” Walker said. “Coach is telling me don’t let the depth chart pressure you, just get used to things so when fall comes I can be on it.”
In terms of knowing the offense, Walker is in catch-up mode and admits, “It’s been tough on him. We’ve thrown a lot at him, he’s trying to get adjusted to school, a new environment, how we practice and do things . . . but he’s learning. He’s a great kid and a tremendous worker who wants to be good.
“I think he’s going to take a major step between now and (August) camp. He should help on kickoff returns with his speed and explosiveness. I’m looking forward to what he can do once he really understands the offense and can play at full speed.”
Walker grasps what his coach is saying and concedes most of his work to be done is in the playbook. “It’s not about speed for me, it’s about learning the playbook,” he said. “If you know the playbook you can play fast. But if you don’t know the playbook you’re going to be timid about doing certain routes. Once you learn the playbook you play fast.”
Bobo, Dunston and Ross have been there, learned that. Given their full seasons in the system, their first springs find them several steps ahead of Walker and able to concentrate more on performing than learning.
Bobo, the largest of the lot at 6-2, 190, said redshirting last fall “really, really helped me. I’m familiar with the offense and I feel like now I have chemistry with my quarterbacks. It all made me a better player sitting behind Paul and Spruce and learning from them.”
Tidbits taken from Spruce, said Bobo, included how to better “get in and out of breaks” in route running. Richardson’s contributions included “getting off the ball fast and getting separation from corners,” Bobo said. “If I can do those things I think I’ll be in pretty good shape when fall comes.”
But if “P-Rich” could offer advice on explosive starts and leaving DBs in the dust, he couldn’t pass on the speed to do either. Not to worry, said Bobo with a grin: “I don’t know about ‘P-Rich’ (speed) but I’m pretty fast I think. I use my stride; I’ve got long legs.”
After eight of 15 spring practices, Walters’ overview at his position began with this: “A lot of guys have stepped up.” The first name mentioned was Spruce’s – or as Walters called him, “‘Mr. Dependable’ . . . he makes big catches, he knows what’s going on, knows the offense. And he’s been a great leader and mentor to the young guys.”
GOODSON COULD BE “MR. DEPENDABLE II.” His mental mistakes have been minimal, his pre-snap positioning and route running better by the practice. “What you see is what you get,” Walters said. “He’s producing.”
The entire receiving corps, which includes transfers Wesley Christensen, Cheldon West and Joseph Hall and walk-on Devyn Grimes, has “the potential to be a pretty strong unit,” Walters said. “I’ve encouraged the guys to work and finish up these last two weeks of spring ball well and take care of that momentum in the summer time. But potential can only get you so far. If guys continue to work and take coaching and do things on their own in the summer, then this can be a pretty good unit.”
For the potential to be realized, Walters is expecting position-wide improvement in getting clearance from corners at the line of scrimmage and in secondary releases. “In this league you’re always going to be jammed, always going to have somebody in your face,” he said. “Our defense is playing a lot of man, a lot of press, and that’s going to help us down the line. Those are big issues we want to address these last two weeks.”
Plus, he wants his players to exit spring drills with a thorough grasp of the offense so that this summer’s player-led practices can be as beneficial as possible leading into August camp.
But chief among Walters’ goals over the final six practices – No. 14 is the spring game on Saturday, April 12, No. 15 is a review session on Monday, April 14 – is identifying “seven or eight guys” who will be his mainstays and form his game-day rotation for the fall. Freshman Shay Fields will get a chance in August to join that group.
Walters wants to see who – or if anyone – can come close to doing what Richardson did. An astounding 50 of his 83 receptions last season were for 10 yards or longer, 19 for 20 yards or more, and 7 of 50 yards or more – one of his 29 school records set in 2013.
“Last year we had ‘P-Rich’ as our deep threat,” Walters said. “We have to master our deep balls, make more plays down the field, stretch the field . . . that’s something we’re focusing on.”
It’s also something the Buffs can’t do without if their offense is to be as efficient and balanced as they expect.
NOTEWORTHY: On Friday morning, the Buffs will scrimmage for a final time before the annual spring game on Saturday, April 12. Friday's scrimmage will be held in Folsom Field, along with a coaches clinic. The team is scheduled to start Friday's work at its lower practice fields then move into the stadium for the scrimmage about 9:15 a.m. . . . . Senior defensive back Josh Moten left Wednesday's practice with a leg injury. There was no immediate diagnosis.