(Fifth in a series of position-by-position previews of the 2014 Buffs to be posted on CUBuffs.com during preseason camp. Today: Quarterbacks)
BOULDER – Sefo Liufau prefers to face forward and keep the past where it belongs – behind him. But there are times, mostly when he studies tape of the 2013 University of Colorado football season, that keeping the past at bay is difficult.
One game in particular – CU’s 44-20 homecoming loss to Arizona – gnaws at him.
“Looking at games and throws from last year, some decisions could have changed the game,” Liufau said. “The Arizona game – I don’t like to go back on those because it’s kind of upsetting – but if I would have hit D.D. (Goodson) on his fade route and scored a touchdown it could have changed the game drastically . . . I’ve got to make better decisions this year.”
In a nutshell, that simple but vital objective tops Liufau’s priority list as he heads into his second season as the Buffaloes’ starting quarterback. It’s been awhile since CU had the luxury of a returning starter at that position, going back to the strange Cody Hawkins-Tyler Hansen swap out of another coaching era.
Liufau, who took over as the starter in the fourth series of last season’s fifth game (at Arizona State), could become the first Buffs quarterback since Joel Klatt (2003-04-05) to become a three-year starter. But that’s pushing w-a-a-a-y past the shared focus of Liufau and offensive coordinator/QB coach Brian Lindgren.
Of more immediate importance is 2014 and how to best improve a CU offense that ranked last in the Pac-12 in total offense (369.9 yards a game) and 11th in scoring (25.4 points a game). Two springs and a full season in the new system mean more familiarity across the board, but there are still the matters of keener overall execution and, in Liufau’s case, more heady decision-making.
And Lindgren already sees the latter happening.
“Things are slowing down for him and he has a really good grasp of the offense right now,” Lindgren said. “He feels comfortable in the concepts we’re running and I think he’s able to see the defense and adjust accordingly. That’s allowed him to make better decisions and be more consistent.”
Added Liufau: “Knowing the offense comes with time. Last year as a freshman coming in, you have limited reps in the summer and you come into fall camp and it goes fast. Those freshmen now – Cade (Apsay), Ty (Gangi) and even Jaleel (Awini) – they’re going through it. Camp goes fast, the plays come in, you put in new plays every day . . . I think, compared to last year, I pretty much have the playbook down pat. There are still some protections, like knowing where we might be vulnerable sometimes, so there are still things to improve on.”
But that’s what August camp is all about, and Lindgren believes by the time the Buffs open against Colorado State on Aug. 29 (Invesco Field at Mile High, 7 p.m.) his top two QBs will polished and prepared. Coach Mike MacIntyre declared Liufau the 2014 starter following spring practice, but that hasn’t slowed the improvement of Jordan Gehrke, who transferred before last season from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College.
Gehrke, said Lindgren, “had a great spring and really made strides.” Preseason camp has seen Liufau and Gehrke each rotate with the No. 1 and No. 2 offense, and Lindgren says his comfort level with Gehrke directing the first offense doesn’t dip.
Behind Liufau and Gehrke are two freshmen – one on scholarship (Cade Apsay), one a walk-on (Ty Gangi) – and an Air Force transfer (Jaleel Awini) who must sit out this season to regain his eligibility. Another walk-on (Will Fischer-Colbrie) starts practice when fall classes begin.
The best-case scenario, conceded Lindgren, is to redshirt Apsay and have Gangi prepared. “We’ll see what kind of camps they have,” Lindgren said. “Ideally with a quarterback, you give him another year to develop. That’ll be a decision by the staff at the end of camp. We’ve only got four eligible guys on the roster, but hopefully we have the ability to redshirt Cade.”
Liufau and Gehrke staying healthy would permit that, but then fall Saturdays hold no guarantees. Both of the returnees are sturdy enough, and both will be protected through preseason camp.
Liufau’s development from last season to this hasn’t come only in getting more acquainted with the playbook and offense. When Liufau reported last summer, Lindgren recognized a couple of mechanical flaws but held off in trying to correct them.
“He had some things I didn’t really want him to focus on last season,” Lindgren said. “He had so much on his plate, and in the off-season we challenged him with some things – a better base, a little more knee bend. He was getting on his front leg a little too soon (passing) and locking his knee up, keeping his weight a little back a little bit longer.”
When this off-season arrived, Liufau began refining his “platform,” which Lindgren believes has “given him a little more accuracy on some of the balls downfield.”
Liufau agreed: “It’s helped a lot. I believe I improved on it but I’m still not fully where I need to be. Last year I locked my leg early a bunch, especially on deeper throws. It took some of the power, the velocity, off. Not that I have a cannon of an arm anyway, but it’s stronger than it should be. This year I’ve done a better job with the platform, keeping my shoulders level and not rocking back and forth and keeping on my backside where all my power’s at.”
Lindgren’s completion goal for his QBs has always been between 60-65 percent. Liufau was close in his first college season, finishing at 59.4 percent (149-of-251 for 1,779 yards, with 12 TDs and 8 interceptions). In addition to lowering that last figure, raising the completion percentage and making better decisions, Lindgren simply wants more weekly consistency from the position.
“Week-to-week it’s being able to see what the defense is giving us and understanding our system enough to know where the answers are and getting the ball to the right spot,” Lindgren said. “That’s what we need; we had it at times last year but we have to be overall more consistent. The things we talk about all the time are the rush attempts and pass completions.
“There are a lot of screens in our offense in the quick game. We want to get our playmakers the ball in space, let them make plays. You’re more efficient at that if you’re able to play with a higher completion percentage. I think (Liufau) seeing the defense and being able to identify coverage better allows him to anticipate some things. That’s really helped him.”
Liufau believes his timing with his receivers has gone up exponentially this season and that the offense’s overall familiarity with MacIntyre’s and Lindgren’s modified pistol scheme will allow faster play. In one practice last week, the offense was given 15 minutes to run 32 plays “and I think we got those done with a minute and a half to spare,” Liufau said.
“That shows compared to last year and even this spring that we’re not running out of time,” he continued. “It shows how much guys can pick up and recognize what the defense is running and us carrying out the play, then being able to go to the next play and doing the same thing over again. I think it’s a lot better compared to last year.”
He also think CU’s 2014 offense will be more balanced, primarily because of an offensive line that has showed well early in camp in the running game. “They’re opening up great holes, just huge,” Liufau said.
That the Buffs are fortunate to have a returning starter at quarterback might fall squarely on a coach who’s no longer on the staff. Liufau was recruited by former QB coach Rip Scherer, now an associate athletic director at UCLA. Scherer recruited Liufau early, coaxed a commitment from him and worked on keeping Liufau committed even after Jon Embree and his staff were let go following the 2012 season.
“I won’t lie, I was really upset when that staff was taken out,” Liufau said. “I had a really great relationship with coach Rip. He’s like one of the main reasons I came here. Afterwards, he called constantly and told me to stay committed, stay here, that Coach ‘Mac’ (MacIntyre) and his guys were great. (Scherer) kept me here. I met up with him at UCLA (last season) when we played them at the Rose Bowl and talked to him before and after the game. We still have a good connection.”
Lindgren also recognized Scherer’s contribution with Liufau: “Rip did a great job of recruiting him . . . I’m very thankful that previous staff had made the decision to go on Sefo and get him committed so early. They had to keep him through signing day. I’m really appreciative (Scherer) kept on Sefo.”
That persistence puts Lindgren in a better position this August than he was last August. “Any time you have a guy returning with game experience, it’s huge,” he said. “You can do all this stuff on the practice field, but until you get him on Saturday afternoon in front of the fans and under the lights and with the speed of the game, to have a guy who’s been in the fire and had to operate under that type of pressure – particularly on the road – it’s just a huge thing for a football team.”
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Brian Lindgren, second season at CU
Returning starters: Sefo Liufau, So.
Returnees: Jordan Gehrke, So.
Stat line: Liufau completed 59.4 percent of his passes (149-of-251) in 2013, a shade below the 60-65 percent QB coach Brian Lindgren wants from his quarterbacks. Liufau’s TD to interception ratio was 12-8, which also needs to improve.
Bottom line: Liufau should be better overall in his second season as a starter, and Gehrke’s continued improvement puts Lindgren at ease when/if Liufau needs to come out. But behind the top two QBs, the experience level drops to zero. Freshman Cade Apsay will be the only scholarship freshman available, but the hope is that he can redshirt.