BOULDER - The University of Colorado's potential spring quarterback duel between sophomores Nick Hirschman and Connor Wood has taken another late twist - another unwanted one for Hirschman.
Hoping to be cleared to participate in most or all of spring drills after undergoing off-season foot surgery, Hirschman suffered the same injury - a broken metatarsal bone - in his other foot over the weekend. He left Colorado Wednesday for his home in Los Gatos, Calif., and is scheduled to undergo surgery later this week.
He will miss all of CU's spring practices, but CU coach Jon Embree said late Wednesday that, "There still will be a competition, it just has to take place in (August) camp. The position still remains our top priority, the only real difference now is that with Connor being on the scout team last year, this gives him a chance to learn the offense with a little less pressure."
Hirschman, who started one game last season (Arizona State) and played in five, was not injured during any off-season conditioning work. He suffered the injury while walking and apparently misstepping.
Spring drills begin Saturday, leaving Wood, who transferred to CU from Texas last fall, and redshirt freshman John Schrock, who walked on last fall, as the Buffaloes' top two quarterbacks for opening day. Schrock quickly worked his way up the depth chart last August and was No. 3 behind starter Tyler Hansen and Hirschman when the 2011 season opened.
Also on the roster at the position is redshirt freshman Stevie Joe Dorman, a member of CU's 2011 recruiting class. A fourth QB, senior-to-be Brent Burnette, will graduate in May and has elected not to return to the squad. CU signed highly touted California high school quarterback Shane Dillon in February.
Before Hirschman's latest setback, Embree had said the recuperative process for the 6-3, 230-pounder would not be rushed, even if it meant holding Hirschman out until after spring break or limiting his work to seven-on-seven passing work.
"We want to make sure he's 100 percent," Embree said last week.
Of the widespread perception that Wood somehow had a leg up on winning the starting job, Embree said, "If I was Nick Hirschman, I'd be ecstatic, because all the pressure's on Connor Wood and not me."
That changes now, obviously giving Wood a leg up on the QB field if he can seize the opportunity before him this spring. Embree said last week that he and QB coach Rip Scherer want to see how Wood and Hirschman could "manage the offense, get guys in and out of the huddle, mix their cadence and make smart decisions. And are the protecting the ball? Those are the things I'm looking at."
That criteria now applies to Wood, Schrock, Dorman and Dillon when he arrives this summer.
Wood, said Embree, impressed the coaching staff with his endless tape study last fall even though he was sitting out his transfer season. "The only guy to watch more tape last season was (Tyler) Hansen; that tells you a lot," Embree said, noting that Wood appears to have a good grasp on what it takes to be a leader.
But, Embree added last week, "I don't have any preconceived notions at that position. I know none of the coaches do either, which is the beauty of it being in this situation. I'm excited to see them compete. Nick is very competitive and this is important to him; he's been in the system for a while. They both pretty similar in where they're starting from; it's not like one has a huge advantage. I think it just adds to it."
Schrock, said Embree before Hirschman's latest injury, "is in it (the competition), but for the most part it's a two-man deal."
That has changed dramatically. In his five games last fall, Hirschman completed 18 of 35 passes for 192 yards, with no interceptions and no touchdowns. He was sacked five times.
Embree wants a physical tone established CU opens spring practice. That was the emphasis in his first full season on the job and it won't change.
But how physical the Buffs can be and for how long might evolve into a daily coach's decision (Embree's) as spring drills progress. Criteria that will impact that decision will center mostly on the number of healthy bodies in both lines.
"To me, what you can do is determined by what have on your lines . . . those are guys who hit every snap and have collisions," Embree said. "We might have to be creative, maybe have more hitting at the beginning of spring and make sure we have healthy bodies. Then maybe we get creative in the second half if we have guys nicked.
"It will still be a physical spring, but I don't know how long we can be physical . . . from period to period, we might have to be ready to adjust."
Embree expects 76 players for spring drills, which per NCAA are limited to 15 practices - including the spring game on Saturday, April 14 at Folsom Field. Half of the practices will be conducted before spring break (March 24-April 1) and half after. Practices will be closed to the public.
When Embree convened his first CU spring drills last March, he and his staff spent significant time acclimating returning players to a new approach. That groundwork has been laid, which should enable the CU staff to focus more on fundamental improvement than instituting a cultural change.
Embree said a year has produced dramatic results: "There are a lot of things you remember from last year when we were trying to create a certain culture, a certain mindset. A lot of those things you can see now. From Coaches' Week, I feel good about where we're headed and that culture being changed. A lot of that is those guys and that leadership council . . . those guys taking ownership and investing in each other.
"This is a team that likes each other and is becoming closer as a team, I can see that. There's lots of little things that are necessary for you to win and be successful. You can see some of those starting to take shape."
A thumbnail look at positions and personnel expected to draw close spring attention:
DEFENSIVE BACK: Greg Henderson started at right corner last fall as a true freshman, but Embree wants Henderson to continue to improve despite breaking into the starting lineup almost from Day 1. Embree also wants to see the "competition in general . . . for a lot of those guys, their opportunity is now; when the freshmen come in, we have to give them their look. It's not 'go through spring and you get to start all over' . . . we're going to plug (freshmen) in with the second units and maybe a couple with the first just to see how they react." That amounts to a lot of plugging: Nine corners/safeties were signed in Embree's second recruiting class, which translates into an important spring for DBs like sophomores Josh Moten and D.D Goodson; and junior Terrel Smith. Redshirt freshman Sherrard Harrington (knee) is expected to return, but junior Jered Bell (knee) is out. Juniors Parker Orms and Paul Vigo will audition at safety alongside senior Ray Polk, who had an impressive off-season.
LINEBACKER: Embree is anxious to see whether junior inside 'backer Derrick Webb "can solidify himself" during spring drills, particularly because Webb's "arrow was going up" at the end of the 2011 season. Also drawing scrutiny will be 2011 freshmen Woodson Greer III, Brady Daigh and K.T. Tu'umalo, whom Embree said had gained weight during the off-season and winter conditioning work. "He can stop modeling for Baby Gap now and move to the big boy section," Embree joked. "I like his ability; we played him all over the place (last fall). In the Pac-12, you need that linebacker/safety-type kid. I like his skill set." Jon Major is set for what should be a stellar senior year, while senior Doug Rippy will sit out spring ball while continuing rehab (knee). Sophomore Kyle Washington, a former DB, will get a look at weak linebacker.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END: Embree wants to see "who steps up as the No. 2 and 3 guys" behind Paul Richardson. Tyler McCullough saw extensive duty as a freshman last season, and sophomore-to-be Keenan Canty appeared to be working his way up in the season's final month. Redshirt freshman Nelson Spruce will get ample scrutiny. Three freshmen receivers were signed in February. At tight end, a position depleted by graduation, Nick Kasa looks to have made a successful transition from defense and was impressive in winter conditioning work. But his spring performance will have a bearing on how much he sees the field as a senior when four freshman tight ends arrive this summer. That also goes for sophomore Kyle Slavin and junior Scott Fernandez.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Position coach Steve Marshall must replace both starting guards (Ryan Miller, Ethan Adkins) and one of the most promising prospects (Paulay Asiata) has left the team. Still, there are capable replacements in junior Gus Handler and sophomores Kaiwi Crabb and Daniel Munyer - one of whom will stay at center - and spring experimentation among several other players could produce another top inside performer. Sophomore Alex Lewis' development last season at left tackle offers some options with junior David Bakhtiari, and junior Jack Harris, who had earned the starting right tackle spot until he suffered a foot/ankle injury, has recovered. Also, Marshall hopes for more progress from impressive physical specimen Stephane Nembot at right tackle. CU signed only two O-linemen in February, but center Alex Kelley is coming off a grayshirt (delayed enrollment).
DEFENSIVE LINE: The personal development and technique improvement of Will Pericak (senior), Chidera Uzo-Diribe (junior) and Juda Parker (sophomore) are on Embree's check list. The spring DL numbers are at about 10, including four walk-ons. CU signed a school-record nine defensive linemen in the 2012 recruiting class, and as Embree noted, "A lot of guys will be playing for us who aren't here yet." But, he added, improvement in individual drills will be important this spring "because we're not going to expose them too much in team work." Tackle Nate Bonsu (shoulder) will miss spring work.
RUNNING BACK/FULLBACK: Getting a heads up on who might replace rushing leader Rodney Stewart is a spring priority. The top current candidates are sophomore Tony Jones and junior Josh Ford, who both saw duty last fall when Stewart was injured. Malcolm Creer, injured in his freshman season, is still in rehabilitation (knee). Help at running back arrives this summer, with a handful of incoming freshmen. One freshman fullback - Clay Norgard - was a January enrollee and will participate in spring work.
KICKING/RETURN GAME: Junior Justin Castor, who handled most of the kickoffs last fall, will compete with junior Zach Grossnickle. Embree said Grossnickle, who backed up punter Darragh O'Neill, had expressed an interest in kicking off and would be given a look. Placekicker Will Oliver, who also can kick off, is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Identifying a punt returner also will be a spring emphasis, Embree said.