BOULDER - Colorado football coach Jon Embree walked out of Folsom Field late Saturday afternoon with his top spring game wishes granted: Every player upright, no new injuries.
Beyond that, a fast-paced 42-play scrimmage tailored to meet Embree's key goal might have offered only a few selective snapshots of what the Buffaloes could look like when they open the 2012 season on Sept. 2 against Colorado State.
And that's probably a good thing.
Embree's focus Saturday was on the offense, which likely won't have its starting quarterback identified until mid-way through August camp or beyond. With sophomore Nick Hirschman missing all of spring drills with a broken bone in his right foot, transfer Connor Wood directed the No. 1 offense Saturday to a pair of 75-yard touchdown drives in its three possessions against a makeshift No. 1 defense that was missing two-thirds of its line (tackle Will Pericak, end Chidera Uzo-Diribe).
Still, Embree said he liked what he saw from Wood: "I thought No. 5 was sharp. He missed a couple of deep balls . . . but I thought he played well."
Embree said Wood, also a sophomore, was good with his decision-making: "That's always the No. 1 thing with quarterbacks . . . and I thought he was better with his accuracy in the shorter passes."
With Hirschman out of his protective boot and cleared to begin drop-back drills as well as continue throwing, Embree said he and his offensive staff would have to huddle to decide which QB takes the first snap with the first unit in August camp.
"All this (spring) did is give Connor an opportunity to get some 'reps' that he wasn't able to get, not being in training camp and being on the scout team (last fall)," Embree said. "Now they should be in there even; it should be a nice competition."
Knowing the defensive personnel CU puts on the field against CSU might not resemble Saturday's unit, Embree first wanted a final insight into several offensive areas. "I really wasn't defense-focused going into this," he said. "I just wanted to see some things out of our line and our targets in pass protection, knowing who to go to."
Players he said he specifically wanted to watch were Wood, freshman fullback Clay Norgard and sophomore receiver Tyler McCulloch. Of Norgard, he said, "It was good to see him do some things," and of McCulloch, Embree noted, "It was a pretty good performance."
Wood, who completed seven of his 10 passes for 137 yards and touchdowns to Jarrod Darden (42 yards) and Dustin Ebner (14), said he believed he and the Buffs "finished on a good note. We didn't have that many plays on offense (but) I think the productivity we had out of our first stringers was really satisfactory."
He acknowledged his misfires on a couple of deep throws, saying those "were my fault. There were some plays you want back and you have to keep working on, but as a whole I was happy about the way I played. After 15 practices I think I've done well. But there's still room to improve every day. You've got to happy with yourself, you can't be hanging your head because of a few bad plays. You've got to stay positive and work toward the next day and keep on improving."
The other QBs' passing stats: John Schrock, 3-of-8, 26 yards; Stevie Joe Dorman, 2-of-2, 34 yards. Schrock suffered the afternoon's lone sack.
REDISCOVERING THE RUN: The Buffs hope to be a better running team, but they'll need more work in August against an up-to-speed defensive line to get there. Embree said gauging spring progress in the ground game was difficult "because of the situation in the defensive line . . . I feel like we're targeted better on the guys we're supposed to block. I feel like the backs understand their fit and their footwork. We'll see when there's a full complement at the defensive line position in camp."
Nonetheless, he said sophomore Tony Jones was "very good" this spring and "separated himself from the other guys. The young guys will have to come in and catch him."
Jones, who had only four carries for 23 yards Saturday, called his game "a lot different" from last season. "I've tried to work on my pass protection, my routes and pretty much discipline everything that I do. I feel I'm definitely a better player . . . my speed is better, I can definitely break away."
But the afternoon's ground-game standout was junior Josh Ford, who rushed eight times for 141 yards and two TDs (43, 36 yards). Embree said Ford "has done well. He has to find a way to continue to improve, help us on special teams. We'll see what he does when the other kids get here in fall camp. You can't start slow; that's the good thing about having competition and depth at some of these positions. You can't start slow and ease your way into it. You have to come in training camp ready to go."
Ford also was a standout in the 2011 spring game, rushing 17 times for 164 yards, including a 56-yard TD. Linebacker Woodson Greer said the 5-9, 195-pound Ford "is slippery. He has great feet. If you're both going the same way he knows how to counteract that. He had a great scrimmage; he's amazing."
But Ford admitted he has work to do in a couple of areas that Embree and running backs coach Eric Bieniemy are mandatory for increased playing time - pass protection and route running.
"Coach 'EB' says anybody can run the ball," Ford said. "It takes the extra stuff to make you more valuable because anybody can run the ball. I've got to separate myself by getting better at routes. I need to get more elusive, I'm kind of like a robot. Tony (Jones) has an urgency in the pass game that we all have to have. 'Speedy' (tailback Rodney Stewart) was the No. 1 receiver on the team (and) I didn't have any catches last year."
Still, Ford impressed when he had the chance on Saturday. "I was pretending I was playing against Colorado State," he said. "I'm way better (than last year). I understand what the coaches want, I understand the mindset of the team and where coach Embree wants us to go. Just getting that little bit of experience I got in the Pac-12, it's left a taste in my mouth. That record (3-10) is definitely not where we want to be this year. We want a bowl game and to uphold the tradition of this program."
LOOKING AT THE BIG PICTURE: Coaches usually always come back to competition, and Embree returned to it in his post-practice comments. "I just thought the guys competed well and did what we asked them to do," he said, noting that entering spring drills he and his staff had identified 15-20 players they knew were going to have to play this fall and had focused on developing them and evaluating other players.
Also, Saturday's abbreviated scrimmage - the play total in the 2011 spring game was 105 - offered a chance for many players who might not see the field that often this fall.
Said Embree: "They got to play on Folsom Field, run out behind Ralphie . . . hopefully mom, dad and grandma and some of them were here to see that. It's a nice reward for some of those guys given the amount of work they've put in; a lot of time they toil in anonymity . . . they've practiced, gone through Coaches' Week. We wanted them to get an opportunity to play in front of family and friends.
"To me, this was like the fourth preseason game in the league - just get out and let the guys play, let some kids have an opportunity to show family and friends what they can do."
On a broader scale, Embree hopes the spring finale helps the Buffs' confidence and focus as they move into summer. He said Saturday, in reality, "is the beginning of our summer program. They'll have about a week off, we'll talk about some things from a school standpoint. I want them to finish in the right way, then let's get going on the football."
LINEBACKERS SHOULD BE SEEN AND HEARD: While Embree wasn't focused on defensive play, he couldn't help but notice Greer, a sophomore who made two unassisted tackles (one for a 5-yard loss).
"You could hear him playing, which is always a good sign for a defensive player," Embree said of the 6-3, 225-pound Greer. "He was physical and hitting."
Asked if being heard was a good thing, Greer said, "When I make good plays, I tend to talk a lot just to get everybody fired up, get the defense on a roll . . . I hope he heard my hits, too. I like to hit hard. So yeah, I think that's a good thing."
He also said he believes he has come "really far" this spring, particularly in the areas of "knowing the concepts, to attacking blocks, my technique . . . I think I came really far from last year - just levels above. I think I showed the coaches I'm able to compete at this level.
Elsewhere on defense this spring, Embree mentioned sophomores Brady Daigh (linebacker), Juda Parker (end) and Josh Moten (corner) as players who gained notice.
IS THERE A BOWL IN THEIR FUTURE? The Buffs and their coach hope so. CU hasn't been involved in the postseason since the 2007 Independence Bowl. Returning to a bowl game in 2012 has been an off-season catalyst.
"I still think it's achievable, but how far we go towards that goal and how we accomplish it, we're going to lean on some guys coming in," Embree said. "So how quickly - and I told this to the seniors and the rest of the team - how quickly you're able to help them assimilate, help them know how to practice, know how to work, will help us get to that goal.
"If you want to look at it as they're the bad guy because they coming here to compete for a job, then we'll all have the same fate - we'll all be home for Christmas."
LET HIM ENTERTAIN YOU - AND DON'T STOP: Maybe Saturday was the breakout afternoon that Jarrod Darden has been seeking and his coaches have been awaiting. The 6-5, 210-pound junior caught the scrimmage's longest pass - a 42-yard TD toss from Wood - and his pair of catches for 53 yards was the best among nine receivers.
Embree said he hopes Darden's day "gives him a little enthusiasm going into camp . . . It was good to see him start to make plays."
In fact, it was "the first time I've seen him make plays. I reached for my Junior Mints at that point . . . like I was at the movies. I was glad to see some entertainment from him."