In any occupation, first years on the job usually are littered with hurdles. No different for a first-year college football coach. Jon Embree stepped onto the figurative track last summer and found himself quickly confronted by barriers of every description.
Although his debut record (3-10) at Colorado might not offer categorical proof, Embree managed to clear most of his hurdles. That doesn't mean Year 2 will be any less trying, but it does mean a fundamental base has been established - which in turn means there's one less item for him and his staff to address and check off as the 2012 season closes in. His players report on Sunday, Aug. 5, with a team meeting that night and practice beginning the next day (Monday, Aug. 6).
"When you go somewhere and you're trying to create a certain environment and culture, that takes time," Embree said at the Pac-12 Conference football media day. "We went through a lot of different things (in 2011) and we're asking them to do different things that maybe they weren't asked to do different from practice, accountability, being on time . . . it was a lot different than maybe what they were used to."
In addition to whatever difficulties were created by his cultural revolution, a murderous 2011 schedule and an obvious shortage of manpower to cope with it didn't make Embree's first-year task any easier. The Buffs played 13 consecutive games (no bye week) and by the time they found themselves prepping for a scary string of games against the Pac-12's elite quarterbacks, the secondary was a shambles.
"We went through five suspensions before we played Stanford, Oregon, USC . . . the better quarterbacks in the league," Embree recalled. "That put us behind the eight ball."
The Buffs didn't escape that position until November, when they closed by winning two of their final three games and snapped a hideous 24-game out-of-state losing streak dating to 2007. Given the early trials, CU's finish proved better than its start, which Embree credits in part to his players finally adjusting to him, his staff and what was expected of them.
"When you're trying to create a new environment, a new culture, you've got to look at it from a long-term (position) and stick to your vision," he said. "That was difficult and I didn't get to do as much football as I thought I would have been able to. Having said that, this year we've been able to do more football from a coaching standpoint - and it's been good."
National college football forecasters don't expect much from Embree's second team. Neither does the media that regularly cover the Pac-12. In their preseason poll, the Buffs were picked to finish sixth (last) in the South Division behind (in order) USC, Utah, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State.
Of course, Embree and his players aren't buying into anyone's dire predictions. "Our goal this year is to find a way to get to a bowl game," he said, indicating a season of at least six wins.
But regardless of whether Embree and his staff believe there's a football climate change underway in Boulder, the outside world wants hard evidence in the W-L column and final conference standings. Getting to a bowl game would be a solid indication that change is underway.
Ten key questions facing the 2012 Buffs as preseason camp looms:
1. What might be Embree's chief concern in his second season?
This team's youth. But in his grand scheme, it also could be a blessing. He's been around young CU teams in the past and cites former coach Rick Neuheisel's last Buffs squad (1998) and its future achievement (2001 Big 12 championship). Regardless of their age/class, Embree doesn't want his best players on the sidelines. Given their druthers, all coaches would rather start experienced upperclassmen and have experienced backups behind them. But in a formative program like CU's, Embree will go with what he has - and that likely will mean a lineup littered with young players.
2. At what positions might freshmen makes themselves seen (and heard) early?
There are several. This is a large freshman class and Embree won't be reluctant to get his newbies on the field - provided they prove themselves in camp. Asked that question at last week's Pac-12 media day, he first mentioned the secondary, where five newcomers will join the competition. If any of the fivesome opens like corner Greg Henderson did last summer, Embree will be pleased. The D-line, which loses starters Curtis Cunningham, Josh Hartigan and David Goldberg, also gets a large infusion (seven) of fresh faces. (Nine defensive linemen were among last February's 28 signees, but CU is awaiting word on the status of Kisima Jagne, and Derek McCartney is scheduled to be a January enrollee.) Tight end, receiver and running back also could be positions that see freshmen make significant moves in camp.
3. Will receiver Paul Richardson play this season?
The guess (repeat: guess) here is yes. But the bigger question is when. His ACL rehab has gone at warp speed and "P-Rich" has absolutely no comfort zone as a spectator. Granted, the Buffs desperately need their most experienced, most explosive playmaker, but Embree has made it clear that a decision won't be rushed and it will involve Richardson, his family, CU's medical staff and the coaching staff. Richardson's future is at stake and the approach to it will not be made on anyone's whim.
4. What position competitions likely will draw the most attention in camp?
The obvious answer is the quarterback battle involving Nick Hirschman, Connor Wood, Jordan Webb and possibly Shane Dillon. But with 12 starters lost (seven offense, five defense) this camp also promises a bunch of other knockdown duels. Freshmen and redshirt freshmen are expected to compete for starting (or at least depth chart) positions at a handful of other critical spots. Still, Embree had better be primed to answer daily questions about the progress of his QBs and who among them is on the move.
5. What's the health status of Hirschman (foot) and Dillon (shoulder), and how quickly can Webb get up to speed?
Hirschman, whose early March misstep cost him all of last spring's drills, is listed as "full go" while Dillon, who underwent surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder, is listed as "day-to-day." But Embree appears optimistic about Dillon's camp participation. As for Hirschman making up for his lost time, Embree believes having to focus on the mental part of his position last spring might have been a boon for Hirschman. By all accounts, Webb is a quick study, and his starting experience at Kansas gives him something his competitors lack.
6. Who steps into Rodney "Speedy" Stewart's vacated spot at tailback?
The first look goes to sophomore Tony Jones, whose 297 rushing yards in 2011 included 72 in Stewart's absence in CU's 17-14 win at Utah. Josh Ford returns for his junior season after submitting another eye-opening spring, and sophomore Malcolm Creer is classified as "full go" after in-season 2011 knee surgery. Three incoming freshmen RBs also will be given close looks.
7. Embree and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy have emphasized the need for a strong running game. Will the Buffs have one this season?
CU averaged 108.7 rushing yards a game in 2011. That was about one quarter's worth of ground productivity in Bieniemy's day. That paltry figure left the Buffs ninth in the Pac-12 and 106th nationally. Nobody's happy with that number and improving on it will be one of this season's priorities. Tony Jones is listed as a 190-pounder, but both Embree and Bieniemy have cited a need for bigger backs and they've snagged four in Creer (205 pounds) and incoming freshmen Terrence Crowder (210), Davien Payne (225) and Donta Abron (190). Plus, January enrollee Clay Norgard is a 240-pound fullback.
8. Despite losing starting guards Ryan Miller and Ethan Adkins, can the O-line be fairly solid?
Coach Steve Marshall believes so. He's got his starting center (Gus Handler) and both tackles (David Bakhtiari, Ryan Dannewitz) back, plus a pair of players (Alexander Lewis, Daniel Munyer) who saw considerable duty in 2011. The return of tackle Jack Harris, the 2011 right-side starter before an early season injury, could allow Dannewitz to move to guard. Marshall is still developing depth and is hopeful Kaiwi Crabb, Alex Kelley and Stephane Nembot, the physical monster who switched from defense last season, can provide it.
9. Should the coaching staff feel any more secure about the kicking game this season?
Yes - provided several capable punt/kickoff returners step up early. If/when he returns, Richardson has the ability but the coaches likely will think long and hard about using him in either role and exposing him to further injury. The Buffs used a pair of freshmen (Darragh O'Neill, Will Oliver) in 2011 as their respective punter and kicking specialist, and both performed well. O'Neill averaged 38.8 yards per punt last season while Oliver made 11-of-16 field goals and 29-of-31 PAT attempts. That said, special teams coach J.D. Brookhart will be looking for O'Neill to sharpen his rugby-style punting and Oliver to focus more on getting the ball higher faster. Reliable snapper Ryan Iverson returns and versatile athlete Justin Gorman looks solid as a holder.
10. Will Embree's second camp be structured any differently than his first?
Not significantly. Physical play will be emphasized, as
it was last summer. But here's one difference: Last August, the CU
staff had to be cognizant of a 13-game schedule with no open week, no
built-in healing time. Not so this season; the first week in October
brings a bye. That's not to say Embree and his coaches believe they can get away with not "practicing smart" in this camp, but a schedule like last
season's definitely demands adjustments. This camp's practice schedule
shows the first day in pads on Aug. 10 (four days in) and the players'
first day off not coming until Aug. 26. That could be readjusted depending on progress and performance. The camp schedule is liberally
sprinkled with "walk-throughs," teaching and review periods designed to
bring everyone up to speed. Only two major scrimmages are set. All
practices are closed to the media and public, and Embree has made his incoming freshmen off-limits to interviews until after the opener (Sept. 1 vs. Colorado State).