Nick Hirschman's head is clear, his mind bright, his spirit goofy. That's what his Colorado teammates have come to know and more often than not love about him.
Hirschman could be viewing Friday's game against Utah as a launch platform for spring drills and beyond. But he's not, although he is due to make his second start of the season at quarterback, returning from a concussion that sidelined him for last week's loss against Washington.
Come spring, CU's severely unsettled QB position will have a roomful of competitors - six, including Hirschman, with at least one more on the way come fall. So, wouldn't it be fortuitous for Hirschman to treat this season's final game as perhaps a chance to create some separation for the future?
If it happens, so be it . . . but don't even suggest it.
"No, that's too far away to look at it like that," Hirschman said. "All of us on this team are focused on getting this win, a home win, a win for the seniors. Our minds aren't anywhere but there right now. This game is really about the seniors rather than all of us in that auditorium."
CU's 2012 senior class is among its smallest, numbering only eight. They are: linebackers Jon Major and Doug Rippy, defensive lineman Will Pericak, safety Ray Polk, receiver Dustin Ebner, tight end Nick Kasa and offensive linemen Ryan Dannewitz and Eric Richter. Also, a trio of fourth-year juniors will say goodbye to Buffs football on Friday - receiver Jarrod Darden, tight end DaVaughn Thornton and kicker Zach Grossnickle.
CU coach Jon Embree called the 2012 senior class "not a vocal group by any stretch of the imagination, which is OK. They're more lead-by- example players. How they worked and how they prepared week-in and week-out, a lot of them playing not quite being 100 percent, all those things were good for the younger kids to see."
Hirschman, a third-year sophomore, was among those who took notice. The departing players, he said, have "put in four or five years of work here and unfortunately didn't have a lot to show for it due to bad circumstances and things of that sort. A great way to honor them is to go out and get them a win on their Senior Day. That's the main goal of this team right now."
Before suffering a concussion at Arizona two weeks ago, Hirschman was operating more efficiently than at any time during his CU career. He left the game in the third quarter having completed 12 of 13 passes for 123 yards with one interception.
"I think I've been around that level since the beginning of the season and just continued to grind and wait for my opportunity to play," he said. "I finally got the opportunity to start and just tried to run with it, make plays and manage the offense."
This week in practice, he said he was "feeling normal again . . . it's nice to not be in a haze anymore. It was good to get back to practice; I just hope we can get a win this week."
Embree called Hirschman "fine from a concussion standpoint," but added this joking disclaimer: "It's hard to tell, he's goofy so you don't know if it is the concussion or if it is just him. He's a great personality."
But Embree agreed that the Arizona game was a huge uplift for Hirschman's confidence: "Yeah, without a doubt. It was good for him. He's been grinding and competing, waiting for his chance and he got it, and he is a classic example of when a guy that's got his opportunity is ready to take advantage of it. Last year when his opportunity came, he wasn't ready, at the Arizona State game. I think he learned a valuable lesson from that, on what prepared really means. He remembered it and embraced it instead of shrinking from it and he's done well."
To finish well Friday, Hirschman will have to solve a Utah defense that ranks third in the Pac-12 Conference against both the run (129.7 yards) and the pass (228.8). The Utes 'D' is anchored by perhaps the nation's best defensive tackle - senior Star Lotulelei.
The 6-4, 320-pounder's four fumble recoveries rank him second nationally this season. He's also Utah's tackle-for-loss leader (nine) and sack leader (four). Throw in his three forced fumbles and the same number of pass breakups, and it's clear why Hirschman says, "We're going to have to play our best to handle him."
Hirschman will direct a CU offense that limps into its final game ranked a solid last in almost every major Pac-12 offensive category. The Buffs are No. 12 in scoring (16.3 points), total offense (292.3) and passing offense (182.2). They are No. 11 in rushing offense (110.1). (Defensively, CU has tumbled into the abyss; the stats have redefined ugly.)
A 34-24 home loss to Arizona last weekend eliminated Utah (4-7) from postseason consideration for the second consecutive year. Last November in Salt Lake City, the Buffs played the villains, upsetting the Utes 17-14 in CU's first out-of-state win in 24 tries.
In a payback scenario of sorts, a Utah victory Friday would make this CU team (1-10) the first in recent history to go winless at Folsom Field. Hirschman said that's a no-no: "We don't want that. We have to come out fired up, aggressive and loose, just go out and have some fun and get a win."
It's the least that can be done for CU's long-suffering seniors and the accompanying trio making its final Folsom appearance. Addressing the sheer finality of it, Embree said, "It's the fact that this group will no longer be together after Friday at 4:30. That's it. What I've tried to get the seniors to understand is: athletes don't understand the end.
"Coach wants your playbook, that's when it's like, 'Wow, now what.' You walk out the building, that's it, you're done. There's no going back. There's no one more time."