It's a conundrum of sorts. Colorado was the only team in the Big 12 to rise from a disastrous season in 2006 to a bowl in 2007, but even with a historic romp of Nebraska that launched the Buffaloes into the postseason, a six-point loss in the Independence Bowl gave the program its first back-to-back losing seasons in 22 years. And yet evidence suggests Colorado is back. Third-year coach Dan Hawkins hopes for another long season. And for all the right reasons.
Briefly: Buffaloes look to continue to climb
Searching for progress? It's not hard to find some at Colorado, which under Hawkins went from 2-10 to 6-7 for a third-place finish in the North and went from averaging 16.3 points to 27.3 in his second season. A comeback-fallen-short against Alabama in the Independence Bowl prevents this from being a complete feel-good story.
That's where the 2008 Buffaloes come in, as they look to remain in the upper-half of a vastly improved North Division, build off last season's promising chapter and lead the program to its fourth bowl in five years. It's a simple script, but Hawkins also understands the question on the minds of all the experts: Could Colorado improve but not have its record reflect it in the fall?
"It's definitely a dog fight but that's what makes it fun and that's why I don't think you can assume your record is going to continue to improve when you have to scratch and claw every week," Hawkins said. "I don't know that any of that is a given."
One thing became apparent in the spring: Hawkins has impacted the program's culture and has gained support as a crowd of 17,800 attended the spring game, eclipsing the previous spring game record of 13,642 that saw a preview of the 1989 team nine months before it played for the national title.
"It was really fun," Hawkins said. "It helps the players and they get energized by it. It was a great day and we just have to keep building, keep going."
The Buffaloes would return 15 starters except for two things: 1) Freshman All-American offensive guard Kai Maiava announced April 23 that he intends to transfer after moving to fullback, and 2) senior cornerback Benjamin Burney will likely redshirt due to injuries. Still, talent returns with an experienced Cody Hawkins at quarterback and All-Big 12 defensive tackle George Hypolite. But Dan Hawkins adds, "There are a lot of young pups that will have to grow up in a hurry." While the addition of touted freshman Darrell Scott could help a group of tailbacks to replace some of the yards lost by departed Hugh Charles, the dismissal of linebacker Jake Duren in the spring (he was arrested on suspicion of first-degree criminal trespass) means five players have had a run-in with the law since January.
Motivation comes in different forms and Hawkins, who at the conclusion of one practice last spring ordered his players to close their eyes and envision winning, employed another unique antic this spring, albeit a fun one, with his Wheels of Fortune. Two days before the first major scrimmage, coaches brought out two game show-style wheels for players to spin for awards such as a free pass on conditioning or penalties such as laundry duty.
It was an exercise of luck. With preparation and opportunity, a bit of luck could go a long way in determining the Buffaloes' outcome this fall. The Buffaloes should score more points and have a decent home schedule but must travel to Florida State, Kansas and Missouri.
"There's a real danger in just assuming that, 'Well, you won two and then you won six so this year you'll win eight, nine or 10,'" Hawkins said. "We will be emphasizing all of the little things that make teams great. We have to go back to the basics and all of the tangible and intangible things. We always have to keep evolving and reinventing ourselves to stay ahead of the curve."
DAN HAWKINS 3rd yr 8-17, 6-10 Big 12
Offense: Although Hawkins said he wouldn't decide on a quarterback until training camp, the thought here is he's just trying to keep his son, Cody, on his toes. He demonstrated growth during his freshman season in completing 56.4 percent of his passes for 2,693 yards and 19 TDs and 15 INTs, and didn't toss an INT in three of his final four games.
RETURNING STARTERS: 6
Dan Hawkins and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mark Helfrich spent the spring installing more complex schemes ("You can't show up on your first day and build a spaceship," Hawkins said) and Cody, despite not owning the strongest arm, seemingly thrived in the new hurry-up, no-huddle offense that relies on hand signals from the sideline. Hawkins completed 42 of 70 passes for 523 yards and six TDs and 1 INT in three major scrimmages, including a 15-for-22 effort for 185 yards and 2 TDs in the spring game. Senior Nick Nelson had the highest completion percentage during the spring and has proven capable with redshirt freshman Matt Ballenger providing depth.
They'll have several talented pass-catchers with experience for the first time in a while and two flashy up-and-comers to distribute the ball to across the field. Sophomore Scotty McKnight returns a team-leading 43 receptions and 7 TDs and Patrick Williams finished tied for third with 27. Josh Smith, Kendrick Celestine and fifth-year senior Cody Crawford also return but look for contributions from a pair of redshirt freshmen in 6-foot-2 Markques Simas and 5-foot-8 Jason Espinoza, a former safety who saw significant action in workouts.
With starting tight end Riar Geer suspended, junior Patrick Devenny, who arrived a couple years ago as a quarterback, stepped up with five catches for 78 yards in the spring game and 12 catches for 264 yards and 3 TDs in major scrimmages but was the only tight end on scholarship in the spring.
"We always felt like (Devenny) was a good pass receiver," Hawkins said. "He's developed some more confidence. It was a tough transition but he's starting to show up and make some plays."
The race to replace Hugh Charles at tailback will tighten when Scott arrives for training camp. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder and No. 1-rated running back by Rivals.com comes with four-star signee Ray Polk to battle for a spot in the rotation with sophomore Demetrius Sumler, who had 335 yards and 4 TDs last season, and Brian Lockridge, who was expected to have post-spring hernia surgery. Interestingly, Colorado didn't commit its first fumble in the spring until its 154th snap in its second major scrimmage.
"Clearly, it's their time and they have to know that," Hawkins said. "There needs to be a sense of urgency there."
Sophomore Nate Solder moved from tight end and at 6-foot-8, 280 pounds could be a likely candidate at left tackle, where he will likely compete with redshirt freshman Ethan Adkins for the right to fill a crucial position vacated by three-year starter Tyler Polumbus. Sophomore Ryan Miller should anchor the right tackle spot after earning Freshman All-American honors. Reliable center Daniel Sanders is back, but the spots beside him won't be decided until the fall. Redshirt freshmen Matthew Bahr and Shawn Daniels are the top candidates at left guard while junior and seven-time starter Devin Head and fifth-year senior Erick Faatagi, who was academically ineligible last season, will battle at the right guard spot.
Defense: How close were the Buffaloes a year ago? Well, they suffered four losses by 10 or fewer points. While their defensive effort was admirable in a 19-14 loss to Kansas, they allowed 33 unanswered points in a loss at Arizona State, 55 points at home against Missouri, squandered a 21-point lead at Iowa State and fell behind 27-0 against Alabama in the Independence Bowl.
"You always want to get your best players on the field," he said. "It's nice to get some new looks."
The 6-foot, 210-pound Smart finished with 80 tackles a year ago – exactly half as many as All-American Jordon Dizon. But upon reviewing tape of the Buffaloes' last game, Hawkins asserted, "He's fully capable of having a Jordon-type season." While Smart will man middle linebacker and Burton -- he sat out 2007 after being ruled academically ineligible -- fills the weakside spot, Beatty is the surprise. Beatty, who flourished as a rush linebacker in the 3-4, will continue to pressure two-year starter Jones at the strongside spot in training camp. Watch for outside linebacker Shaun Mohler to figure into the mix when the No. 17-rated junior college prospect by Rivals.com arrives in the fall.
In Hypolite the Buffaloes return a star that will draw double-teams for a second-straight season while senior nose tackle Brandon Nicholas returns a team-high 8 tackles for a loss and will be back in the fall after a shoulder muscle strain kept him out of the spring game. Senior left end Maurice Lucas rounds out the experienced trio. The right end spot should be decided between junior Jason Brace, sophomore Marquez Herrod and fifth-year senior Drew Hudgins, who saw limited action in the spring while recovering from a ruptured Achilles. Coupled with the linebacking corps, Hawkins has high hopes in improving upon 20 sacks a year ago, which ranked ninth in the league, and a next-to-last finish in red zone defense at 91.7 percent.
"We did a much better job pressuring the quarterback (in the spring)," Hawkins said. "We're going into year three, so we're able to add new wrinkles. The details, communication and specifics get a lot better."
With the graduation of All-Big 12 selection Terrence Wheatley and an array of injuries and surgeries to Burney, who will likely redshirt, cornerback becomes a glaring question. Sophomore Jimmy Smith should make an impact but senior Gardner McKay and junior Cha'pelle Brown have the most experience of the group. All three saw time in the starting rotation in the spring, so expect this battle to carry-over into the fall.
"You can never have enough corners," Hawkins said, "especially in this league where you play a lot of nickel and dime."
The backfield will lean on strong safety Daniel Dykes, the top returning tackler with 83 stops. Dykes had a tremendous spring but his counterpart, senior free safety Ryan Walters, wasn't so fortunate. Walters, who had 63 tackles last season, missed the entire spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. He should be healthy by training camp. His replacement, redshirt freshman Anthony Perkins, had 20 tackles, including a team-leading 14 solo stops during spring scrimmages.
RETURNING LEADERS – SS Daniel Dykes (83 tackles, 1 INT), LB Jeff Smart (80 tackles, 4 loss, 2 FR), DT George Hypolite (44 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT)
BIG 12 RANKINGS: DEFENSE
Kicking game: For the third time in three seasons, the Buffaloes will have a new starting placekicker. This race will be decided between sophomore Aric Goodman and freshman Jameson Davis. Goodman, who sat out last season after he handled starting duties at Wyoming as a freshman, made all four PATs and drilled a 44-yarder in the spring game. Junior Matt DiLallo returns at punter after averaging 39.8 yards on 64 punts, which ranked seventh in the league. While Espizona is the favorite at punt returner after he proved his consistency, including 95 yards on seven returns in a scrimmage, Wheatley's departure means kickoff return duties remain wide open. McKnight has the only returning experience of any candidate. He returned one kickoff last season.
From his lips:"They ran well, we had a great tempo, good execution and great hustle. We're miles ahead of where we've been the past couple springs." — Colorado coach Dan Hawkins
Figure-atively speaking:0 — With a 30-24 loss to Alabama in the Independence Bowl, the number of wins by Hawkins in five outings against non-conference BCS opponents. The Buffaloes lost to Arizona State (21-3) and at Georgia (14-13) in 2006, then lost at Arizona State (33-14) and to Florida State (16-6) before getting Alabama to end the season.
Big 12 RANK:
Rivals.com '08 Best Catch: RB Darrell Scott Check it out. Scott rushed for 7,605 yards and 99 TDs, with 100-plus yards in 37 of his 41 career games. He rushed for 2,433 yards and 33 TDs as a senior at St. Bonaventure (Calif.) High School. That helped him to leave as the No. 1-rated running back and No. 4 high school player overall by Rivals.com. Now the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder looks to become the first true freshman running back since Kent Kahl in 1991 to start in a season opener at Colorado. But what exactly does Scott mean to Hawkins? "It's interesting because in one of my conversations with Darrell -- I always rely on a little Divine Intervention, and I was reading Mike Krzyzewski and Coach Krzyzewski talked about in his third year when they were still an under-.500 team," Hawkins said. "Johnny Dawkins was kind of his first big-time recruit. And he was telling Johnny that he just needed to believe in him, that he knew what he was doing and that he was going to get it done. Johnny Dawkins kind of started that whole run for him and that's kind of what I told Darrell. I said 'Everybody's got to start somewhere and I need you to believe in me and I need you to trust me and we've been used to winning and doing things right.'"
COLORADO 2008 SCHEDULE 6-7, 4-4
vs COLO ST (Denver) (W, 31-28 in 2007)
vs FLA ST (Jacksonville) (L, 6-16 in 2007)
at Kansas (L, 14-19 in 2007)
KANSAS STATE(L, 20-47 in 2007)
at Missouri (L, 10-55 in 2007)
at Texas A&M
IOWA STATE(L, 28-31 in 2007)
at Nebraska (W, 65-51 in 2007)
Repeat opponents from 2007: 7 (2-5)
Stumper at home: Kansas State
Defining stretch: at Kansas, Kansas State, at Missouri
Biggest yawwwwner: Eastern Washington
Save my seat for: West Virginia -- With Patrick White and Steve Slaton gone, who knows? The nation could see a primetime breakthrough for Hawkins in this 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
Decided by <7 pts: at Kansas
Bowl or Bust: Bowl
IMPROVEMENT IMMINENT , RECORD NOT-SO CERTAIN: Dan Hawkins has a plan. That's evident. His players have bought into it. That's evident, too. What Hawkins did in 2007 was join Mark Mangino (2003) as the only coaches in Big 12 history to turn a 2-win team into a bowl squad in his second season. Only Bob Stoops experienced a bigger winning differential (7 to 13 wins) between his first and second year. What Hawkins accomplished was miraculous and fans can expect the Buffaloes to experience even greater things in the future. However, while 2008 should be another step forward they could very well stay dormant in the North standings. Colorado will face four teams that won at least 10 games a year ago but it could make a major statement early against West Virginia. The kicker? The Mountaineers will mark the first of four Colorado opponents in a six-game stretch that finished in the Top 10 last season. Redemption will assuredly be on the Buffaloes' minds in division contests. — D.S.F.