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Monday, August 22,2011

Buffing up for the football season

Previewing another year of pigskin, this time in a new conference

By Matt Sparkman and Alec Pronk

When Jon Embree, CU’s new head football coach, started looking at film from last year’s team, what he saw was a team with a crisis of identity.

“When people see us play, I want them to understand we’re a physical program, a physical team,” says Embree, a former tight end at CU under Bill McCartney. “I don’t think we’ve been able to run the football like we should.”

Embree, hired in November 2010, replaces Dan Hawkins, who recorded a less-than-stellar 19-39 record in just fewer than five years at the helm in Boulder.

A graduate of Cherry Creek High School, Embree stayed in state and played his collegiate ball at the University of Colorado as a tight end under McCartney, helping lay a solid foundation for a team that would eventually win three straight Big 8 titles and a national championship. Embree brings to the table a strong NFL pedigree, as do many on his staff. Embree played in the league for two years and coached for four, under coaching legends Mike Shanahan and Herman Edwards.

Experienced at the collegiate level as well, Embree spent a decade in Boulder as an assistant to McCartney, Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett.

As the Buffs move into their new digs in the Pac-12 conference, the coaching staff has to adjust to a different, speedier type of football compared to that of the rugged Big 12.

“There is so much diversity in this league offensively and defensively that you’re not going to see the same style on both sides of the ball,” says Embree. “If you play Oregon, you’re going to play fast-break football. And next week, if you’re playing Stanford, it’s power football.”

Embree and his staff face possibly the most difficult schedule in the nation. The Buffaloes are burdened with the task of playing 13 straight games without a bye week. The opposing talent is equally stringent. Foes such as Ohio State and Stanford will open their gates to the Buffaloes, while USC and national championship game-loser Oregon will grace Folsom Field in 2011. There are no easy wins, the closest being games against Colorado State and a home matchup against Pac-12 bottom-feeder Washington State.

Armed with a talented collection of offensive skill-position players, Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy has a relatively talented group to combat its foes. Senior running back Rodney Stewart headlines the list. Stewart ran for more than 1,030 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2009, and should help develop an identity of smash-mouth football that Embree strives to see. Senior quarterback Tyler Hansen enters his first year in a scenario where he is the undisputed starting quarterback, and sophomore wide receiver Paul Richardson came on strong towards the end of the 2009 season, emerging as a legitimate deep threat. Senior Toney Clemons looks to provide a possession-oriented option at receiver, filling the void left by Scotty McKnight, who was drafted in the seventh round by the New York Jets. Along the offensive line, CU is faced with the unenviable task of replacing first-round draft pick and New England Patriot Nate Solder. Senior Ryan Miller aims to anchor the o-line in his last season at Colorado.

On the defensive side of the ball, holes will have to be replaced in the secondary, as the Buffs lose star cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Jalil Brown to the NFL. Junior Ray Polk and senior Anthony Perkins, both safeties, should provide veteran leadership in the back four. The linebacking corps will have a fresh look as Doug Rippy, Jon Major and Derrick Webb take the reigns from graduated seniors B.J. Beatty, Michael Sipili and Tyler Ahles, who was converted to fullback over the offseason. On the defensive line, CU returns Josh Hartigan, Curtis Cunningham and Will Pericak, all former starters.

Hawkins sealed his fate with the help of his putrid 2-23 road record. No matter how ugly the record itself is, Embree doesn’t shy away from talking about it with the team. He believes it is an issue that should be addressed rather than ignored.

“I don’t run away from it,” says Embree. “I’ve addressed it with the team. We’ve lost 18 consecutive games on the road. I believe there is no one on our team that’s played in a road win. It starts from how you prepare.”

That refreshing air of accountability is being greatly appreciated by Buffs fans. Athletic Director Mike Bohn announced at around the end of July that CU had sold more than 23,000 season tickets, including all of its Folsom Field luxury boxes.

It’s clear that Embree’s attitude of professionalism and accountability is being embraced by CU’s players and fans, but it remains to be seen whether Colorado football can establish a hard-nosed identity and take the new Pac-12 by surprise in 2011.

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