The University of Colorado’s move west didn’t come without growing pains. The Buffs lost their first six Pac-12 conference games before winning two of their final three contests in 2011, finishing 3-10 overall.
Now, after losing starting quarterback Tyler Hansen and tailback Rodney Stewart to graduation, and possibly losing their most explosive player, wide receiver Paul Richardson, to a torn ACL, the Buffs will have to find new ways to move the ball if they hope to improve on their 2011 mark.
“We lose 28 players total in that senior class,” says second-year head coach Jon Embree. “A number of them were major contributors for our program. We will have a new tailback. Tony Jones played a lot for us, though, and obviously with Paul Richardson being out and losing [former wide receiver] Toney Clemons, I feel good about what we have incoming. It will help us condition to move forward.”
Helping fill the void left by Hansen will be incoming transfers from the universities of Texas and Kansas.
A former Jayhawk, Jordan Webb was recently named the starting quarterback for the 2012 season. He brings more than a season’s worth of starting experience to Colorado. Webb redshirted his first year in Lawrence, and graduated this past spring. Because Webb already has his degree in hand and would be pursuing a master’s a CU, he won’t need to sit out the standard year after transferring.
Connor Wood, who will compete with Nick Hirschman for the backup spot, transferred to CU last fall. Wood originally attended Texas, but decided to leave after not being in the mix to start for the struggling Longhorns.
Sophomore Hirschman and freshman Shane Dillon — who may redshirt after a shoulder injury — round out the four-man group of QBs.
Webb will benefit from having Richardson at his disposal. The ultra-speedy junior tore his ACL in spring practice, but appears to be making a near-miraculous recovery, and hasn’t resigned hopes of playing this season.
“He’s been progressing rapidly,” Embree says. “I think as he continues to work, as he starts doing more football movements, we will have a better feel for if and when he will be available for this year. But I don’t think it’s something that’s out of the question.”
Embree and his staff could be faced with a very difficult decision if Richardson nears full strength toward the middle of the season. Redshirting him would be the more cautious move, but Richardson would no doubt want to play if he’s healthy enough.
On the defensive side, the Buffs return six starters. Linebackers Doug Rippy, Jon Major and Derrick Webb figure to improve a rushing defense that finished 10th in the Pac-12, allowing more than 180 yards per game.
Boulder High School grad Will Pericak is the only returning starter on a defensive line trying to pressure the Pac-12’s many excellent quarterbacks. Pass-rushing defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe figures to fill the void left by Josh Hartigan, who led the Buffs with eight sacks in 2011.
Colorado’s defensive backfield will be extremely young for the second straight season. Anchored by senior safety Ray Polk and sophomore cornerback Greg Henderson, defensive coordinator Greg Brown will have to choose between returning contributors such as Parker Orms and Terrel Smith or talented incoming freshmen Yuri Wright and Kenneth Crawley to fill the two remaining vacancies.
“We signed five very good players [at defensive back],” Embree says. “They will all have a chance to compete with Greg Henderson.”
The Buffs’ schedule is considerably easier this season than it was a year ago. Last season, CU trudged through 13 games — one more than usual. In addition to having to play an extra game (CU got no bye week), the Buffs had to face the likes of the University of Oregon, Stanford, Ohio State and University of Southern California.
Colorado will still face a tough Pac-12 contingent, but the non-conference portion of the schedule looks to be much more manageable. Games against Colorado State, Sacramento State and Fresno State should provide the Buffs a chance to get off to a good start, perhaps only needing three Pac-12 wins to reach a bowl game.
Pac-12 play begins with three surprisingly winnable games. Colorado kicks off the conference schedule by traveling to Pullman to take on Washington State. The Cougars replaced head coach Paul Wulff with former Texas Tech leader Mike Leach. After Washington State, CU returns home to face UCLA and Arizona State, both of which also have new coaches.
CU will enter the toughest stretch of its 2012 schedule around the end of October. The Buffs will travel to Los Angeles and Eugene, Ore., in consecutive weekends to face two potential national championship contenders, USC and Oregon. It doesn’t get easier as Colorado returns to the friendly confines of Folsom Field only to be greeted by nationally ranked Stanford.
Rounding out conference play will be a visit to Arizona to take on the Wildcats, and two home games against Washington and Utah.
“We’re excited to start our second year in the conference,” Embree says. “We finished with good momentum last year. Our goal this year is to find a way to get to a bowl game.”
Regardless of whether CU makes a bowl game, progress is necessary in Embree’s second year at the helm.
“Trying to create a certain environment and culture takes time,” Embree says of the challenges he faced in his first season. “We are asking them to do different things that maybe they weren’t asked to do, from practice to accountability, being on time, so it was a lot different from what they were used to.”