Colorado: Beyond the Box Score Offensive Preview

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.

The non-conference previews have drawn to a close, and it's time to get to the meat of the schedule.  Mizzou begins conference play on October 9 with a visit from a Colorado Buffaloes team that has suffered a slow-but-steady descent from big-time football since they won 19 combined games in 2001-02.  Naturally, they have been named as a "potential sleeper" in the Big 12 North virtually every year since then, but that has stopped this year.  Most pundits seem to have given up on Dan Hawkins' club ... so does that mean this is the year they actually ARE a sleeper?  Eh, probably not.

2009

Record: 3-9 (2-6 in the Big 12)
F/+: 79th
S&P+: 73rd
Scoring Margin: -6.6 per game
Conference Scoring Margin: -7.8 per game
Wins (F/+ Ranking in parentheses): #47 Texas A&M (35-34), #60 Kansas (34-30), #96 Wyoming (24-0)
Losses: #5 Texas (14-38), #17 Nebraska (20-28), #30 West Virginia (24-35), #38 Oklahoma State (28-31), #54 Missouri (17-36), #82 Iowa State (10-17), #87 Colorado State (17-23), #90 Kansas State (6-20), #97 Toledo (38-54)

All the problems that have plagued Dan Hawkins' tenure in Boulder got worse in 2009.  An offense that has been steadily disappointing cratered at time, and when the offense actually clicked a bit, the defense fell apart.  Colorado lost by scoring just six points against Kansas State, and they lost by allowing 54 to Toledo (the Rockets scored over 40 just twice the rest of the season -- against moribund defenses Florida International and Eastern Michigan).  They put up a good fight in losing to Nebraska and Oklahoma State, and they put up a rather pitiful fight in losing to Colorado State.  They looked solid at time, handling a bowl-bound Wyoming team with ease and knocking off Texas A&M, but the next time they actually string together back-to-back good games will seemingly be the first under Hawkins.

In the end, this was a team that went 2-5 against teams in the F/+ Top 60, and 1-4 against teams in the Bottom 60.  There is no rhyme or reason for when Colorado does or doesn't play well, but the trend is pointing downward, to say the least.

Coaching

Head Coach: Dan Hawkins
Record at Colorado: 16-33 (10-22 in the Big 12)
Career Record: 69-44 (108-56-1 including five years at Williamette)

One of the more enjoyable personalities in college football, Dan Hawkins has, to put it in both simple and obvious terms, not lived up to the expectations set for him in Boulder.  After a long string of success and innovation at Williamette College, Hawkins was hired by Boise State to continue the Broncos' upward momentum.  He did just that, as the Broncos went 53-11 in his five seasons.  After a 2-3 start in his first season (2001), Boise ripped off 42 wins in 45 games.  Boise was innovative, exciting, and rugged.  He seemed as close to a sure-fire success as possible when Colorado hired him away following the 2005 season.  Instead, Hawkins has proven that there is no such thing as sure-fire success.  The talent left to him by Gary Barnett was not up to par, and even as he brought his own, sometimes highly-rated players into the fray, his tactics and methods of development have failed.  (A rash of injuries, particularly on the offensive line, haven't helped matters.)  Hawkins has unexpectedly built a rather consistently solid defense ... and just as unexpectedly failed to generate any offensive momentum whatsoever.

Offense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 102nd

S&P+: 105th
Success Rate+: 111th
PPP+: 101st

Standard Downs S&P+: 106th
Passing Downs S&P+: 69th

Redzone S&P+: 72nd

Q1 S&P+: 103rd
Q2 S&P+: 96th
Q3 S&P+: 77th
Q4 S&P+: 110th

1st Down S&P+: 103rd
2nd Down S&P+: 101st
3rd Down S&P+: 92nd

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 99th
Rushing SR+: 108th
Rushing PPP+: 83rd

Standard Downs: 106th
Passing Downs: 30th

Redzone: 56th

Adj. Line Yards: 76th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 107th
Passing SR+: 105th
Passing PPP+: 104th

Standard Downs: 108th
Passing Downs: 85th

Redzone: 69th

Adj. Sack Rate: 98th
SD Sack Rate: 105th
PD Sack Rate: 93rd


It's pretty hard to break down these numbers in a way that is favorable to Colorado.  They were terrible running on standard downs (106th), they were terrible passing on passing downs (85th), they were awful in the first quarter (103rd), awful on first down (103rd), and awful in both run-blocking (76th) and pass protection (98th).  Tyler Hansen did make an impact in one way: his scrambling helped Colorado to a downright solid ranking in rushing on passing downs (30th).  So there's that.  Of course ... if your strength is your ability to scramble on passing downs ... yeah, you really don't have a strength.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A* 98 75 102 102
S&P+ 53 101 73 113 105
Success Rate+ 60 92 81 111 111
PPP+ 51 99 61 111 101
Rushing S&P+ 69 67 94 101 99
Passing S&P+ 46 112 43 108 107
Standard Downs S&P+ 53 77 79 108 106
Passing Downs S&P+ 55 90 42 111 69
Adj. Line Yards 83 57 104 96 76
Adj. Sack Rate 29 106 14 76 98
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.

These numbers show the rather steady disintegration of Colorado's offense from the end of the Gary Barnett era, through the Dan Hawkins era.  Colorado's offense was not too solid in Barnett's final season (2005), with Joel Klatt behind center and Hugh Charles doing most of the rushing, but they weren't terrible.  At least ... they weren't terrible compared to what followed.  Hawkins gets a free pass for the 2006 performance, as new quarterback Bernard Jackson was frightening (in a good way) with his legs but twice as frightening (in a bad way) with his arm.  Starting in 2007, Hawkins' son Cody took over as a redshirt freshman, and he did alright considering there was no semblance of a running game.  The bottom dropped out, however, in 2008.  Hawkins was supposedly recruiting well, and in 2008 he brought in all-world high school running back Darrell Scott ... and the running game got worse.  The last two years have been just awful, as Colorado has put together almost the worst sustained offensive numbers of any major conference team outside of future conference mate Washington State.  Colorado has been bad on what I've been calling the "play-calling downs" (standard downs), and though Hansen threw them a lifeline on passing downs last season, the play-calling, execution and talent have all been thoroughly lacking.  And as mentioned earlier, injuries have only made things worse.

Quarterback

Whoops ... this isn't the Colorado quarterback...
That's better. (We only have one more year of "Don't call me Taylor Hanson" jokes to go if Colorado leaves in 2011 -- have to take advantage of every opportunity.)

2009 Unit Ranking: 95th (12th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Tyler Hansen (6'1, 205, Jr., 129-for-231 passing, 1,440 yds, 8 TD, 7 INT; 61 rushing yds., 1 TD)
Cody Hawkins (5'11, 190, Sr., 121-for-239 passing, 1,277 yards, 10 TD, 11 INT; -93 rushing yds., 1 TD)
Nick Hirschman (6'4, 220, Fr.)

During Dan Hawkins' tenure, Colorado has thrown offers at plenty of talented quarterbacks -- Josh Freeman, Sherrod Harris and Greg McElroy in the 2006 recruiting class, Aaron Corp and Kirk Cousins in 2007, Landry Jones in 2008, Matt Barkley and Jordan Wynn in 2009 -- and yet, all he has to work with are his son Cody and Tyler Hansen.

It is easy to poke fun at this tandem, and to be sure, there are few major conference quarterback units worse than them, but Colorado's failure isn't necessarily their fault.  Hansen is a good scrambler, and Hawkins has the "coach's son" mentality down pat, but despite their physical limitations, they haven't been surrounded by anything resembling breakthrough talent.  They completed a combined 53% of their passes last season, with 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions -- pretty much the definition of mediocre.  But if the running game offered more of a threat, or they had a true, big-time receiver to whom they could throw (Markques Simas offered glimpses of major talent, but to say he has the proverbial "ten-cent head" is an insult to dimes), then they could probably be sufficient FBS-level quarterbacks.  Instead, they have been asked to come through at a level higher than what they are capable, and anytime your offense is this bad for a sustained amount of time, the quarterback is going to get most of the hassle for it.

Running Backs

Image via Ralphie Report

2009 Unit Ranking: 93rd (12th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Rodney Stewart (5'6, 175, Jr., 804 rushing yds., 4.1 per carry, 9 TD; 65 rec. yds)
Brian Lockridge (5'7, 180, Jr., 53 rushing yds., 4.4 per carry)
Quentin Hildreth (5'8, 185, RSFr.)

As with the quarterbacks, in the right offense Rodney Stewart could be a solid weapon.  Hell, in this offense he has had his moments.  In his third collegiate game, he powered out 166 yards in an upset win over West Virginia; he went for 141 and a touchdown against Kansas State later that season.  Despite his small stature, he powered out 20+ carries in four straight games in 2009, including a 32-for-127 performance against Wyoming and 24-for-108 against Kansas.  In fact, he had 100+ yards in all three of Colorado's wins last season.  The problem, of course, is that he has disappeared consistently (the two games after Kansas, he managed 26 carries and 52 yards against KSU and Mizzou), giving you the impression that he can take what iffy defenses give him but can't create anything on his own.  (The exception to the rule: he had 21 carries for 110 yards against Nebraska.)

The other problem with Stewart: he is not the mythical creature that Darrell Scott was supposed to be.  Scott and Stewart both signed in the 2008 class, and between injuries and just plain old iffy running, Scott never could get rolling in Boulder.  His high school highlight film was impressive, but in a way that can sometimes be misleading.  He could do whatever he wanted against high school athletes -- if he wanted to cut back and go all the way across the field, he was fast enough to do so.  Only, you can't really do that in college.  Against top-flight defenses in the Big 12, Scott seemed to have no idea what he could or couldn't get away with doing, and his hesitation made him a very average runner.  The injuries, of course, didn't help.  Now he has left Boulder (latest rumors have him ending up at South Florida), leaving behind a group of small, shifty runners (not the worst thing to have with their mammoth line) with little upside.  Hawkins' reputation as a recruiter (one of the things that got Colorado labeled as a sleeper every year) got a big boost by the signing of Scott, but we never glimpsed the five-star talent we were supposed to see in him.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

What's more jarring: those odd throwbacks that Colorado wore against Wyoming last year ... or the fact that Scotty McKnight somehow still has eligibility remaining? Hasn't he been playing since 1994? (Image via Daylife/Getty Images)

2009 Unit Ranking: 105th (12th in the Big 12)

Projected WR Depth Chart
Scotty McKnight (5'11, 185, Sr., 893 rec. yds, 11.8 per catch, 6 TD)
Toney Clemons (6'2, 210, Jr., Michigan transfer)
Jason Espinoza (5'8, 180, Jr., 136 rec. yds, 10.5 per catch, 1 TD)
Will Jefferson (5'11, 190, So., 45 rec. yds, 7.5 per catch)
Dustin Ebner (6'1, 175, So., 15 rec. yds., 5.0 per catch)

Terdema Ussery (6'3, 205, RSFr.)
Kendrick Celestine (5'11, 180, Jr.)
Jarrod Darden (6'4, 210, RSFr.)
Kyle Cefalo (5'10, 165, Jr.)

Projected TE Depth Chart
Ryan Deehan (6'5, 245, Jr., 91 rec. yds, 9.1 per catch)
DeVaughn Thornton (6'4, 230, RSFr.)
Luke Walters (6'3, 240, Sr.)

Hey, speaking of upside-turned-disappointment, let's discuss the Colorado wide receivers!  Mixed amid a group of decent possession receivers, Markques Simas was predicted to be the breakthrough deep threat Colorado needed for the last three seasons.  Instead, he was deemed academically ineligible as a freshman, then got suspended four times over the next three seasons on campus.  This offseason, he was arrested for a DUI in February and suspended for part of spring practice ... and then a warrant was issued for his arrest when he failed to show up for a May court date.  This was apparently the last straw for Hawkins, who once again suspended him indefinitely, this time likely for good.  Rumor has it he will end up at San Diego State, but the odds of him playing for Colorado in 2010 are 1% at best.

This is unfortunate.  Like Scott, we heard about his upside nonstop during his stay in Boulder, only unlike Scott, he was beginning to actually show it.  After suspension kept him out of the first two games of the 2009 season, he managed just 12 catches for 122 yards in his first six games (three for 15 against Mizzou), but in the last four games of the season, he took off.  He caught at least six passes and went for at least 92 yards in every game of that stretch; he finished with 31 catches for 463 yards and two touchdowns in the month of November.  This coincided with Colorado's most competitive stretch of the season -- they went just 1-3 but lost all three games by eight points or less.

Without Simas, this is once again just a large batch of possession receivers.  Andre Simmons was also kicked off the team recently, meaning the only player even remotely resembling a deep threat is Michigan transfer Toney Clemons.  A former four-star recruit himself, Clemons is built almost exactly like Simas, but he has not yet thrived at the FBS level.  He caught one pass for five yards in his freshman season (2007) and managed just 101 yards in 11 receptions for Michigan in 2008.  Obviously the Michigan offense was far from stable in 2008 (that was the "square peg meets round hole" season of Rich Rodriguez introducing his offense to personnel that just didn't fit it), so maybe he can thrive in an offense more suited to his skills.  But the best predictor for success is past success ... and Clemons has none to speak of.

Offensive Line

Can the CU offensive line actually stay healthy this year?

2009 Unit Ranking: 100th (12th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
T Nate Solder (6'9, 305, Sr., 24 career starts)
G Ryan Miller (6'8, 315, Jr., 19 career starts)
G Ethan Adkins (6'4, 310, Jr., 9 career starts)
C Keenan Stevens (6'2, 290, Sr., 9 career starts)
T Bryce Givens (6'6, 275, So., 7 career starts)
T Ryan Dannewitz (6'6, 310, So.)
G Blake Behrens (6'3, 300, Jr., 16 career starts)
G Matthew Bahr (6'4, 295, Jr., 11 career starts)
C Mike Iltis (6'3, 290, Jr., 4 career starts)
T Max Tuioti-Mariner (6'3, 305, So., 2 career starts)

Few teams have the level of experience that Colorado has on the offensive line.  Of the ten players listed above on their projected two-deep, nine have starting experience and seven are juniors or seniors.  Nate Solder is an all-conference performer (and a gigantic one at that) at one tackle spot, and likely starter Bryce Givens is a former four-star recruit at the other (he was another Nebraska commit in the doomed 2008 class; he flirted with following Blaine Gabbert and Dan Hoch to Columbia for staying close to his Denver home and committing to CU).  Meanwhile, giant guard Ryan Miller was an all-world recruit as well.  The talent appears to be in place for this to be a very successful unit.  The problems, however, are two-fold: 1) there is no proof that this coaching staff is capable of coaching this unit up to its seeming potential, and 2) injuries have just decimated this unit over the years.  The reason you don't see nine players with starting experience very often is that, quite simply, you would prefer only five players with starting experience, wouldn't you?

In theory, this line has all the size and experience you would want in a good line.  Plus, their size complement their mighty-mite backs quite well -- it's hard to tackle a runner if you can't find him amid the huge bodies.  But as with Toney Clemons, this unit is more potential than production right now.  If the Colorado offense succeeds at a level higher than expected, the line will be the primary reason why ... but while the metrics I use to measure line success can vary significantly from season to season, do you really see this unit improving into the Top 50 in both run blocking and pass protection in one offseason?  It is likely that this unit will improve in 2010 ... but only so much.

Summary

While nothing brings out the hyperbole in me better than writing about the Colorado offense, you can really sum up this offense in one sentence: it has been constantly talked up in Dan Hawkins' tenure, and it has yet to actually produce.  With so many people writing them off this season, it would be poetic if the pieces fit together and they were actually able to convert themselves into a Top 50 unit ... but let's just say that the odds are against it.

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