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Monday, April 27, 2009
Colorado finishes spring practices shrouded by questions

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Colorado came into the spring as the North Division's mystery team.

Sure, coach Dan Hawkins had plenty of bluster and bravado about how good he thinks his team will be this season. We can tell that by his surprising boast at the end of last season that the Buffaloes will finish 2009 with a 10-2 record.

After the Buffaloes' spring practice and spring game, I'm even more befuddled by how good the Buffaloes can be.

The injury and subsequent thumb surgery for Tyler Hansen scrambles the quarterback situation. It makes me think that Hansen's battle with Cody Hawkins for the starting job will play out during most of Colorado preseason camp. And it's interesting that Dan Hawkins has hinted it could be a similar situation as to late last season, when he alternated his son and Hansen depending on game situations.

An even more pressing concern will be the status of offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, who could be headed for Oregon and a place on Chip Kelly's staff. The loss of an offensive coordinator after spring practice could have huge ramifications as Dan Hawkins tries to get his staff ready for the upcoming season.

But the Buffaloes showed some good signs in spring practice and the spring game that might indicate they will be vastly improved from last season's 5-7 team -- even if 10-2 might be a little bit of a stretch.

Hawkins was pleased with Scott's strong spring production, where he finally started showing flashes of what made him the nation's No. 1 running back recruit in the 2008 recruiting class.

"He's always been such a great kid, and I've been so impressed with how he handled all the hype and the glitz and all the glimmer," Hawkins told reporters Saturday. "And things didn't go exactly like he wanted them necessarily last year. But he never threw in a towel, he continued to show up."

If he continues that growth, it wouldn't surprise me if Scott rushes for 1,000 yards this season and is the most improved player in the Big 12.

I still think the underrated Colorado group that is keyed by tackles Bryce Givens and Nate Solder, guard Ryan Miller and center Mike Iltis can be the best in the North Division if it stays healthy. And that's not even considering a potential return by Max Tuioti-Mariner, who is recovering from knee surgery and might be ready by fall practice.

It means that Hawkins has to hope he can convince Michigan transfer Toney Clemons to come to play for the Buffaloes as well as work heralded sophomore Markques Simas into the rotation. And it also will likely result in the immediate need for production from an underrated group of arriving wide receivers including Jarrod Darden, Terdema Ussery and Andre Simmons. There is playing time available if any of those arriving players can step up.

For all of the excitement at Nebraska, the Cornhuskers still will be counting on a quarterback who has never started a Division I game, throwing to two new wide receivers. Kansas has the most returning offensive talent but has to rebuild its defensive core after losing three starting linebackers. And the Jayhawks have that pesky South Division crossover schedule that features games against Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech.

Defending two-time title game participant Missouri has two new coordinators and must replace the most productive quarterback, wide receiver and tight end in its history. The Tigers also lose a first-round NFL draft pick at defensive tackle, a second-round NFL draft pick at strong safety who was the glue of their defense and their top pass-rushing defensive end.

And here's one more reason to like Colorado's chances a little bit more. Their games against Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri all will be played in Boulder. That edge playing in the high altitude at Folsom Field might be enough to boost the Buffaloes into North Division title contention for the first time in Hawkins' coaching tenure there -- despite all of the spring questions.