Big 12: Taj Kaynor
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
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.
- The strong running game exhibited in the spring game was the most impressive building block to carry away from the spring. The Buffaloes should be in good shape if they can keep their offensive line healthy. And as Darrell Scott told me last week, the Buffaloes might have the best rotation of running backs this side of Oklahoma. And they proved it in Saturday's spring game as Scott rushed for a game-high 90 yards, while Demetrius Sumler chipped in with 73 yards, Brian Lockridge added 55 and Rodney "Speedy" Stewart produced 52.
- Scott has started living up to his advance billing with a strong camp after missing much of last season with injuries. But he emerged this spring as the most improved player on the team, earning the Fred Casotti Award given each spring for the most improved offensive back. He even contributed a 48-yard punt during the spring game.
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.
- Colorado's offensive line should be one of its most underrated strengths. They helped the backs rush for an average of 6.2 yards per carry in the spring game. Sure it was against a defensive front that was playing a generic defense. But that yardage has to catch Hawkins' attention for what his ground game can produce.
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.
- I'm still wondering if the Buffaloes have the kind of quarterbacking to contend for the North Division title. Hawkins and Hansen provide different talents. And while in theory it sounds good to say that you'll play both of them, a team really needs to have one starting quarterback it can count on. What's that old coach's cliche about two starting quarterbacks often end up being two too many?
- Wide receiver remains a liability after the injury to Scotty McKnight earlier in camp. The Buffaloes had one experienced receiver available at the spring game and it showed.
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.
- The defensive line remains a big concern, even as coaches spent must of the scrimmage tinkering with a 3-4 front. But the productions of three starters won't be enough to replace the contributions of key players like George Hypolite & Co. overnight. Experienced players like junior defensive end Marquez Herrod, senior defensive tackle Taj Kaynor and sophomore nose tackle Eugene Goree will be pivotal.
- Linebacker Marcus Burton was the biggest defensive revelation this spring and he showed it in the spring game. After producing eight tackles last season, he notched that many in the spring game along with a pair of sacks. That playmaking will be critical for a Colorado defense that often has missed it. His sideline-to-sideline tackling ability will be huge if Colorado employs the 3-4 defense.
- Even with all of the flux around the Colorado team, the rest of the North Division remains just as unsettled.
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.