NCF Nation: Nelson Spruce

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
Time to tip our cap to those who were the best of the best in Week 2.

Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona: The freshman was a workhorse on the road in Arizona's 26-23 win over UTSA, carrying 30 times for 174 yards and a touchdown.

Nelson Spruce, WR, Colorado: The Pac-12 blog thought Sefo Liufau had a strong game. And Spruce was a big reason he did. Spruce hauled in 10 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns, including a 70-yarder that put Colorado ahead of UMass on its way to a 41-38 win.

D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State: Foster was on fire against New Mexico, carrying 19 times for 216 yards and a touchdown in ASU's 58-23 win.

Leonard Williams, DE, USC: Beast. He tied for the team lead in tackles with 11 (eight solo) and also recorded a sack and a tackle for a loss in the 13-10 win over Stanford. Now, imagine him without a sprained ankle.

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon: Five tackles and an epic pick in the 46-27 win over Michigan State. Of his eight career interceptions, six have come in the red zone. A true gamer.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: Beat a top-10 team, get two helmet stickers. Mariota was 17-of-28 for 318 yards and three touchdown passes. He also rushed for 42 yards on nine carries.

Travis Wilson, QB, Utah: He was just 11-of-20 for 181 yards, but those five passing touchdowns looked awful nice during a 59-27 win over Fresno State. The Utes are a different team when they have consistent, quality quarterback play. They're, ya know, better.

Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington: We said last week, you have to do something special to get a helmet sticker against an FCS team. How about 14 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss, and three carries for 66 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown run in a 59-52 win over Eastern Washington? Good enough for us.
Playing quarterback is in the Pac-12 is never easy. On the West Coast, a lot is expected out of the position. It's not typically about simple game management. It's not about handing the ball off, getting out of the way and leaning on your defense.

Playing quarterback in the Pac-12 as a true freshman is even more difficult. And, finally, playing quarterback in the Pac-12 for a team that is outmanned most Saturdays is most challenging.

[+] EnlargeSefo Liufau
Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsSefo Liufau threw for 1,779 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2013.
That was the situation for Colorado QB Sefo Liufau last fall. He came off the bench against a rugged Arizona State team in Week 6, replacing a struggling Connor Wood and was the Buffaloes' starter thereafter. He took plenty of lumps from Pac-12 defenses, which eagerly schemed with the express purpose of stressing out the youngster.

It certainly was a bit more difficult than things had been at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash., just a year before.

"I would say it was pretty overwhelming," Liufau admitted. "The whole experience is a a lot different from high school. But as the season progressed, things seemed to slow down and become a lot more natural to me."

When the smoke cleared, the numbers weren't too shabby. He completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,779 yards -- 222.4 yards per game -- with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. While he didn't see enough action to rate on the Pac-12's official statistics, his pass efficiency rating of 128.3 would have ranked ninth in the conference, ahead of Arizona's B.J. Denker, Washington State's Connor Halliday and California's Jared Goff, a fellow freshman.

With Liufau at the controls, the Buffs improved from 1-11 and woebegone in 2012 -- arguably the nation's worst AQ conference team -- to 4-8 and fairly competitive. They weren't throwing a parade in his honor in Boulder, but Liufau's potential upside hinted that it was not unreasonable for Colorado fans to again be hopeful.

While Liufau felt he progressed steadily throughout the season, he also knows there were plenty of missed plays, missed opportunities and what-might-have-been moments that revealed themselves in the postgame film room.

"Key moments in the game, me trying to come up with a big play -- there were a couple of games when I felt like I let the team down, either by making a bad read or throwing an interception at a costly time," he said. "Turnovers were the main things for me."

The good news is the 6-foot-4, 215 pound signal-caller will be bigger, stronger, smarter and more experienced heading into spring practices on March 7. The same will be true for his team, which has been one of the youngest in the conference the past two seasons.

The bad news is dynamic receiver Paul Richardson is off to the NFL. Richardson accounted for 1,343 of the Buffaloes 2,989 receiving yards and 10 of the Buffs 21 TD passes. He will be missed, and one of the chief tasks on offense this spring is discovering playmakers to make up for his departed production.

"We can't place the burden of replacing Paul on one guy's shoulders," Liufau said.

We expect to win. We believe we can beat every team we play next year.

Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau on expectations in 2014.
Colorado's next three leading receivers from 2012 are back in Nelson Spruce (650 yards), D.D. Goodson (262 yards) and Tyler McCulloch (138 yards). Liufau said he believes true sophomore Devin Ross, who caught six passes a year ago, and redshirt freshman Brice Bobo are ready to step up.

It will be interesting to see how the screws tighten this spring as Colorado tries to rise in the tough South Division. Last fall, coach Mike MacIntyre was in the getting-to-know you phase with a team that didn't have much confidence. He was more focused on bucking guys up than challenging them with tough love. That approach held true during the season. Mostly.

"There were definitely times during the season when [MacIntyre] yelled at me during practice, just for little things, [such as] not throwing ball out of bounds during the 2-minute minutes drill," Liufau said.

While MacIntyre is a coach who leans more toward positive reinforcement, one would expect him to be more demanding of his players in Year 2. After all, new athletic director Rick George is on record with expectations for a bowl game.

Liufau is fine with that. He has high expectations, too.

"We expect to win," he said. "We believe we can beat every team we play next year."

Coming from a freshman, that would sound naive. But coming from a second-year starter, it sounds more like a mature competitor who isn't willing to give any ground, no matter what outsiders might think of his team's chances.

Cal, Colorado stumble in openers

September, 1, 2012
Rough Saturday so far for the Pac-12.

NEVADA 31, CAL 24: Cody Fajardo, Stefphon Jefferson and the Nevada Wolf Pack spoiled the grand re-opening of Memorial Stadium.

Fajardo, Nevada's quarterback, rushed for 97 yards on 21 carries with a touchdown and also completed 25 of 32 balls for 230 yards. Jefferson carried the ball 34 times for 145 yards and three scores.

The Bears fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter after Jefferson capped a 16-play drive for the Wolf Pack and then Fajardo scored on a 49-yard run. The Bears were kept off the scoreboard until 4:38 in the second quarter and struggled to keep drives going, converting just 3 of 14 third-down attempts.

Cal quarterback Zach Maynard, who didn't start the game because he missed a tutoring session during the summer, came in late in the first quarter and finished the game 17-of-30 for 247 yards and two touchdown passes; one to Bryce Treggs and another to Chris Harper. Keenan Allen (five catches, 69 yards) scored on a 39-yard reverse.

C.J. Anderson took the bulk of the carries for Cal, carrying 14 times for 66 yards. Isi Sofele, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, carried five times for 21 yards.

With the score tied at 24-24, Cal took over at their own 2 with 5:44 remaining and a chance to drive for the lead. But the Bears couldn't get past their own 12. Nevada took the punt and marched 61 yards for the winning score, a 2-yard run by Jefferson.

Cal's defense -- which has been tops in the conference the last two seasons -- gave up 450 yards, including 220 on the ground from Nevada's pistol offense.

COLORADO STATE 22, COLORADO 17: Speaking of spoilers, the Colorado State Rams muscled their way to victory over Colorado in Denver, wrecking the debut of Kansas transfer Jordan Webb, who won Colorado's starting quarterback job after just a month on campus.

Webb ran hot-and-cold most of the night, missing his first four passes as the Buffaloes fell behind 3-0 on a Jared Roberts 47-yard field goal.

Then Webb put it together in the second quarter, coordinating a nine-play, 81 yard drive that ended with a 15-yard dart to Nelson Spruce and a 7-3 Colorado lead. Later in the quarter, Tyler McCulloch scooped up a one-handed grab on a 9-yard throw to give Colorado a 14-3 advantage.

But Colorado State's pursuit of Webb was relentless, sacking him five times and putting him on the ground several more. He finished 22-of-41 with 187 yards. Tony Jones did the bulk of the work on the ground for Colorado, carrying the ball 16 times, but managed just 43 yards. As a team, Colorado mustered just 58 rushing yards and was out-gained by the Rams 298-245.

Colorado re-took the lead in the fourth quarter when Will Oliver's 30-yard field goal gave the Buffs a 17-16 advantage. But Roberts converted back-to-back field goals to give CSU the lead and extend the score to 22-17.

Colorado had a chance to drive for the win in the closing minute, but failed to convert on a fourth-and-2 at the Colorado State 39.
Year one was rough for Jon Embree and Colorado. Year two might be worse.

The Buffaloes learned that wide receiver Paul Richardson would be lost for the year with a torn knee ligament -- an injury that occurred during a non-contact special teams drill.

[+] EnlargeJon Embree
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireJon Embree's Buffaloes will need receivers to step up in 2012 in the wake of news that starting wideout Paul Richardson has a torn knee ligament.
Richardson is hands-down Colorado's best offensive weapon. And he will be again if/when he returns for the 2013 season as expected. He has a redshirt year to burn, which helps, but it doesn't change the fact the Buffaloes will be scrambling for playmakers this season.

“I told him that when I played, a torn ACL was doomsday for a skill position player,” Embree said in statement. “Now, he’ll be able to come back stronger and faster. He’s obviously disappointed, but he is in great spirits about what happened and will make the most of his redshirt year available to him.”

Last year's leading receiver, running back Rodney Stewart, is gone. The leading receiver who actually played receiver, Toney Clemons is gone. Richardson was third, he's gone. Tight end Ryan Deehan, gone. Wide receiver Logan Gray, gone.

Starting to get the picture? And hanging over all of this is, of course, a question mark at quarterback. Texas transfer Connor Wood is getting all of the work with the first team, though that will change when Nick Hirschman returns from a broken foot in the fall.

So with Richardson out who are these guys going to be throwing to?

Keenan Canty probably has the most speed of anyone in the group. He caught 14 balls for 161 yards last season. Tyler McCulloch has pretty good size at 6-5, 210, but he's not as fast as Canty. McCulloch had 10 catches for 96 yards and a score last season. Nelson Spruce is coming off a redshirt year and there are a handful of walk-ons that could get into the mix.

Maybe that anonymity is a good thing and someone could emerge from that pack as a viable receiving option. But Richardson has the type of speed that defenses have to game-plan for. He could be counted on to draw extra attention which would have opened up more for the rest of the receivers.

Last year he set a school record with 284 receiving yards in Colorado's overtime loss to Cal. In that game he caught 11 balls -- matching a school record. In two years, he's climbed to 21st on Colorado's all-time list of receiving yards (1,069), 25th in receptions (73) and tied for ninth in touchdown receptions (9).

His loss is a significant one, and yet another challenge Embree must face in year two.