As I sat in the Dal Ward Center on Monday and listened to athletic director Mike Bohn talk about the downward trajectory of the football program, I kept thinking the same thing over and over.
“What did he expect?”
I get that the results on the field were downright awful at times under Jon Embree. Losing 70-14, 69-14 and 48-0 (among other ugly losses) was embarrassing. I get that the results probably led to the CU brand taking a hit nationally.
But again, I listened to this and thought, “What did he expect?”
When Embree was hired on Dec. 6, 2010, he came with a lot of hope and promise of better days. In reality, Embree was set up to fail.
Embree took over a program in disarray. The Buffs had grown used to losing under the previous regime, and it was a fractured locker room by the time Dan Hawkins was fired.
To expect any coach, even the great Nick Saban, to turn this thing around in two years would have been unfair.
In 2011, Embree had 28 seniors. He also played a lot of true freshmen because of injuries. That season was going to be rough anyway, with a new coaching staff coming into a losing program. But, by the end of the year, the Buffs seemed to be getting the hang of Embree’s offensive and defensive systems as they won two of their last three games.
Then 28 players graduated and left the program.
All of a sudden, Embree and his staff were starting over again. And, they had major gaps to fill. When seniors left, the Buffs didn’t have a lot of juniors ready to fill in. They had to rely on freshmen.
This season, the Buffs had just 8 seniors on the roster. Of those, just five were regular contributors. More so than a year ago, true freshmen were thrown to the wolves and inexperience was widespread. Consider:
1. CU’s top two leaders in all-purpose yards were preparing for Upland (Calif.) High School’s Southern Section semifinal game just one year ago today.
2. Two of CU’s top three rushers were true freshmen; the other was a sophomore.
3. The leading passer was a junior, but he didn’t arrive on campus until July. All the other quarterbacks on the roster had combined for one college start before this season.
4. The top three wide receivers were a redshirt freshman, true sophomore and true freshman.
5. The No. 1 tight end was a senior in his first full season on offense and the No. 2 tight end was a true freshman.
6. Of the 5 offensive linemen who played the most snaps, four of them had fewer than four career starts coming into the year. That included freshman Stephane Nembot, who was a defensive lineman a year ago. The group had never started together, and because of injuries didn’t get much chance to start together this year either.
7. For the second year in a row, a true freshman led the defense in total snaps.
8. Of the 19 players to get at least 225 defensive snaps, six were true freshmen and four were sophomores.
Considering all of that, it’s really not much of a surprise that CU experienced that downward trajectory that Bohn talked about.
Did Bohn honestly think CU would lose a senior QB, senior RB, senior WR and senior guard — all four of which signed NFL contracts — and most of the linemen from the offense, replace them with newcomers and see improvement?
CU’s defense was dreadful, but three of the six returning starters missed significant time with injuries. True freshmen combined for 2,656 defensive snaps (an average of 3.22 true freshmen on the field for every defensive play). True freshmen defensive backs played 1,595 snaps — a tough assignment in the pass-happy Pac-12.
It’s understandable that Bohn would be disappointed in the team’s struggles, especially on defense, but this was one of the youngest teams in the country and it’s a team filled with great potential.
Tailbacks Donta Abron and Christian Powell, tight end Vincent Hobbs and receivers Jeffery Thomas (who is set to arrive in January) and Gerald Thomas are all freshmen who could be big play-makers in the coming years.
If freshman quarterback Shane Dillon is as good as advertised, this could be a fun offense to watch in 2014, if not 2013. (Plus, all those linemen are back and star receiver Paul Richardson will return from injury.)
Defensively, Kenneth Crawley, Jeffrey Hall, Tyler Henington, Samson Kafovalu, Marques Mosley, Justin Solis, Josh Tupou and Yuri Wright all played significant amounts as true freshman. All were highly regarded out of high school and figure to improve. The on-the-job training (or torture) these guys went through could pay major dividends in a year or two.
Next year’s senior class includes several key players — tackle David Bakhtiari, center Gus Handler, defensive lineman Chidera Uzo-Diribe and linebacker Derrick Webb — who emerged as leaders this season.
Credit Embree for repairing the locker room. His players love him and many of them have talked about how much better they have become as individuals under the direction of this staff. Many of them will also say that the attitude in the program is better than it was two years ago.
Also credit Embree for setting up the next coach with a better situation than he inherited. Bohn may not have seen it, but the Colorado football program has good things in the works.
Yeah, CU football painted an ugly picture this year, but the real travesty is that Embree won’t be around to see the fruits of his labor.