Friday, August 24, 2007

Larry Zimmer on the '07 Buffs

A good friend of mine once had this to say about Buffs broadcaster Larry Zimmer:

"Zim is a modern day yoda. How can you not love a man with so much knowledge and love for CU?"

And who am I to argue with my close friend? High praise or simply a man-crush? I am not one to judge.

What I do know is that Larry Zimmer knows Colorado football. And the word "knows" is probably a dramatic understatement. Although he no longer does the play-by-play, Zim has covered the Buffs for more than 30 years, and his excitable demeanor has entertained CU fans through the good and bad. The man with the voice Buffs fans have known for years gave me at least three heart attacks as a young man...and that was a good thing.

So as the football season inches closer to its beginning, I could think of few better sources for some insight into the upcoming football season.

The following transcript comes from correspondance I had earlier today with Colorado's very own Yoda. I would like to thank Larry for taking the time to share his thoughts.

Zim was even kind enough to include his opinion on the Buffs after watching the double-secret scrimmage that occurred on Friday morning. Although don't expect much--the secrecy oath that CU entrusted to members of the media is as strong as Bill Callahan's promise to Harrison Beck that he was the future of the Nebraska program....hmmmm....or maybe it was just a bit stronger than that.

The interview...

Larry Zimmer: I saw the final scrimmage this morning and liked some of the things that I see. The Buffs will be better. How much better? We'll have to wait and see. One item of concern is in several positions (particularly offensive line) the backups are all true freshmen. They are good ones, but depth in the line is an area of concern.

Born: A lot has been made of the quarterback race between Cody Hawkins and Nick Nelson after last years' struggles. What is your take after the first few weeks of camp? How much different is the offense?

Larry Zimmer: Cody Hawkins is the right choice. He has outperformed Nick Nelson in most practices and in the scrimmages. He simply is more consistent and seems to have a better comprehension of the offense, which isn't a surprise. The competition has been good for both of them. Nelson is a lot better now than he was last spring. They are good friends and while I'm sure Nelson is disappointed at not starting, it is not evident in his work on the field and what he says. Nelson might have the stronger arm, but Cody is more accurate. Also, I think Cody is more mobile than Nick. The offense is much more improved. They use more formations and do more things. A lot more misdirection. Things had to be simplified so much for Bernard Jackson that they got very predictable and weren't good enough to line up and say,"okay you know what we're going to do...stop us." The bottom line is they did stop them. That will be different this year. Also, the entire team is more familiar with the coaches and the system. That allows them to do more things.

Born: What should be the strength of this year's team? The weakness?

Larry Zimmer: The strength of the team will still be the defense. The defensive tackles, George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas would start anywhere in the Big 12. Alonzo Barrett and Maurice Lucas are a bit undersized at end, but are quick and good pass rushers. Again, depth here might be somewhat of a problem if they get injured. The linebacking position is deep. Jordan Dizon is an All-America candidate. The suspension of Michael Sipili (court action on an assault charge is pending) hurts at the other inside backer. Sipili is practicing with the team but is indefinitely suspended from games until his situation is resolved. R. J. Brown, an outstanding special teams player, will move up. I think he will be very good, but it would help to have both. Brad Jones will be impressive at outside linebacker. At corner, Terrence Wheatley is an All Big 12 caliber corner. Ben Burney, Cha'pelle Brown and Gardner McKay will share time on the other side and are average. Ryan Walters is a solid free safety if he stays healthy and it appears that Idaho transfer Daniel Dykes has beaten out Lionel Harris at strong safety. Both will play. THE DEFENSE IS SOLID.

Weakness is probably the offensive line depth and the absence of a workhorse running back. An offensive strength would be Bernard Jackson, if he plays. He has had some major personal and academic problems that he is working through and hasn't been able to practice. His versatility and the way they used him in the spring would be a major addition to the offense.

Born: How much production should we actually expect to see from the hyped freshmen receivers? They have produced so far in practices-- do you think they will do the same in the fall?

Larry Zimmer: Josh Smith is the real deal at receiver. He has all the moves. He probably will miss the first two games with the bruised kidney. Kendrick Celestine is the fastest man on the team and will always be a deep threat. I would guess that Markques Simas will redshirt. The best thing the young guys did was get the older receivers to work harder. Patrick Williams has turned into a solid receiver. Scotty McKnight, a redshirt freshman, was highly regarded last year until injured. He will be special. Dusty Sprague is making catches that he didn't a year ago. Alvin Barnett, Jarrell Yates and the Stephone Robinson will all be in the rotation. The strength here is the depth. There is enough talent to make the receivers the most improved area of the team along with quarterback. The tight ends have been impressive. Riar Geer should build on his outstanding freshman season, Joe Sanders is catching everything since moving back to tight end in the spring. Tyson DeVree is dependable and redshirt freshman Nate Solder is imposing....6-8, 270.

Born: What about the defense? Despite the "vanilla" defense in the scrimmage, is there reason to worry? And if so, what is a more pressing issue, pressure from the front four or coverage in the secondary?

Larry Zimmer: I think pressure from the front four, mixed with some blitzing, is the key. I suspect teams will go away from Wheatley, so the secondary is going to need some help from up front.

Born: How does the overall talent and depth look compared to the last few seasons?

Larry Zimmer: The overall talent and depth is much better than last season, but the team is very young. I don't think at this point it rates with the overall talent and depth of a veteran team in 2005, the one that fell apart at the end of the season. I would say the Buffs will be very competitive next year.

Born: Who do you think will become a household name by the end of the season?

Larry Zimmer: Hard to say about the household name. Dizon already is. So is Wheatley. One would hope it will be Cody.....and maybe Josh Smith and Scotty McKnight.

Born: Looking ahead to September 1, what do you expect to see when the Buffs face the Rams?

Larry Zimmer: On September 1, it will be a dog fight (forgive the expression) as always. CSU with a veteran QB (Caleb Hannie) and Kyle Bell healthy will be solid. I think the Rams have offensive line problems and I'm not sure their defense ranks with CU's, but as always they will be ready to play. Hawk has quietly put a great deal of emphasis on this game with his team. I'll be surprised if the Buffs don't win it.

Born: Looking at the schedule, what game is most likely for CU to achieve that "signature" win?

Larry Zimmer: I think five wins are realistic. CSU, Miami (O), Baylor, Kansas, and Iowa State.
Arizona State is certainly a winable game. New coach, new system, some problems at the end of last season, etc. If the Buffs have success in those first two games, they could make life interesting for a Florida State team that I still don't think is the power that it was four or five years ago (see Georgia last season). I think Oklahoma could also be an interesting game. Particularly if Stoops continues to struggle in finding the right QB.

Kansas State and Texas Tech will be tough on the road. By the final three games if they stay healthy CU should be a much better team and while I won't predict wins, I think they very well could beat Missouri and Nebraska. Obviously, all of this isn't going to happen the way I've outlined it, but that's how I see it.

Born: Who do you think is the favorite in the north—Nebraska or Missouri?

Larry Zimmer: I think Nebraska will win the North with Kansas State maybe second. Missouri's offense will be awesome, but I don't think they have the defense to win it, having to play Kansas State, Oklahoma and Colorado on the road.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

One things for sure: 2007 is not 2006

And it begins…

With the second major scrimmage of the summer now over, the persona of this year's Colorado Buffaloes continues to take form. One thing is for certain: this is not the same team. Especially on the offensive side of the ball.

Here are a few observations from the scrimmage:

The offense is much better than last year. Take that with a grain of salt since the offense was pathetic last year. But as any witness of the scrimmage could tell you, we are talking about proverbial “night and day” differences. There really is no comparison. It's not about pumping sunshine or being unrealistic. It's just a fact: you can't predict the Buff's success for 2007 based on 2006. The offense is a different animal. Whether it will produce when it counts on Saturday's has to be seen, but the Buffs showed more in one scrimmage than at any point last season. That's a fact.

Cody Hawkins looks to be the guy at quarterback. Fortunately, both quarterbacks played well. However, there are a few discernable differences between the Hawkins and Nick Nelson.

Most notably, Hawkins is more consistent. He is accurate, and despite questions about his arm, he completes more passes downfield. Hawkins was very succesful with his long ball, and if Dan Hawkins has his way, Buffs fans will see plenty of deep passes this fall. While Nelson appears to have enough arm to go vertical, he still struggles with overthrowing his deep passes, just like he did during the spring game. With that said, Nelson still was successful with the short and intermediate routes. For the scrimmage, Hawkins only threw one interception to Nelson’s two.

Also worth noting, Matt Ballenger looks like he could make some noise in future years. He has all the assets to be a viable quarterback in the Hawkins/Helfrich system without any question about his measurables or ability to see over the offensive line.

The offense itself looks different. Expect lots of motion and more variety in the offensive sets. Dan Hawkins and Mark Helfrich both admitted last year that the offense was very limited and that fans only saw bits and pieces of the plan. That was fine and dandy while the team rung up a mere two wins. But the proof is in the pudding. The Buffs came out with multiple formations, multiple sets and lots of motion in the wideouts, tight ends, running backs and fullback. Not only are there new formations, but there is little predictability. Oftentimes the Buffs would run the same formation but with a different “read” from the quarterback. This is where Hawkins or Nelson’s grasp of the offense will clearly shine. Little predictability leads to long days at the office for opposing defenses.

Our running backs and offensive line look solid. Granted, the defense went very vanilla in the first half (more on this in a moment). The offensive line will really be a mystery until it proves itself on Saturdays against muliple looks, stunts and blitzes. But for one day, the O-line was opening holes and providing protection. Hugh Charles looked good, but Demetrius Sumler is going to be tough to keep off the field. The redshirt freshman was arguably the most impressive runner of the bunch, not only running with aggression, but also catching the ball out of the backfield.

As for the wideouts, the young guns continue to impressive. Smith, Celestine and Simas all contributed to the offense, with Smith continuing to shine. The veterans—such as Williams and Sprague—were solid, but they also experienced some 2006 déjà vu. The receivers had several drops, including a “would-have-been” touchdown pass from Hawkins to Stephone Robinson. One things is for sure, the Buffs would be better with anyone at quarterback this season because the young receivers just make plays.

The defense…
This still seems to be somewhat of a mystery, and some of that can be contributed to the defensive schemes. The defense again went very vanilla in the first half without any blitzing. And as has been a concern, there was very little pressure on the quarterback. The defense increased the pressure in the second half with a variety of blitzes. Nevertheless, the absence of a vicious pass rusher like Abe Wright is clearly missing at this point. The line has talent, but there has been little visual proof that they will step up in games. Pressure could be a problem in the fall, thus putting more pressure on a secondary that struggled in 2006.

As for the coverage, despite the offenses ability to move the ball, the coverage was good. Rather than blaming the Db’s, more credit should go to the wide receivers. The receivers—especially the freshman—make excellent adjustments to make plays on the ball. The coverage is there, but the athletes are showing why they are garnering all the hype. Two defensive breakdowns led to wide open scores. Both times, the tight end came open off of a crossing pattern for an easy touchdown in the corner of the endzone. Nate Solder was particularly impressive at tight end. The young man might be huge, but he possess a soft set of hands.

Still, the defense did produce three interceptions, and a fourth was called back because of penalty. Defensive backs coach Greg Brown was hard at work all day. Taking notes and trying to find the best combination for the defensive background. People might be hard on Brown, but he knows what he is doing and once his players learn their assignments there should be improvement. All of the coaches were very active, and hopefully that attention to detail will pay off when the season begins.

There was not too much to report from special teams…which is a good thing. Kevin Eberhart was perfect and did not miss one single kick—field goal or extra point attempt.

Other notes…
Bernard Jackson did not participate in the scrimmage…the scrimmage was well attended by fans, better than anything seen in recent memory…Markques Simas appeared to be a little gimpy on his ankle during parts of the scrimmage.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Today's Thought: If you write it...they will listen

Ok, so nothing could be further from the truth, but for one day, Dan Hawkins made me sound like a genius. One day after proclaiming that the Buffs needed to name a starter at quarterback, the CU head coach took the first step in heeding my advice by admitting that his son Cody has a slight lead over Nick Nelson, as Tom Kensler reports

While a starter will not be determined until after next Saturday’s scrimmage, and that leaves plenty of time for Nelson to win the job or Hawkins to lose the job (the latter obviously not the preferred way to go for Buff fans), it looks like the job will go to Hawkins.

Camera beat writer Kyle Ringo elaborates on why he believes that Hawkins is the man for the job.

Regardless of the selection, the coaches are doing what is needed. While game-planning occurs on a week-to-week basis, offensive continuity and comfort is established by endless repetition. The sooner the coaches choose a starter, the sooner the Buffs will find a grove on the offensive side of the ball. Whether it was Hawkins or Nelson, the first-team offense needs to start getting more repetitions with the same man under center. An offense is a synergistic unit—all of the pieces need to work well together for the machine to run smoothly. Baring a complete collapse, look for Hawkins to be under center on September 1.

And while it’s impossible to determine how Hawkins will play, it’s hard to imagine a better leader for the team. Anyone who has seen Hawkins interact with his teammates knows that he has a special personality. Call it infectious; call it unexplainable…but Hawkins best attribute as a quarterback may be his personality. And as CU tries to reestablish itself as a winner, it’s hard to imagine a better individual to lead the way in 2007.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Identity? Answer at the Q

A quick look at the calendar this morning was enough to cue the thought of an old college football adage: Winners are built in August…while champions are crowned in December. The saying must be old because champions are crowned in January and at the current BCS pace, February might want to start looking over its shoulder.

As much as the saying reeks of cliché, it holds some meaning. After all, teams that can’t play well in August (especially when only in shorts) probably aren’t going to be all that good in December…or September, October and November. Look no further than CU last year. Five touchdowns in three fall scrimmages should have screamed PANIC and provided enough indication that CU’s offense would go through “some struggles.” Now replace “some” with “a lot” and there you have the 2006 football season.

While the Buffs would love for their name to be associated with the word “champion,” crowning a quarterback is the first step needed to regain respectability and a winning record.
Early in camp, the coach-speak is flowing predictably in regards to the quarterback battle. Both Cody Hawkins and Nick Nelson are performing well, but the coaches need to make a decision sooner rather than later. While making a hasty decision could be disastrous, the team needs a leader. Now.

Eighteen days.

That is all that stands between Colorado and Colorado State. And while no one game will ever define a team, there is no denying the truth about this years’ opener: it is a must win. Not only for the team, coaches and future of the program, but also for an exasperated fan base that might implode if the team falters against CSU.

The reality of the situation is that several key positions need to be established by the first game. The offensive line, defensive end, linebacker (due to the ambiguous status of Michael Sipili) and cornerback all stand out as question marks.

But none of those positions are as important as quarterback. The quarterback is the face and identity of a team. More than anything, the Buffaloes need an offensive identity after last year’s debacle. An offense will always be a reflection of their quarterback. There was no identity on last years’ team—and much of that could be attributed to the murky situation at quarterback. That is not to say anything about the talent of hybrid-quarterback Bernard Jackson. While he struggled mightily with his passing accuracy, the first-time starter was hard-working and dedicated. But he always seemed to be filling a role rather than confidently leading the charge and running the entire version of Mark Helfrich’s offense.

Whether the coaches decide on Hawkins or Nelson is anyone’s guess. Most speculate that Hawkins will win the job, although there has been no indication from Helfrich, the man allegedly in charge of making the decision.

This much is certain—the sooner the Buffs find a quarterback, the sooner the team can establish an identity that has been missing for too long. But August is passing quickly and as the adage says, the building needs to begin now.

Buffs in the Pros...
Things are looking pretty good for second-year tight end Quinn Sypniewski. After playing in every one of the Ravens games last season, Sypniewski has been receiving plenty of looks with the first-team offense in Baltimore, and he scored his first NFL touchdown. Although a TD reception in an exhibition game might not seem like much, the late-blooming Sypniewski waited six years at CU to score his first touchdown, and ended with five TDs in his third, and final senior season. Despite his reputation, Sypniewski is a very capable pass catcher and sure contribute when afforded the opportunity. Look for his primary responsibility to continue as a blocker, as the Ravens heavily depend on the sure hands of Todd Heap.

Michael Lewis…was back to his old hard-hitting ways in the season opener against the Broncos. Lewis led the 49ers in tackles against Denver, and after a frustrating 2006, it appears that Lewis is back on track and happier than ever. Although I would imagine $30 million would make anyone happy. Money aside, Lewis has always been a tremendous run-stopping physical safety with enough athleticism to help in coverage.

Abraham Wright…The man who left a gaping hole on CU’s defensive line just might find himself filing a sizeable gap in his new home. Wright was working with the Dolphins first-team defense on passing downs in the preseason exhibition opener and recorded a sack. The newly-turned linebacker is still acclimating to his new position, but with Joey Porter looking at continued knee problems, the door is open for Wright to impress.,0,6789507.story?coll=