Jon Embree isn't afraid to put the game in the hands of seniors Tyler Hansen and Rodney Stewart.

Or on the feet of freshmen kickers Will Oliver and Darragh O'Neill.

Colorado's first-year head coach doesn't care how long a player has been around, who recruited him, or whether he's a blue-chip prospect or a long shot walk-on.

"I'm just trying to put the players that performed the best in camp out there," Embree said on Monday after the Buffs' practice. "I played as a freshman. I trusted me. They have a sense of urgency, and it's OK. We have to play them."

At least four CU freshmen will start at their respective positions in the opener on Sept. 3 at Hawaii. A total of 12 true or redshirt freshmen are listed in the two-deep Embree released on Monday afternoon after re-evaluating fall camp and last Friday's scrimmage.

O'Neill, who led Fairview High School to the 5A state basketball championship game two years ago, beat out incumbent Zach Grossnickle and Rice transfer Mark Brundage for the punting job.

Tyler McCulloch, 87, grabs a pass while Makiri Pugh, 16, defends during practice last week.
Tyler McCulloch, 87, grabs a pass while Makiri Pugh, 16, defends during practice last week. ( PAUL AIKEN )

"To be a starter on a Division I team is pretty unbelievable. I don't think that could have happened with basketball," said O'Neill, who had several Division II scholarship offers and an invitation to walk on at the University of Denver after graduating in 2010. "I can definitely say right now I'm 10 times happier than I would be at any DI or DII basketball school to be doing this."

Oliver was nearly perfect kicking field goals over the final two weeks of camp after Embree named him as the place-kicker. The coaching staff hopes O'Neill, who has never played in an organized football game at any level, will also take a deep breath and perform with confidence at Aloha Stadium.

"We'll see how he does and if he takes off like the young kid (Oliver) did when he got the job," Embree said. "I told Zach, 'It doesn't mean you don't keep competing.' And I told Brundage that, too. ... Sometimes when (players) are in a competition, they don't perform as well as they're capable, and then when there's no pressure on them they relax and find their groove. Other guys, sometimes when they win a competition relax and say, 'I've got it.'

"We'll always be evaluating throughout the whole year. This depth chart is always going to be fluid."

True freshman wide receiver Tyler McCulloch, whose only scholarship offer was from CU, is listed as the co-starter at the 'X' wide receiver position, along with senior Toney Clemons.

In this case, the depth chart clearly served as a reward for the consistent and driven McCulloch, and as motivation for the talented Clemons.

"It has been really competitive. Tyler and (freshman) Nelson Spruce have done a nice job," wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy said. "I was encouraged by the older guys, they came out (during Monday's practice) and set the tone and provided good leadership for us.

"Toney did respond, and I'm pleased with him. We're a work in progress every day. If guys can understand that if they don't perform, somebody else is going to be in, that puts some applied pressure on them. I think that's a good thing at this level -- to be competitive and want that spot and be able to hold that spot."

Paul Richardson is the starter at the 'Z' spot. The speedy sophomore will also handle the punt return duties.

Kyle Cefalo, who Embree awarded with a scholarship last week, is Richardson's backup at receiver.

"It definitely was competitive. Coach Embree from Day One said you guys are going to be competing against each other," Cefalo said. "We have a lot of good receivers here and as close as a group as we are, we're still competing and everybody wants to play. The best guys will be out there hopefully."

Entering camp the big question was at cornerback, where the Buffs lost Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown to the NFL. Senior Travis Sandersfeld and true freshman Greg Henderson are the starters.

"I'm really happy that we have some young guys that are going to play and help out our team," said senior Josh Hartigan.

Defensive coordinator Greg Brown has officially changed CU's base defense to a 3-4. Hartigan, who led the team with seven sacks as a defensive end last season, will play the new "Jack" linebacker spot. Senior David Goldberg and freshman Juda Parker are the backups.

"It doesn't matter what I'm doing. I can be hand down or stand up. I'm just trying to get after the quarterback," Hartigan said of the switch. "We're going to need all of the defensive lineman that we have right now to step up, because we need a good pass rush every single play."

Sophomore Derrick Webb won the starting spot at weak-side linebacker over senior Patrick Mahnke. Junior standouts Doug Rippy (inside) and Jon Major (outside) are rock solid at the other positions.

Will Pericak (left end), Conrad Obi (nose tackle) and Chidera Uzo-Diribe (right end) are the defensive line starters. The group is so deep that Nick Kasa, who has All-Pac-12 talent, is currently a third-string player at right defensive end. Stephane Nembot, a freshman the coaching staff is really high on, is listed as fourth-string but expected to play on special teams instead of redshirt.

"We can do a lot of different things out of (the 3-4)," Embree said. "That's what Greg likes, and with our ends that's probably a good fit for us."

On the offensive line, redshirt freshman Daniel Munyer and sophomore Gus Handler will rotate at Hawaii. Two more seasoned players fell out of the mix this summer as senior Mike Iltis decided not to play football this fall, and senior Shawn Daniels suffered an injury.

"We have to play a lot of people," Embree said. "That's why last week was so important from that standpoint of figuring out what guys you could play and how they would react."

As expected, David Bakhtiari (left tackle), Ethan Adkins (left guard), Ryan Miller (right guard) and Jack Harris (right tackle) are the other starters charged with protecting Hansen and opening holes for Stewart.

Nick Hirschman is the backup quarterback with freshman walk-on John Schrock beating classmate Stevie Joe Dorman and junior college transfer Brent Burnette out for the third spot.

CU is pretty deep at tailback with Tony Jones and Josh Ford backing up Stewart. Brian Lockridge and D.D. Goodson should also get some carries and will see action on special teams. Fullback Evan Harrington and tight end Ryan Deehan, both seniors, are also first-team at their respective positions.

Unless there are injuries, the current depth chart will not change prior to the Hawaii game. The entire focus of the team is now on preparing for the Warriors.

"It kind of feels a little surreal right now," O'Neill said after learning from the coaches that he was the starting punter and headed to Honolulu. "It really came down to what Embree wanted. I just stayed positive and did what I needed to do."

Colorado's depth chart released Monday:

OFFENSE (pro style)

Quarterback

9 Tyler Hansen, 6-1, 215, Sr.

8 Nick Hirschman, 6-3, 230, RS-Fr.

Fullback

49 Evan Harrington, 5-11, 230, Sr.

47 Tyler Ahles, 6-2, 235, Sr.

Tailback

5 Rodney Stewart, 5-6, 175, Sr.

26 Tony Jones, 5-7, 175, RS-Fr.

Wide receiver (X)

17 Toney Clemons, 6-2, 210, Sr.

87 Tyler McCulloch, 6-5, 205, Fr.

Wide receiver (Z)

6 Paul Richardson, 6-1, 165, So.

35 Kyle Cefalo, 5-10, 170, Sr.

Tight end

34 Ryan Deehan, 6-5, 245, Sr.

43 Matthew Bahr, 6-4, 260, Sr.

Left tackle

59 David Bakhtiari, 6-4, 295, So.

53 Ryan Dannewitz, 6-6, 295, Jr.

Left guard

63 Ethan Adkins, 6-4, 290, Sr.

50 Paulay Asiata, 6-5, 295, Fr.

Center

52 Daniel Munyer, 6-2, 290, RS-Fr.

76 Gus Handler, 6-3, 290, So.

Right guard

73 Ryan Miller, 6-8, 295, Sr.

79 Sione Tau, 6-5, 335, Sr.

Right tackle

75 Jack Harris, 6-5, 295, So.

53 Ryan Dannewitz, 6-6, 295, Jr.

DEFENSE (3-4 base)

Left defensive tackle

83 Will Pericak, 6-4, 285, Jr.

50 Curtis Cunningham, 6-1, 285, Sr.

Nose tackle

93 Conrad Obi, 6-3, 290, Sr.

94 Nate Bonsu, 6-1, 285, So.

Right defensive end

9 Chidera Uzo-Diribe, 6-3, 240, So.

95 Tony Poremba, 6-1, 230, Sr.

Jack (outside) linebacker

17 Josh Hartigan, 6-1, 230, Sr.

55 David Goldberg, 6-1, 245, Sr.

Mike (inside) linebacker

3 Douglas Rippy, 6-3, 230, Jr.

54 Brady Daigh, 6-2, 235, Fr.

Will (inside) linebacker

5 Derrick Webb, 6-0, 220, So.

12 Patrick Mahnke, 6-1, 210, Sr.

Sam (outside) linebacker

31 Jon Major, 6-2, 230, Jr.

48 Liloa Nobriga, 6-2, 240, So.

Left cornerback

19 Travis Sandersfeld, 6-0, 205, Sr.

25 Ayodeji Olatoye, 6-1, 190, So.

Free safety

26 Ray Polk, 6-1, 205, Jr.

41 Terrel Smith, 5-8, 180, So.

Strong safety

7 Anthony Perkins, 5-10, 200, Sr.

4 Kyle Washington, 6-1, 200, Fr.

Right cornerback

20 Greg Henderson, 5-11, 185, Fr.

13 Parker Orms, 5-11, 190, So.

SPECIALISTS

Punter

8 Darragh O'Neill, 6-2, 180, RS-Fr.

15 Zach Grossnickle, 6-2, 190, So.

Place-kicker

91 Will Oliver, 5-10, 195, Fr.

40 Justin Castor, 6-4, 200, So.

Punt return

6 Paul Richardson, 6-1, 165, So.

5 Rodney Stewart, 5-6, 175, Sr.

Kickoff return

20 Brian Lockridge, 5-7, 180, Sr.

22 Arthur Jaffee, 5-11, 215, Sr.

Holder

14 Justin Gorman, 6-0, 195, RS-Fr.

35 Kyle Cefalo, 5-10, 170, Sr.

Snapper

69 Ryan Iverson, 6-0, 215, So.

88 Kyle Slavin, 6-4, 235, RS-Fr.