Ray Polk, 26, covers Austin Vincent, 81, during practice earlier this fall
Ray Polk, 26, covers Austin Vincent, 81, during practice earlier this fall ( PAUL AIKEN )

A critic might say Colorado free safety Ray Polk has spent a lot of time on the football field over the past two seasons without making many big plays.

Coaches might say he's a work in progress and a player on the verge of producing plenty of those game-changing moments in 2011.

For now, Polk is regarded as a speedy, hard-hitting junior with all the physical tools of a star and the résumé of an average college player. He has played 1,070 snaps on defense over the past two seasons without producing an interception, forced fumble, fumble recovery or a sack.

If the Buffs are to take a step forward in their first season under coach Jon Embree and win on the road and possibly break a three-year bowl drought, it will be because players like Polk become playmakers.

Embree is as interested and excited as anyone to see how Polk responds to the challenge when the season kicks off Saturday for the Buffs (8:15 MDT) in Honolulu against Hawaii. Polk should be as excited as any Buff to start the year against the Warriors. He earned the Defensive Player of the Week last season against Hawaii.

Embree likes what he has seen throughout spring ball and fall camp from the 205-pound junior. He said one of the things he likes best about Polk is that he gets to coach him for the next two seasons and doesn't have to part ways with him after only one year as is the case with senior strong safety Anthony Perkins.

Embree said when he took over as coach last winter, one of the players he looked forward most to evaluating was Polk.


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"I knew he could run, but I wanted to see if he could be physical," Embree said. "We found that out real quick."

Polk says his experience playing as a redshirt freshman and sophomore in 2009 and 2010 gave him the confidence that he can compete and even thrive at the highest level of the college game. He believes he's now beginning to master the mental side of the game.

He used to be the one receiving directions from teammates on the field. Now he is providing them.

"It's different," Polk said. "You're starting to see yourself step into that role where you're more of a leader on defense and you know a lot more than you did before. It's something I've been looking forward to and I've been striving to get to this spot right now. I'm excited. It's going to be a fun year."

In providing an analysis of where he fell short last season, Polk said he needed to have more awareness of how the offense was trying to attack the defense with route combinations and then knowing which areas of the field he had help and where he didn't.

He went in to the offseason determined to improve in those areas and as the start of the season approaches, he believes he has come a long way.

He cringes when admitting it, but a season-ending injury to Perkins last fall actually helped him develop faster than he otherwise might have. He went from understudy to leading man in one play. Instead of leaning on Perkins, he had players such as freshman Terrel Smith leaning on him for the second half of the season.

"Honestly, it was a bitter, bitter, bittersweet experience for me because on the one point, you never want to see your teammate go down, but then I learned a lot from being the older guy out there and having to know everything that is going on on the field," Polk said. "It kind of helped me progress."

Polk joined the CU program as part of the heralded 2008 recruiting class. He was a four-star running back at the time in a class with five-star recruit Darrell Scott -- who has since transferred -- and lightly regarded Rodney Stewart, who has a chance to become CU's all-time leading rusher this season.

Polk said he never has regretted his move to defense even though he might have had more big plays to his credit by now had he remained a running back.

"There's two types of leaders, you can be a vocal leader, or you can be a big-play leader," he said. "I think that I'm starting to step into that role of making plays. I think that's a huge momentum shift for the defense in making that big play. It's great to be a part of this defense because we have so many play-makers. I'm very excited for this season."