CU assistant coach Brian Cabral directs traffic during fall camp in August.
CU assistant coach Brian Cabral directs traffic during fall camp in August. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

Brian Cabral has been down transition road before and knows all too well it can be one to perdition.

The longtime linebackers coach -- now in his 23rd year as a member of the Colorado football coaching staff -- has coached the Buffs under Bill McCartney, Rick Neuheisel, Gary Barnett, Dan Hawkins and now Jon Embree.

Cabral said what the Buffs are experiencing this fall reminds him a lot of the transition that took place when Barnett returned to Boulder in 1999 after taking Northwestern to the Rose Bowl during his tenure at the Big Ten school. Barnett was hired by CU after Neuheisel bolted for a larger paycheck at Washington.

Barnett wanted to build a tougher, more physical team after three years under Neuheisel, who valued speed and throwing the football. The circumstances are very similar now.

The Buffs are 1-6 overall and 0-3 in Pac-12 Conference play and preparing to host No. 9 Oregon on Saturday afternoon at Folsom Field. In addition to managing a rash of key injuries, coaches are teaching a roster largely made up of Hawkins' recruits to approach football in a new way.

"Transition is hard and when you're trying to change a culture and trying to change attitudes, it doesn't come easily," Cabral said. "We went through a hard time too when Gary came back."

Cabral actually started the culture shift in the program when he took over as head coach on an interim basis last fall following Hawkins' firing. Cabral reinstated traditions and practices that had been cast aside under Hawkins.

He didn't make massive scheme changes in the middle of the season but he also began to prepare players for a more physical brand of football that he hoped to adopt if hired. Those first steps fit perfectly with Embree's approach, but both men expected some bumps along the way knowing they would need to stock the roster with players better suited to that style.

It has been a very rocky road so far this season, but not only because the personnel doesn't fit the system.

Some of the key developments in the culture change have involved discipline.

Embree first met with players last December and decided a handful of walk-ons who weren't making the grade in the classroom would not be invited back. In the spring, he cut loose several scholarship tight ends who also weren't meeting his expectations. Those moves have definitely affected depth this season.

Probably the most public part of the culture change Cabral referenced came two weeks ago when Embree suspended five players for breaking team rules. All five players are defenders and could certainly be of help to a team struggling to stop anyone these days.

It was a move many coaches would not have made. Others might have doled out punishment in a less public fashion. After all, there were no police reports or embarrassing public incidents that would have forced action from the coach. Some coaches would have kept the players practicing and held them out of games in small doses hoping it would go unnoticed. Embree opted to send a message, despite what it has done to the team's ability to defend on Saturdays.

"This is a whole different situation," Cabral said. "We're changing a culture. We are moving in the right direction. We may just have to take a step back before we go two steps forward. But we are in the process of changing the culture and down the road that is going to affect you more than anything else. So from that standpoint, we're going in the right direction."