In aiming to get back on the winning track this offseason, the Colorado football team is sure to lean on its seniors.
Next season, the Buffaloes are projected to have a group of 21 scholarship seniors, including defensive standouts Nick Fisher, Rick Gamboa, Drew Lewis and Evan Worthington. A quartet of senior receivers — Kabion Ento, Jay MacIntyre, Lee Walker and Juwann Winfree — could be vital to the success of the team, too.
Yet, as the Buffs (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12) begin the process of rebounding from a disappointing last-place finish in the South division, it's the true freshmen that could really make a difference.
CU's 2017 recruiting class was the best class of head coach Mike MacIntyre's tenure in Boulder, and it's a group determined to make sure the Buffs don't repeat the struggles of this past season.
"Our class is hungry," quarterback Tyler Lytle said. "We want to win. That's our No. 1 priority. We came to Colorado to continue and bring back the tradition and that's what we plan on doing."
Lytle and his classmates all signed with CU following the remarkable 2016 season in which the Buffs went 10-4 and won the South. They signed up with a winner and want to be winners throughout their careers.
"We have great fire," linebacker Nate Landman said. "Coming in with those guys in the summer, I could see we had a great work ethic. Through summer workouts and through fall camp, a bunch of us were making plays, so I'm definitely excited. We want to improve and I think we'll see that."
CU had 23 true freshmen on scholarship this season, seven of which got playing time: linebackers Jacob Callier, Dante Sparaco and Landman; receivers K.D. Nixon and Laviska Shenault; tight end Jared Poplawski; and kicker James Stefanou.
"I think those guys being able to play and bringing the rest of the freshmen along with them, we'll be working hard in the offseason," Lytle said. "I think (that experience) will be huge."
The experience could help, but more than anything, it's the talent of the 2017 class that brings excitement.
Lytle was the most highly recruited prep quarterback signed by CU since Fairview's Craig Ochs in 2000. Running back Alex Fontenot redshirted this year and will likely compete for the starting job next season.
Coaches love the all-around ability of Poplawski at tight end, while at receiver, Nixon and Shenault showed flashes of being stars. Fellow receivers Maurice Bell and Jaylon Jackson were both highly regarded coming out of high school, as well.
The Buffs had six true freshman offensive linemen this season, and it could be the best group they've had in years, led by Jake Moretti, Grant Polley, Colby Pursell and William Sherman.
Defensively, Callier made his mark immediately and excelled as a pass-rush specialist. He played just 196 snaps, but led the team with 11 quarterback pressures and was tied for third with eight third-down stops.
Landman didn't get much playing time until the last two games, but when he got on the field, he looked like a veteran who should have been playing all year. He saw just 79 defensive snaps, but had 17 tackles, four tackles for loss and eight third-down stops.
Veteran players and coaches have also given high praise for defensive end Terrance Lang, linebackers Sparaco, Carson Wells and Jonathan Van Diest and cornerback Chris Miller.
Landman gave credit to the veteran players and coaches for helping the freshman group make the most of this season.
"We had a bunch of great senior leadership," he said. "They definitely taught us how to play the game right. They taught us everything they knew, helped us out whenever we needed help. We had a bunch of guys playing (in the freshman class) and they made some plays. I credit that to our coaching staff and also our senior leadership."
This is a class that may not be as strong if it wasn't for the veterans, as well as the 2016 seniors.
"The guys that were here last year and the seniors that are graduating - everyone who is here — has brought this team back from really the bottom of the bottom," Sparaco said.
Now, the 2017 class is determined to do its part to bring winning football to Boulder.
"I think it's a really important class, especially coming off a 10-win season," Sparaco said. "Maybe people looking from the outside see we had a 10-win season and why aren't we as good this year? It's really important for us to shut the outside out and let Colorado take care of Colorado.
"I'm just excited to see where we go in the future."