SALT LAKE CITY — Tedric Thompson had a tough time saying goodbye on Saturday afternoon.
Colorado’s junior strong safety had to walk through the locker room at Rice-Eccles Stadium following the Buffaloes’ 20-14 loss to Utah and look into the eyes of many of his friends who had played their final game.
“Only thing that’s keeping me down is the fact that I had to hug seniors in there and just talk to some of my best friends,” Thompson said. “(Running back Christian Powell) is one of my best friends on the team, and to see a grown man cry over something like this, it definitely gets to you.
“College goes by fast. I’m already basically a senior now.”
As he watched his senior teammates pack up their gear for the final time, though, Thompson was filled with another emotion.
“I’m mad that the season is over, and we didn’t get to a bowl game,” Thompson said.
While 15 seniors will be leaving the CU program after this season, the rest of the Buffs (4-9, 1-8 Pac-12) walked out of the locker room on Saturday already looking ahead to 2016 and making sure their final chapter doesn’t end the same way.
“Like coach said, it’s an end, but it’s also a beginning,” defensive tackle Jordan Carrell said. “We’re only going up from here. The offseason starts right when we get back.”
That means the offseason is officially underway for the 2016 Buffaloes. As they head into the offseason, the Buffs have several questions that must get answered if they are to improve upon this year’s record and finally get to that bowl game. Here are a few of the main questions they face:
1. Will changes be made to the coaching staff?
Athletic director Rick George has already publicly stated that Mike MacIntyre will return as his head coach in 2016, but how many of his assistants will return, as well?
Special teams coordinator Toby Neinas has to be on the hot seat. This season, the Buffs had six kicks (punts or field goals) blocked, finished with the worst field-goal percentage (.621, 18 of 29) in the Pac-12 and, despite kicking at altitude, struggled to kickoff into the end zone for touchbacks. The Buffs missed at least one field in the last seven games, and never seemed to correct a flaw in kicker Diego Gonzalez’s approach from the left hash.
Offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren saw his offense regress, despite returning all of the main playmakers from a high-powered attack in 2014. At times, the offense was downright miserable to watch. Lindgren could be spared, however, by the fact that injuries decimated the Buffs on offense. In particular, the offensive line was a MASH unit, and CU played the final 11 games without their top tailback (Michael Adkins II) and the last 11 quarters without their starting quarterback (Sefo Liufau).
The Buffs will evaluate all of their position coaches, too. Offensive line coach Gary Bernardi could be on the hot seat, but again, with so many injuries up front, it was difficult to get any continuity with that unit.
2. Who will play quarterback?
Liufau will be a senior in 2016, and the three-year starter is hoping to earn his job back. Regardless, he’s out at least six months with a Lisfranc injury, which can sometimes take up to a year to heal. Liufau will miss spring ball at least, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready to play in 2016.
Redshirt freshman Cade Apsay took over for Liufau and had mixed results. He did a nice job coming off the bench to give the Buffs a chance in a 27-24 loss to USC, but his two starts lackluster. In those two starts — both losses — Apsay completed 34 of 58 passes (58.6 percent), was picked off four times and sacked six times. In those two starts, he led the Buffs to just 10 points, while going 1-for-5 in the red zone.
Apsay, senior-to-be Jordan Gehrke and freshman Steven Montez will battle in the spring. Montez is arguably the most talented quarterback on the roster.
3. Can the Buffs get better up front?
Lots of injuries and lots of moving parts led to a rough season for the offensive line.
The Buffs gave up 41 sacks — 18 more than last year — and averaged just 104.8 rushing yards per game in conference play. The Buffs were held below 100 rushing yards in six of their nine conference games, including each of the last four.
All but one of the Buffs’ linemen returns next year, and it is critical for that group to have a great offseason by getting stronger and improving their overall technique.
4. Can the defense take another step?
A year ago, nobody would have expected that by the end of this season the defense would be stronger than the offense, but that is certainly the case.
CU’s defense, which has been atrocious for years, made significant strides this year. Going into the Oct. 24 meeting at Oregon State, CU had given up 36 or more points in 12 consecutive conference games. During the last six games, this year, only one team hit the 36-point mark against the Buffs, and four teams were held to 27 or less.
This defense won’t be confused with the 1985 Chicago Bears, but it was a huge leap forward in defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s first season. Most of the key players on defense return, and it’s important that they find another gear and take the next step.
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.