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Rooney: Worst-to-first dream a challenging one for CU football

Buffs’ O-line, corners in the preseason spotlight

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Mekhi Blackmon takes off with an interception for a pick six on April 27.
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It happens all the time.

A team that typically lands in the basement of its conference predictably gets picked for last place ahead of the following season. That team, perhaps loaded with undervalued experience or inspired by a new coach, turns heads by putting together a season that eventually makes those preseason prognostications the source of a good laugh.

It happened in Boulder as recently as 2016, when the Colorado Buffaloes football team defied its lukewarm preseason expectations with a stirring run to the 2016 Pac-12 Conference championship game. Things haven’t been the same since, with the Buffs adding two more last-place finishes in the Pac-12 South to bring their total to seven last-place finishes in the division in eight seasons in the league.

New head coach Mel Tucker aims to change that. When this year’s Pac-12 preseason poll is released later this week at the league’s football media day, the Buffs are expected to once again reside in the basement of the South. The goal of turning that preseason fate into a postseason joke won’t be easy. The schedule is far more difficult, with the Buffs trading New Hampshire for Air Force in nonconference play while facing Oregon and Stanford in Pac-12 play in lieu of 2018 lightweights Oregon State and Cal, both of which defeated CU.

Certainly there are plenty of the so-called intangibles that must fall into place for CU to climb out of that basement. Avoiding a catastrophic injury on a team boasting questionable depth tops that list, perhaps followed closely with how the Buffs mesh under a fiery, well-decorated coach who nonetheless is taking his first turn as a full-time head coach.

On the field, though, a worst-to-first run will require several position groups to play above expectations. Yes, that sort of run requires contributions across the board. Yet while some position groups should be up to the challenge, such as the Laviska Shenault-led receivers, or perhaps the defensive front, others need to turn heads this fall if the Buffs expect to make a run at a bowl game. And on offense, it all starts up front.

None of the Buffs’ position groups has struggled more in recent seasons than the offensive line, and any beyond-expectation success CU enjoys this fall needs this question mark to turn into a reliable unit, if not a clear-cut team strength. There are pieces to work with. Guard-turned-center Tim Lynott goes into his senior season with 33 starts to his credit, and this week he was named to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy. The Buffs are welcoming to the mix senior tackle Arlington Hambright, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State, while sophomore tackles Will Sherman and Frank Fillip are poised to turn potential into production. Overall, though, the offensive line needs to keep the heat off quarterback Steven Montez. And, with no proven workhorse in the backfield for the first time since Phillip Lindsay was fresh out of Denver South High School, the onus will be on the offensive line to set the tone in the run game.

After that, the eyes in this corner are on Montez. That’s not meant as a criticism of the Buffs’ signal-caller. With a wealth of experience and next-level potential at the game’s most important position, Montez is the Buffs’ biggest asset going into 2019. However, the line that separates very good quarterbacks from great ones is a thin but monumental one. Despite two different play-callers the past two seasons, and last year’s addition of a well-respected quarterback coach in the since-departed Kurt Roper, Montez produced eerily similar stats in his first two years as CU’s full-time starter. This year his success might depend less on bottom-line statistics and more on his ability to lift the team upon his shoulders at crunch time. He did it last year at Nebraska. He did not down the stretch of the overtime collapse against Oregon State, the flashpoint of what turned a moderate losing streak into a program-altering collapse.

Finally, finding answers among a depleted corps of cornerbacks will top the preseason to-do list for new defensive coordinator Tyson Summers. Delrick Abrams, Mekhi Blackmon, and a healthy Chris Miller, who missed spring practice, is a good start, but the loss of four players via transfers since the end of last season has left the Buffs’ cornerback depth paper-thin.

On Aug. 1, less than two weeks away, the Buffs will go through their first official practice of the Tucker era. Much of the excitement around regime change in football is discovering what new wrinkles the new coach will bring to the mix. In CU’s case, gaining clarity on some of the aforementioned questions before the Aug. 30 opener against Colorado State could be the first steps toward rewriting the Buffs’ 2019 expectations.