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New coordinators Tyson Summers, Jay Johnson narrowing focus as CU Buffs open camp

Winding coaching careers lead to opportunities in Boulder

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado offensive coordinator Jay Johnson has plenty of experience on his side of the ball.
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None of them are new to coaching, and the working relationships the entire Colorado football staff believes will lead to resounding success have been fermenting for the better part of eight months.

Still, the first day of practice remains the first day of practice, even for the veteran coaching staff assembled by first-year Buffaloes coach Mel Tucker. And for new coordinators Tyson Summers (defense) and Jay Johnson (offense), Thursday’s first day of practice for the 2019 season offered a balance of first-day excitement mixed with a sense of purpose.

Now the clock is ticking. Only four full weeks remain to get their respective units ready for the season opener against Colorado State on Aug. 30.

“At least for me, I’m a lot like the players. A little bit of anxiety trying to make sure everything goes right and is organized the way it’s supposed to be,” Summers said. “But at the end of the day, we all work for this time of year. All our offseason, our summers, it all goes into how we compete here for the next four or five months. I’m really excited about the defense that we’ve got, and I’m very excited about the position group I’ve got with the safeties. We’ve had a good summer.”

Both Summers and Johnson enter the season perhaps having something to prove on their respective coaching resumes. Summers enjoyed a successful stint as the defensive coordinator at Central Florida and spent one year as the defensive coordinator at Colorado State in 2015 (the Rams finished sixth that season in the Mountain West in scoring defense and total defense), yet he was fired less than two years into his first Division I head coaching job at Georgia Southern after an 0-6 start in 2017.

Summers landed at Georgia as a defensive quality control assistant, and after following Tucker to Boulder, Summers’ immediate task is more challenging than Johnson’s with the Buffs offense returning proven play-makers in quarterback Steven Montez and receiver Laviska Shenault. Summers, meanwhile, goes into preseason camp with a solid mix of experience across the projected No. 1 unit but with little depth to lean on. That is true of no position group more than cornerback, where a rash of departures during the spring left CU’s depth precariously thin.

“It’s not just at corner. If you look at the D-line, I don’t know how much different it is. We really only have four or five guys that are veterans,” Summers said. “We’ve got all these young guys that are having to be in the two-deep, or having to play the threes. It’s a lot of places on this defense. That’s why this camp is so important for us to our development. We have a lot of positions, not just corner, where we’ve got to develop talent.”

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado defensive coordinator Tyson Summers’ unit is lacking depth in several key spots.

Johnson’s route to his first official preseason practice in Boulder was similarly circuitous as Summers. He spent five years overseeing a high-octane offense at Louisiana (formerly Louisiana-Lafayette) before assuming the same role in 2016 at Minnesota, where his Golden Gophers finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring and fifth in rushing offense despite ranking 11th in total yards. Minnesota finished 9-4 that season and defeated Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, but Johnson was left looking for a job when athletic director Mark Coyle opted to clean house with a football program that dealt with a player revolt in the lead-up to the Holiday Bowl after several players were suspended due to their alleged roles in a sexual assault earlier in the season.

Like Summers, Johnson landed at Georgia as a quality control assistant and followed Tucker to CU. His unit has big-time potential behind Montez and Shenault, and though someone still must step forward to command the lead role at running back, Johnson realizes the Buffs’ potential on offense will not be realized unless some stability up front is discovered during preseason camp.

“We can say what we want, but between (the O-line) and the quarterback, that’s where it starts,” Johnson said. “I think with coach Kap (O-line coach Chris Kapilovic), he’s done a great job and brings so much knowledge to those guys. You can see those guys are starting to flourish under him. The challenge is if we can keep that going. That continuity will be a big piece in how we perform.”