Brian Howell’s Monday Rewind

Mel Tucker on roster building, camp observations, Pac-12 and national rankings, etc.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
First-year Colorado head coach Mel Tucker said he enjoys the roster building aspect of his job.

Hard to believe the football season is so quickly approaching. Just 11 days from now, the Colorado Buffaloes will be on the turf at Broncos Stadium at Mile High taking on the rival Colorado State Rams.

It has been an eventful 12 months for CU since the last time these teams met. A 5-0 start, an 0-7 slide, a head coaching change, players transferring in and out.

The Buffaloes we all see on Aug. 30 will look quite a bit different than what we saw just a year ago and I’m eager to get a glimpse of the Mel Tucker era. I’m also and eager to see what quarterback Steven Montez and receiver Laviska Shenault do in their final season together as Buffs.

With football season starting, it’s also time for the return of my Monday Rewind. This is a column I started a year ago after the CSU game. I got a lot of positive feedback, so I decided to bring it back this year. We’ll start a bit earlier this time around, though, because there’s a lot of good stuff I’ve got from recent interviews that I just haven’t been able to use in other stories, but I wanted to share those with the CU fans.

Just like last year, I’ll use this space to hopefully bring you some stories that you’re not going to see on TV or by watching from the stands. In addition, I’ll throw in some of my thoughts on the Buffs, the Pac-12, etc. I’ll also include my weekly Pac-12 rankings and my Associated Press Top 25 ballot.

Without further ado, let’s get rolling!

LEADING OFF: Tucker on team building

Every college football coach speaks of the importance of recruiting, so it didn’t surprise me to hear new Buffs head coach Mel Tucker do the same. Tucker speaks of recruiting with a different tone, however. Recruiting doesn’t feel like a necessity; it feels like a passion.

CU head coach Mel Tucker has already made a big impact in shaping the Buffaloes’ roster.

During his career, Tucker has seen team building from different perspectives. He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Michigan State for two years. He’s spent six years as a college position coach, four a defensive coordinator, and 10 seasons in the National Football League. In each of those roles, Tucker was involved with personnel decisions in some form, but never the main decision maker.

Now as the Buffs’ head coach, he’s the man in charge of shaping the roster.

“I enjoy that,” he told me. “Roster management is a big part of what you do.”

Of course, in college it’s much different than in the pros. NFL teams have general managers, assistant GMs, salary cap gurus and scouts. The head coaches are often involved, as well. Assistants have input, but not much control.

“Usually from the organizations I’ve been in, most of the player acquisitions and the decisions on what players you have is pretty much done on the personnel side of it and they hand them over to you as a coach,” Tucker said. “You have to have some type of collaboration in there. Hopefully you can work together and be on the same page and that’s how you develop a team and you don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole.”

At the college level, there are certainly support staffers who handle a lot of the recruiting tasks. At CU, Cymone George is the director of recruiting, Geoff Martzen the director of player personnel and there are several recruiting assistants. Even with all of those people on staff, coaches are heavily involved in roster building, as they are the ones on the road trying to get high school or junior college players to join the team.

“Not only do we need to coach, but we also need to identify players, evaluate them and also recruit them and sign them and coach them,” Tucker said. “In college, you’re more involved in building a team and that’s something I really like to do and it excites me.”

Most football fans dream of building a roster and think they can be pretty good at it. It’s why fantasy football is such a big deal, and it’s why every GM in the NFL is criticized at some point (some more than others). Of course, those of us with fantasy teams are simply constructing a group of the best players we can get. We’re basically chasing stat-fillers.

Tucker’s passion stems from not just finding talent, but finding talent and people that fit together.

“You’re constantly building your team and every year you have a new team,” he said. “If you add one guy or you lose one guy, you have a new team. It’s a new chemistry, different synergy; everything is different.

“I like the personnel part of it. I like player evaluation, player acquisition, recruiting; I enjoy that part. I like to be able to evaluate needs and then fill those needs and not just talent-wise, but also from a character standpoint and things like that.”

Time will tell if Tucker’s passion results in a winning program in Boulder, but having a passion for recruiting and roster management can’t hurt. The moves that have been made by Tucker since he was hired in December prove that he’s got a defined plan, too – at least for the initial roster:

  • Right away, Tucker recognized a roster that was too small in the trenches. So, he went out and recruited large linemen. (He also helped develop an offseason program that bulked up the returning players).
  • Tucker wants the tight end to be a key part of the offense and recognized a lack of depth there. So, he scooped up graduate transfer Jalen Harris from Auburn, moved running back Beau Bisharat and landed a late addition with Luke Stillwell from junior college.
  • Depth lacking at inside linebacker? No problem. Tucker and his staff added a pair of junior college transfers and now have four juniors in that room instead of two. The lack of experience at safety led to graduate transfer Mikial Onu joining the team from SMU.

Tucker has yet to coach a game, and it will take some time to get the program on a consistent winning track, but there’s no question he’s made an impact with recruiting and roster management during his first nine months on the job.

“We overhauled the recruiting staff, the recruiting department,” he said. “We have a really good structure and process in place. We have a system for recruiting. Everyone on our staff understands it and we work the system. That is paying dividends for us.”

CAMP OBSERVATIONS

Through Sunday, which was an off day, the Buffs have had 15 of 25 practices in preparation for CSU. Plenty of things can change between now and the opener, but here’s a few thoughts on the Buffs at this point in camp.

Mekhi Blackmon, left, and Chris Miller, right, are two players Colorado is hoping can step up and play well at cornerback this season.

I. I think cornerback is the biggest concern right now. During Saturday’s closed scrimmage at Folsom Field, it was a big day for the passing offense, and that was without Laviska Shenault and Dimitri Stanley, two projected starters who were held out to nurse some body soreness. It’s great to see the passing game clicking, but the offense was missing two major weapons and still went off. Cornerback was a concern going into camp, as the Buffs had just five scholarship players. Now there are seven, with receivers Tarik Luckett and Dylan Thomas joining that group in the past couple of weeks. Moving the receivers provides depth and allows those guys to develop for the future, but is that also a sign that the coaching staff is concerned with the guys they already had there? Senior Delrick Abrams, junior Mekhi Blackmon and sophomore Chris Miller are projected as the top three corners, but none has played a full season of Division I football. The other four – Thomas, Luckett, D.J. Oats and K.J. Trujillo – are freshmen with zero college experience.

II. I’d put defensive line as the second biggest concern on this team. I actually really like the projected starting trio of Mustafa Johnson and Terrance Lang at end and Jalen Sami at nose tackle, but Johnson’s the only one in the entire DL group with significant experience. Johnson had a big year in 2018, but it helped having a vastly-improved senior (Javier Edwards) at nose tackle and a beast of a freshman (Israel Antwine) at the other end. Edwards is now with the NFL’s Houston Texans and Antwine transferred to Oklahoma State. I think Sami and Lang are legit players with great upside, but there’s plenty to prove there. The Buffs want to rotate eight or nine linemen, however, and that’s a bit scary considering only two (Johnson and Lang) of the 10 on scholarship have any Division I experience. Three new junior college transfers – Va’atofu Sauvao, Jeremiah Doss and Janaz Jordan – provide some experience, but Sauvao was an offensive lineman until about a week ago and Doss and Jordan haven’t been mentioned much during camp (both have nursed injuries at different times, too). The Buffs will have to lean on some of their four true freshman. Outside of the starting trio, the DL that have received the most praise are freshmen Na’im Rodman and Austin Williams.

Alex Fontenot, left, and Jaren Mangham, right, are two reasons Colorado feels good about its talent at running back.

III. On the flip side, there are two areas that I would have pegged as concerns going into camp that I now feel better about. The first is running back, where the Buffs have sophomore Alex Fontenot (11 career carries) and four freshmen. Despite the lack of experience, I think they’ve got some talent there, led by Jaren Mangham, Deion Smith and Alex Fontenot. The other group is safety. I still don’t know who winds up as the two starters at safety, and I don’t know that they’ll be great back there, but I think it’s got the potential to be a solid group. I love the addition of Mikial Onu, an SMU grad transfer who is a very personable young man and seems to be fitting in well already – on and off the field. I’m also an Aaron Maddox fan. Love his attitude, his aggressiveness and his potential. Throw in Derrion Rakestraw, Isaiah Lewis, Trey Udoffia and highly touted freshman Mark Perry, and I think the group could be solid.

IV. Outside of Aug. 3, when the Buffs were in shells and not in full pads, we haven’t been able to watch a practice. But, based on that practice, two-and-a-half weeks of interviews and various conversations, these are the Buffs I’d label as the camp stars to this point:

  • WR Daniel Arias: The 6-4, 205-pound sophomore is going to be a star for CU. Maybe not this year – because of the veterans ahead of him – but outside of Laviska Shenault, I think he might be the most physically gifted receiver on the team. He’s been praised so often, it’s hard to imagine him not having a role this season.
  • CB Mekhi Blackmon: Yes, the corners are a concern, but Blackmon has been praised repeatedly this camp and picked off a couple passes during the open practice.
  • ILB Nate Landman: We know he’s a star after a great season in 2018. Tucker and Summers have had high praise for Landman, who has taken his game – and leadership – to the next level.
  • S Mikial Onu: Getting here late and learning a new defense, he took some time to get going, but his experience and leadership – and his physicality – are going to be major assets for CU this year.
  • RT William Sherman: I have had numerous players mention Sherman’s significant improvement from last year. The sophomore has put on weight and muscle and could have a big year.
  • RB Deion Smith: Not sure any back has been mentioned more than Smith. I still think Mangham is the best of the bunch, but Smith could play a big role.
  • OLB Carson Wells: Tucker called him perhaps the most underrated player on the team. Wells, from what I hear, is having a fantastic camp.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

At the end of the spring, the Buffs had several players transfer out of the program. A few of those guys have found new opportunities.

  • CB Kevin George: Arkansas Tech
  • CB LJ Wallace: Iowa Western Community College
  • DE Terriek Roberts: Nebraska-Kearney

It appears that safety recruit Trustin Oliver is also playing at Iowa Western. It was initially believed he would play at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) CC. A member of the Buffs’ 2019 recruiting class, Oliver did not academically quality for CU.

I’ve been unable to find any information about landing spots for cornerback Ronnie Blackmon and defensive lineman Tava Finau. Cornerback Dante Wigley had a year of eligibility left, but I don’t believe he’s playing anywhere.

STAT OF THE WEEK

14 – Career quarterback pressures for sophomore outside linebacker Jacob Callier, in only 276 career snaps played. Injured for the final eight games last year, he’s been on the field for just 15.7 percent of CU’s defensive snaps the past two years, yet only one player has had more pressures (Mustafa Johnson with 16, all last year). I don’t know what type of role Callier will play this year, but he’s certainly proven to have a knack for disrupting the quarterback. He’s also got two sacks and 10 third-down stops.

MY PAC-12 RANKINGS (preseason)

1. Oregon Ducks (9-4, 5-4 Pac-12 in 2018): Ducks haven’t had their usual dominance in a few years. Led by Justin Herbert, I think they’re  back.

2. Washington Huskies (10-4, 7-2): They’ve won the conference twice in the last three years. The roster is very different, but the talent is still there and so is coach Chris Petersen.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Coming into the season, the Oregon Ducks are one of the favorites to win the Pac-12.

3. Utah Utes (9-5, 6-3): They finally got to the Pac-12 title game last year. Kyle Whittingham enters his 15th season as Utah head coach and this might be his most complete team during the Pac-12 era.

4. Stanford Cardinal (9-4, 6-3): There’s plenty of talent and David Shaw is an elite coach, but I think this a good – and not great – Stanford team.

5. Washington State Cougars (11-2, 7-2): I severely underestimated the Cougars last year because of the question at QB. That position is unknown again, but Mike Leach has this program rolling.

6. USC Trojans (5-7, 4-5): Rough year last in 2018, but the Trojans are too talented to stay down.

7. Arizona State Sun Devils (7-6, 5-4): ASU’s hiring of Herm Edwards led to a lot of jokes last year. One year in, the move looks solid. The Sun Devils have no experience at QB, though.

8. Colorado Buffaloes (5-7, 2-7): A consensus choice for last in the South, I think the Buffs are going to be better than people expect. Or maybe I’m drinking too much Kool-Aid.

9. California Golden Bears (7-6, 4-5): Coach Justin Wilcox has made some positive changes and that defense is tough. The offense was dreadful last year, though, and the schedule is brutal (road games at Washington, Ole Miss, Oregon, Utah and Stanford).

10. Arizona Wildcats (5-7, 4-5): There are enough pieces for this team to finish better than this, but it’s been years since they played good defense in Tucson. They’ll go as QB Khalil Tate goes.

11. UCLA Bruins (3-9, 3-6): Because of coach Chip Kelly’s remarkable run at Oregon (46-7 from 2009-12), there’s a common belief that he’ll get the Bruins turned around. He might, but I’m not sold – yet. The Bruins’ talent is nowhere near Oregon level and it’s now been seven years since Kelly had a great year. His last three years as a head coach – including two in the NFL – his teams are 11-32.

12. Oregon State Beavers (2-10, 1-8): There’s enough returning talent for the Beavers to show some improvement, but this program has a long climb, especially in the North division.

MY AP TOP 25 BALLOT

The preseason Associated Press Top 25 will be released today and I’m honored to be a voter once again. I realize the College Football Playoff rankings are what REALLY matters in this sport now, but I think the AP poll still has a lot of value and leads to a lot of discussion, so I take it seriously to be among the 60 or so voters around the country. I will say, I’m not a big fan of preseason polls. If the AP decided that the first poll would come out in early October, after we’ve seen these teams for a month, I’d be happy about that. Until then … my preseason ballot is a loose prediction on how the season will turn out, but it’s really more of a “power ranking” going into the season. As I do every year, I’m sure in January I’ll look back at this shake my head at some big misses, but for now, here’s how I view the top 25 teams.

1. Clemson

2. Alabama

3. Oklahoma

4. Georgia

5. Ohio State

6. LSU

7. Michigan

8. Notre Dame

9. Oregon

10. Florida

11. Washington

12. Texas

13. Utah

14. Texas A&M
15. Michigan State

16. Central Florida

17. Wisconsin

18. Iowa State

19. Stanford

20. Penn State

21. Washington State

22. Missouri

23. Virginia Tech

24. Cincinnati

25. Virginia

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

Tucker on feeding off energy in the stadium during a game: “What I’ve found is when the play is going on and you’re playing in the game, you’re focused so much on what needs to happen that sometimes you don’t hear the crowd. Sometimes you do but sometimes you don’t. You kind of get into a zone. There’s so much going on you don’t have time to think about the crowd. There’s always the next play. It almost becomes … you kind of get used to it. It’s what’s to be expected when you’re on the field. That’s part of the game.”

Tucker has been praised – and rightfully so – for bringing a new attitude to the team and getting players to buy in to him and his program. Inside linebackers coach Ross Els gave me a different – and probably accurate – perspective on the buy-in we’re seeing: “The players have done a great job, but they have to or they don’t play. I’ve been on a lot of new staffs, first-year staffs. Players are always great because they go, ‘Crap, look what happened to the last staff because we didn’t perform. We need to perform better.’ That’s just the way players usually adapt really well.”

THIS WEEK

Follow Pat Rooney and I on Buffzone.com as we bring you more coverage from preseason practices. And, the best part about this week … the wait for live, meaningful football is over! On Saturday, Miami and Florida play to kick off the college football season, while later that night, we get our first look at a Pac-12 team, with Arizona visiting Hawaii.