Pride in the Colorado Buffaloes is part of what lured Darrin Chiaverini back to Boulder in December of 2015.
A receiver for the Buffs from 1995-98, Chiaverini made four stops in nine years along the coaching road before being hired at CU. He brought some moxie to the CU coaching staff and made an instant impact in recruiting.
Now entering his fourth season on the CU staff, Chiaverini is still making his mark on the recruiting trail and on the field, but the Chev of 2019 isn’t the same as the Chev of 2016.
In this week’s edition of the Monday Rewind – the last one before the Buffs’ season gets rolling on Friday against Colorado State – I talk to Chiaverini, the Buffs’ receivers coach, about the ups and downs of life. Also:
- Mel Tucker’s philosophy on captains
- How a bad start last Monday turned into a positive
- After Noyer move, what do the Buffs have at backup QB
- Stat of the week
- Pac-12 rankings
LEADING OFF: Chev’s triumph and tragedy
Hired as co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach by former Buffs head coach Mike MacIntyre in December of 2015, Chiaverini instantly became a fan favorite (he’s been a media favorite, too).
In Chev’s first season at CU, the Buffs went 10-4, won the Pac-12 South and played in the Alamo Bowl – an out of nowhere resurgence that included some excitement on offense.
After two seasons sharing the coordinator role with Brian Lindgren, Chiaverini got a new role last year. Lindgren moved on to Oregon State, and MacIntyre handed play-calling duties to Chiaverini.
The Chiaverini-led offense was a big reason for CU’s 5-0 start last year. Then, his best player – receiver Laviska Shenault – got hurt, the offense became predictable and the Buffs lost their last seven games.
The slide led to MacIntyre being fired and Chiaverini becoming unsure of his own future. Fortunately for him, new head coach Mel Tucker decided to keep him on staff. Although no longer in a coordinator role, Chiaverini accepted an opportunity to continue coaching the receivers.
“I love Colorado and I didn’t want to leave,” Chiaverini told me after a recent practice. “Obviously we didn’t finish the way we needed to finish last year and some of that falls on me. I understand that as a coordinator. Coach Tucker has been good to me and I’ve tried to help him as much as I can and help (offensive coordinator Jay) Johnson with our personnel. I know I’ve brought a lot of good players to this program and you’re going to watch a lot of them on Saturdays. I’m excited to be here, I’m excited to help CU football get back to the elite of college football.”
Chiaverini is responsible for recruiting the receiving corps – which are among the best in the country – and other key players to CU.
As a bonus, Tucker added the assistant head coach title to Chiaverini in July. It was a sign of how much Tucker values Chiaverini’s recruiting, as well as his ties to CU and the community.
“Coach Tuck will ask me questions on, ‘What do you think about this, Chev?’ or, ‘What’s your thoughts on this?’” Chiaverini said. “He knows I know this school and I know the surrounding areas around here and also in recruiting. I think coach Tuck recognized that and he wanted to help me in my career a little bit, too.”
The ups and downs of Chev’s tenure in Boulder have been nothing like the emotional roller coaster he’s ridden off the field.
While the Buffs were rolling on the field in 2016, Chiaverini’s mother, Edna, was battling cancer and she died on Feb. 17, 2017.
Later that year, on Oct. 1, 2017, the Chiaverini family was heartbroken to learn that two of the 59 people killed in a mass shooting in Las Vegas were close to them. Christopher Roybal was a former brother-in-law to Chiaverini’s brother, Ryan; and Hannah Ahlers was a close friend of Chiaverini and his wife, Shannon.
Chiaverini has also lost a couple of former CU teammates, most recently in February – two years and one day after his mother’s passing – when T.J. Cunningham was shot and killed in Aurora after a dispute with a neighbor. Chiaverini and Cunningham were teammates for just one year, in 1995, but had become close friends.
“T.J. was a great teammate, a great friend, a great Buff,” Chiaverini said. “Really tragic that he was taken the way he was taken, over a fight. That’s why you have to be very conscious of the situations you put yourself in. T.J. never thought in his wildest dreams that would happen, but they got into an altercation, a guy brings a gun and shoots him. Knowing T.J., he knew he probably should’ve handled that one a little differently, but the guy should have never done that and brought a gun. His family is in our prayers. My wife talks to his wife a lot. It’s a tough deal.”
Losing loved ones has brought some perspective to Chiaverini.
“You become a little bit more appreciative of your friends and family, especially when you lose people,” he said. “When I lost my mom, obviously you don’t get a chance to talk to her anymore.
“It makes you re-evaluate your priorities sometimes in life. Just to be more patient with people and also be more of a teacher with your own kids and your football players, because they are your kids, too. It’s taught me to be really appreciative of where you are, be appreciative and humble in the situation you’re in and look to really help people each and every day.”
Chiaverini is hoping this year brings a reversal of fortune for the Buffs on the field, and it’s already been a good year off the field. Chiaverini’s daughter, Kaylie, graduated from Boulder High School in the spring; he completed his first Bolder Boulder in May (along with Shannon, who completed her third); the couple celebrated their 20th anniversary in June; and Chiaverini’s son, Curtis, is entering his third season as a walk-on receiver with the Buffs – wearing the same No. 6 that Darrin wore at CU.
“It’s crazy,” Chiaverini said of Curtis already in his third season. “He’s doing good. He’s having a really good camp, making a lot of plays. I’m proud of him. It’s fun to see him wearing No. 6, it’s fun to see him wearing the black the gold. That’s another one of the main reasons why I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to be here to help him and see him through and, at the end of the day, let’s win football games.”
Chiaverini’s focus on winning has never changed, but certainly his perspective is different than it was in 2016.
“It just makes you change your thinking, it makes you change what’s important to you,” he said of the ups and downs of the past few years. “Football is always going to be important, but you’re always going to look at the bigger picture of life and how you teach your own kids – your son or daughter – and your own football players to be appreciative and be good people.”
CAPTAINS: Tucker’s approach in Year 1
It was several months ago that CU announced how Mel Tucker would pick captains for this year. Captains will be picked for each game, and then at the end of the year, the team will vote on season captains.
Seems like an odd approach; not necessarily the game-by-game captains, but the end of season vote. I, personally, have never heard of captains being named at the end of a season; and apparently many fans haven’t, either. So, last week, I asked Tucker about the approach.
“Right now, with me coming in new, we have a lot of young players and we have a new coaching staff and I think it’s just better to do it game by game,” he said. “We’ll have like three guys each game and we’ll pick them as a staff. By the end of the season, I’m pretty sure it’ll be clear who deserve to be captains.”
The game-by-game approach makes sense, but why the end-of-season vote?
“They’ll go down in the annals as the captains for this team,” he said. “And, if we’re fortunate enough to play in the postseason (they’ll be bowl game captains).”
So, there you have it. The end of season vote is essential to decide which players go down in the history book as the captains. While different, it makes sense for a first-year coach, and I’m guessing the players who win the vote will be guys who have displayed their leadership all year.
Tucker also told me that may not be his approach every year, but in his first year on the job, this is what he wants to do.
“Every team is a new team,” he said.
The game-by-game approach is nothing new to CU, by the way. Weekly captains were appointed every year from 1932-45 and again from 1950-58 with Dal Ward as head coach.
Bill McCartney (in 1990) and Rick Neuheisel (1995-97) used that approach, as well. Since 1998 – when Chiaverini was one of three captains – CU has had season captains every year except 2015. In that season, MacIntyre picked game-by-game captains from among his 12-player “leadership council.”
Every coach has a different approach, and Tucker’s is certainly different from his predecessor. MacIntyre seemed to have a tough time narrowing his list of captains. In his second season (2014), the Buffs had five captains, but they had at least six in each of his other five years at the helm. Prior to his arrival in 2013, CU had as many as five captains just twice (1979 and 2007).
MOTIVATION: Buffs energized by Tucker
During camp, inside linebackers coach Ross Els told me that the players have done a great job with the adjustment to a new head coach and staff, but that he wasn’t surprised. Players, he said, realize that the previous coach got fired because they didn’t perform well, so they get motivated to step it up.
Last Thursday, during a media event organized by CU and hosted at Blake Street Tavern in Denver, I had a chance to sit down with Buffs’ quarterback Steven Montez and I asked him about Els’ comment. He agreed.
“I think we take a lot of the blame for what happened last year,” Montez said. “I think we could have done a lot more as a team and as players to turn what happened around midway through the season last year. We could have done more, especially on the mental side of the things. I think we definitely could have done a lot more there.”
There’s no question the 2018 Buffs lacked mental toughness. That’s on the players, to an extent, but I’ve always believed mental toughness is a reflection of the head coach. MacIntyre had good qualities, but mental toughness wasn’t one of them. Leadership was an issue last season, especially during the seven-game slide.
For all the changes brought in by Tucker – new offense, new defense, more intensity in workouts and practice – the development of mental toughness might be the most significant. We’ll see how that plays out when games start, but at least so far, the players seem to be adopting Tucker’s mentality.
“This year, not only are we excited about coach Tuck because we don’t want to get him fired, basically,” Montez said, “but we’re also just excited because of the energy he brings. He’s been a great coach everywhere he’s been. He’s been to a lot of great places that have won a lot of football games. We’re just trying to learn from him and just absorb all the knowledge that he can give us. He knows what it takes to win and he knows what it takes to be great and that’s what we want to be.”
A perfect example of that came last Monday. Tucker was not happy with how the Buffs started practice that day. He stopped practice, made it very clear to the team he wasn’t happy, and he restarted practice.
“He’s obviously not happy,” Montez said of Tucker’s demeanor during a bad practice (and there haven’t been many, it should be noted). “He gets a little intense, starts yelling, starts raising his voice. It’s good because we need to hear that sometimes and it gets us in gear.”
Last Monday was practice No. 16 of a grueling preseason camp and the players showed some camp fatigue that morning.
“Some days, especially after fall camp has already taken place and dudes are tired and guys’ legs hurt and guys are sore and guys’ necks are sore from hitting, coach Tuck calls it the ‘poor-mes,’” Montez said. “The ‘poor-mes’ start to creep in a little bit. He just wants us to go out there and have a good day of practice, so he’s going to make sure we get amped up and we’re ready to go. When he gets intense like that, guys, their ears start to perk up and their eyes start to open up a little bit. No one wants to get ripped out there in practice. The intensity definitely ramped up and we ended up having a good day after we restarted.”
Through spring ball and fall camp, there have only been a few practices like that, and each time, we’ve heard about the coaches finding a way to shift the momentum and still get a good days’ work out of the players. After those days, the first thing that comes to my mind is the disastrous 41-34 overtime loss to Oregon State last season. CU led 31-3 in the second half before Oregon State rallied and nobody on the CU sideline stepped up to halt the Beavers’ momentum. That game, ultimately, sealed MacIntyre’s fate.
I have no idea how this season will play out, but moments like last Monday make me believe that under Tucker’s watch we won’t see anything like the Oregon State game. He won’t allow it.
BACKUP PLAN: QBs ready if called upon?
Perhaps the biggest surprise of camp came last week when quarterback Sam Noyer, a junior who is Montez’s most experienced backup, moved to safety.
Despite the initial surprise, the move makes sense, because the Buffs lack depth at safety, and Noyer might be pretty good back there. He’s 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, loves to hit and has speed.
“Sam was doing pretty well (at quarterback) before he moved, but I think safety is going to be a good move for him,” Montez said. “He’s got the speed, he’s got the size. He can come down and hit you like we saw against Washington State when he knocked that dude out (in 2018). He’s a big, physical dude. He’s going to do really well on the defensive side of the ball.”
On offense, that leaves redshirt sophomore Tyler Lytle and redshirt freshman Blake Stenstrom. They’ve thrown a combined five college passes (all by Lytle), but Montez is confident in both.
“They’re mentally locked in, mentally focused,” he said. “They both throw a phenomenal ball. They’re playing good football right now. They’re both real smart guys. Football wise, they’re about equal in the mental aspect of things.”
Although the depth chart doesn’t identify a top backup – it says Lytle OR Stenstrom – my guess is that Lytle would get the first nod after Montez. Since his arrival in January of 2017, Lytle has made significant strides physically, Montez said.
“Tyler has been playing really good football,” Montez said. “He’s changed his body. When he first got here, he was real stiff in his hips, couldn’t really squat down all the way, wasn’t real fast and mobile. After our strength staff worked with him and got him more flexible, he’s moving now. He can run, he throws a really good ball. He’s thrown a really good ball every since he’s gotten here. He’s a smart dude up top. He knows football, he knows what’s going on for the most part on the defensive side of the football. But, the biggest jump he’s taken is his athletic ability.”
Stenstrom’s had a good camp, too, and there’s no question he knows the game. His father, Steve, still holds several passing records at Stanford and played six seasons in the NFL.
“Blake is like a computer,” Montez said. “He’s a straight up robot. He’s a real smart dude. He used to build computers for fun in high school, which is kind of ridiculous. That’s kind of the guy he is. He enjoys coding, he enjoys engineering, electronics, all that stuff. He might be one of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around.”
STAT OF THE WEEK: 106-23
Combined scoring margin of the last three Rocky Mountain Showdowns, all won by Colorado. The Buffs routed the Rams, 44-7, in 2016; won a 17-3 clunker in 2017; and rolled to a 45-13 win last year. CU had leads of 37-0, 17-0 and 14-0 before CSU scored in those games.
MY PAC-12 RANKINGS (preseason)
This is basically a copy-and-paste from last week. I know Arizona already played and lost, 45-38 at Hawaii on Saturday, but that’s not enough to change my rankings for now. (That game did, however, solidify my thinking that the Wildcats are in the bottom third on the Pac-12. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a defense force six turnovers and still give up 45 points. Imagine how bad that game could have been had Hawaii been really sharp on offense).
1. Oregon Ducks (9-4, 5-4 Pac-12 in 2018)
2. Washington Huskies (10-4, 7-2)
3. Utah Utes (9-5, 6-3)
4. Stanford Cardinal (9-4, 6-3)
5. Washington State Cougars (11-2, 7-2)
6. USC Trojans (5-7, 4-5)
7. Arizona State Sun Devils (7-6, 5-4)
8. Colorado Buffaloes (5-7, 2-7)
9. California Golden Bears (7-6, 4-5)
10. Arizona Wildcats (5-7, 4-5)
11. UCLA Bruins (3-9, 3-6)
12. Oregon State Beavers (2-10, 1-8)
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
Mel Tucker, when asked on Thursday at Blake Street Tavern, if the Buffs are where they want to be: “Yeah, it’s been a very productive camp. We’ve gotten a lot out of it. You really want to get your schemes installed again and you want to find out who your best players are, find out how much depth you have, who can do what and what are the strengths and weaknesses of your team. It’s critically important to go into games knowing who you are and that way you can game plan and make sure you’re doing what your players can do. You never want to fit a square peg into a round hole. Now, from a scheme standpoint, we know how to adapt our schemes to the guys we have and also have our schemes comprehensive enough that we can have what we need for our opponents.”
Receiver Laviska Shenault when I asked him if there’s any pressure on the Buffs to win this year: “There’s never pressure. When you’re doing something you love, there’s no pressure.”
Shenault, when I followed up and asked if he believes the offseason has made the Buffs a winning team: “I really think we’ve got something special cooking up here.”
THIS WEEK: Game time!
After months of waiting, the Buffaloes finally kick off the Tucker era on Friday night against Colorado State. Kickoff is slated for 8:10 p.m. at Broncos Stadium at Mile High in Denver. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.