CU Buffs’ Jay Johnson aims to fix offense

Colorado finished 10th in Pac-12 in scoring, but Buffs offensive coordinator likes the talent coming back

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado offensive coordinator Jay Johnson and the Buffs finished 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring.

Given the amount of veteran talent on the roster this past season, Colorado was expecting a lot more out of its offense.

This wasn’t supposed to be the Buffs’ lowest scoring team in seven years.

With season No. 1 of the Mel Tucker era now in the books and early signing day in the rearview mirror, the Buffs now begin the critical task of figuring out what went wrong and how to fix it.

“That’s my big piece moving forward is that we will kind of get together as a staff and go back and reflect and look at everything and really try to be very critical of where we were at, where we’re going and all those things,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said this week.

CU finished 5-7 for a third year in a row, in part because of its lack of production on offense. Despite having a fifth-year, third-year starting quarterback in Steven Montez, one of the most explosive players in the country in receiver Laviska Shenault, and several other talented weapons, the Buffs finished 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring, at 23.5 points per game.

That’s CU’s lowest average since 17.8 points per game in 2012. It’s also the lowest average by a Johnson-led offense in his 10 seasons as an FBS coordinator.

“I thought we made some turns for the better at certain times of the year, but then there’s a lot of things that were left on the table that we didn’t get completed,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to look at the big picture things and what we’re doing. Certainly there’s frustration; you always want to score more points, but you’ve got to kind of look at what’s happening and why is that happening? What’s the issue? I don’t have all those answers yet. I hope to find those out as we move forward.”

Johnson hasn’t had time to evaluate the season because as soon as the campaign came to a close, he and the rest coaches hit the recruiting trail. They worked overtime to prepare for last Wednesday’s national signing day.

When Johnson and the staff do sit down to break down the season, they’ll look at all aspects of the offense.

“Is it scheme orientated? Was it execution orientated? Was it matchup orientated?,” he said. “There’s so many variables that go into that. That’s a big piece because obviously to be successful, you have to score more points and put your defense in advantageous situations. I think in certain realms at certain times it’s probably a combination of all those things.”

Play calling is an easy target of criticism, but there were plenty of times when poor execution (dropped passes, penalties, missed assignments) was debilitating. Opponents such as Oregon and Utah simply overmatched the Buffs.

Heading into his second year with the Buffs, Johnson faces the task of not only figuring out what led to the struggles, but trying to replace several key players.

Montez, receiver Tony Brown, three offensive linemen and two tight ends are all graduating, while Shenault has declared for the NFL Draft. That’s a lot of holes to fill, but Johnson said it’s exciting for him to have a young, talented group to work with next year.

“I think that will be outstanding,” he said. “Obviously, we lost some talented kids that were very productive in their careers here and they will surely be missed, but I’m really excited about some of the young kids we have in this program. And , I think being with them early in their careers is exciting to kind of see where they can go.”

It starts at quarterback, where the competition will be wide open to replace Montez, the program’s all-time leading passer. Junior Tyler Lytle enters his fourth year in the program, but he’s thrown just six career passes. Sophomore Blake Stenstrom has thrown three career passes, and true freshman Brendon Lewis will hit the ground running in January.

“I was blessed to be here with what Steven did for the program; absolutely blessed,” Johnson said. “But, I think it’ll be kind of a new, exciting chapter (at quarterback) that I’m happy to be a part of.”

At receiver, the Buffs lose Shenault and Brown, who combined for 112 catches 1,471 yards and nine touchdowns, but return KD Nixon – the lone senior among skill position players – sophomore Dimitri Stanley and deep group of youngsters.

“All of them have the ability to make plays and do positive things for us,” Johnson said. “They bring a good mentality to us that will be really positive for our football team.”

The entire group of running backs, led by Alex Fontenot and Jaren Mangham, who combined for 1,315 yards and eight touchdowns, return, as well.

In addition, the Buffs return tight end Brady Russell, who had 23 catches for 221 yards, and they have a group of young, talented linemen.

Although the 2019 season didn’t go as hoped and Johnson has work to do to figure out why, he is optimistic that 2020 can be better because the talent is there.

“A lot of them bring a lot to the table,” he said. “So I’m looking to see them mature and take that next step.”