CU Buffs’ Karl Dorrell aims to build on 2019 season

New Colorado head football coach saw positives, room for improvement, in reviewing last year’s games

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado’s Mustafa Johnson, left, and Jalen Sami chase Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez during the Buffaloes’ 34-31 OT win in Boulder on Sept. 7.

In viewing film of Colorado’s 2019 season, Karl Dorrell saw a team that took some momentum into the offseason.

He also saw a team that had a lot of work to do to get better.

Hired as CU’s head coach on Feb. 23, Dorrell has had plenty time to go over game film of the 2019 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept him working at home and prevented him from being with the Buffs in person.

Since he hasn’t been on the field with them, Dorrell has utilized the time to learn what he can about his players through game film.

The Buffs finished 5-7 (3-6 Pac-12) in Mel Tucker’s one season as head coach. Tucker preached a hard-nosed style of football that showed up in late wins against Stanford and Washington. Tucker, of course, will never finish the job, as he bolted CU for Michigan State in February. Now, Dorrell will look to build upon last year.

“There was a lot of good things, particularly towards the end of the season,” Dorrell said. “I felt like the last four games of the year offensively we were playing smarter. I think our defense really started to find themselves a little bit towards the end of the season, where they played pretty well that latter stretch of the season. And there’s been some good individual play along the way.”

During what was CU’s third consecutive 5-7 season, however, the need for improvement was obvious.

“I felt that there are some definite core things that we need to get better at and part of it was fundamentally both sides of our front, offensively and defensively, we can play a lot better,” Dorrell said.

CU went into the 2019 season with very little experience on the defensive line, outside of end Mustafa Johnson. This year, the Buffs return everyone up front who played in 2019, including starters Terrance Lang, Jalen Sami and Johnson. They’ve also added several new faces.

“Now, they showed signs … particularly on defense, where it was hard to run the ball against (them), and they had a few games where they showed that soundness about playing their system well,” Dorrell said, “but there’s a great majority of the season that that didn’t occur. So they know where they can continue to get better from that purpose.”

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado running back Jaren Mangham rushed for 441 yards last year. The Buffs are hoping for better overall production in the run game.

The same was true with the offensive line, Dorrell said. The unit showed some positive signs, but it wasn’t consistent. Running backs Alex Fontenot and Jaren Mangham led a solid rushing attack, combining for 1,315 yards, but CU ranked seventh in the Pac-12 with 4.1 yards per carry and ninth with 14 rushing touchdowns – with half of those in the first three games.

“We have to create better run efficiency for our running game,” Dorrell said. “We did at times but we just didn’t do it on a consistent level.”

In addition to all the running backs, CU returns four of its seven regular contributors on the offensive line, including junior William Sherman, who has started the past two years at tackle. Junior Colby Pursell, who has started at center and guard, also returns after missing half of the 2019 season with an illness.

In addition to the trenches, Dorrell saw a team that can improve on the perimeter.

“The things on the perimeter that are important to me is being able to make sure we’re setting the edge on the defensive side,” he said. “On the offensive side, being able to … create more run room for our runners on the perimeter and to win their one-on-one matchups outside.”

The Buffs were loaded with inexperience in the secondary last year, including Tarik Luckett and Dylan Thomas moving over from receiver. It was a group that showed improvement throughout the year, however, especially from freshmen Mark Perry and KJ Trujillo, who were thrust into key roles because of injuries.

Overall, studying the 2019 games has given Dorrell an idea of where the Buffs need to improve. While the coaches and players haven’t been on the field together, they’ve spent the past few months focusing on those areas.

“There’s a number of things that we’ve talked about as a program  that I’ve highlighted,” Dorrell said. “That’s really what our kids are doing right now is going over their notes from their meetings, going over their notes from me about what to work on. They’re doing those things proactively with themselves right now.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has put the start of the season in question, Dorrell is preparing the Buffs to be ready for the Sept. 5 opener against Colorado State, and he’s confident they can build upon last year.

“There was definitely some good moments (in 2019), but I think we can play a lot better football if we can get ourselves to be more fundamentally sound, play with a little bit more aggressive attitude on both sides of the ball, and just be certain of our role in understanding the details of how we do things,” he said. “Those things we anticipate will get better throughout this summer.”