It’s been a while since the last Rewind and I figured it was time to end the drought.
The last time I published a Rewind, Mel Tucker was still firmly – or so we thought – at the head of the Colorado football program and the men’s basketball team was nationally ranked and eyeing a Pac-12 title. And, if you were really paying attention (which many weren’t), there was some virus that had claimed four lives in China. The next day, the first case of the virus in the United States was reported.
So, uh, yeah, it’s been a while.
In the five-plus months since the last Rewind, CU has seen Mel Tucker take the midnight train to East Lansing, Mich.; Karl Dorrell unexpectedly get hired as his replacement; and the men’s basketball team take a late-season nosedive.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus has shut down sports around the globe, damaged the economy in the United States, led to hoarding of toilet paper, caused Zoom to take over the communication world, and sparked heated debates about masks, in-person dining and acceptable sizes of social gatherings.
On top of that, there has been nation-wide awareness (as well as debate, confrontation and protest) of racial injustice in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
It’s been quite a year already and a thoroughly remarkable three-and-a-half months.
In this edition of the Rewind, I’ll touch on the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice a bit, but my colleague, Pat Rooney, and I have written quite a bit about those topics in the past few weeks and months. Mostly, this will be a leftover edition of the Rewind.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a chance to talk to a few athletes and coaches and haven’t been able to use everything from those interviews. This column will provide a few of those leftovers.
LEADING OFF: The big topics
While much of this column will be filled with my interview leftovers, I do want to give some of my thoughts on the main topics filling our minds at this time.
I. First off, the Black Lives Matter movement and racial injustice: As a white man, I know I have not been fully aware of what it’s like to be a minority in the United States, but I’ve grown to understand how important it is for us to learn and listen to those who are dealing with injustice. I’m grateful for a few of CU’s black student-athletes – Jaylyn Sherrod of the women’s basketball team and Chris Miller and KD Nixon of the football team – for giving me the opportunity recently to talk to them about this topic. I had separate conversations with all three and they were friendly, educational and important conversations. I’m also grateful for a conversation I had with associate athletic director Lance Carl, who was willing to do a podcast with me about this topic. Here’s a link to that podcast, and I urge you to give it a listen.
Over the past month and through those conversations, I’ve developed a stronger belief that it’s important to listen and get educated about what’s going on in the lives of others. We don’t all have to agree on everything, but we can learn a lot by simply getting to know those who are perceived as different. It’s amazing what happens when you engage in conversation that goes deeper than the basketball court or football field. I felt like I got to know Sherrod a lot more in the 30 minutes we spent on Zoom than I did in covering her entire freshman season with the women’s basketball team. I also felt she eloquently got to the heart of the matter of racial harmony.
“It’s not so much the color of my skin, which is my outside appearance, but on the inside we both share the same things,” she said to me. “While race is the base of it, at the end of the day, you have to look at me as human, just like they have to look at you as human.”
Sherrod, Miller and Nixon are great young humans. As I told Carl in our podcast, one of my favorite aspects of my job is the fact that I’ve been able to meet and learn about a lot of great humans from different cultures and backgrounds over the years.
As we move forward on this issue, I back the words of Nixon, who said: “Let’s do better. Let’s challenge everybody in everything we do. Let’s be a better father; let’s do better at being a better brother, a better sister. Let’s be a better student. Anything we can do, let’s be better. Why? Because if we all want the best for each other, the world will be better.”
II. The COVID-19 pandemic: No question, this has been challenge for just about everybody. Layoffs, furloughs, shutdowns, etc., have impacted almost everyone, and it hasn’t been easy.
When it comes to the sports world, I’m waiting just like all of you. I cover college football, so I’m obviously on pins and needles waiting to see how this season unfolds – or if it will unfold. It’s now July, only about a month away from the scheduled start of preseason camp, and I have no idea if the season will be played.
When I see reports of 37 positive tests within Clemson’s program, and Arizona pausing the return of athletes, I’m not optimistic. When I see minimal positive tests at CU and other schools, and then see sports being played again, I’m a bit more optimistic. This week I’m in Minnesota visiting the in-laws and watched my niece play a 14-and-under softball game, minus the postgame handshakes, while parents socially distanced around the fence to watch the action. If that can happen, maybe football can happen, too.
Right now, I don’t know if football will be played, but I can speculate. I think the money is too vital for college programs to cancel the season. If there is no college football, I believe there are some athletic departments that could actually fold. The football money is that important. Health and safety is MORE important, and I get that, but I think the people involved with college athletics will find a way to balance it out and that a football season will be played. It may look very different and it may be a bumpy road, but I do think that college football will be played in the fall. By mid-July or early August maybe my opinion will change, but as of now, I believe we’ll see the Buffs on the field – just maybe not with the same 12-game schedule that’s been set for months.
PROUD PAPA: Stefanou’s new perspective
Growing up in Australia, Jame
s Stefanou has been accustomed to celebrating Father’s Day on the first Sunday in September.
“We have a breakfast and we get some gifts for dad and that type of thing and then we see our grandparents,” said Stefanou, the placekicker for the Colorado Buffaloes. “That was the day for us and we get the whole family together and just have a feed and spend time together.”
How cool for Stefanou that in his first year of being a father, he gets to celebrate twice?
Stefanou and his wife, Laura, welcomed a baby girl, Chloe, into the world in February, and he got to celebrate the United States version of Father’s Day on June 21.
Really, though, the celebration is almost daily for Stefanou, who is enjoying the new stage of life.
“I’m loving it,” he said.
Last fall, Stefanou was excited to tell me he and his wife were expecting. The smile was even brighter when he talked about his young daughter recently.
“When Laura was pregnant, there’s a baby in there and she’s growing and going to come out eventually and you’re going to be a dad, but I think when you can see them, hear them, have the responsibilities of a father – and right now it’s pretty much changing them, waking up and just being around – I think your perspective changes even more so,” he said. “It doesn’t feel pressure kicking field goals anymore. It doesn’t. You look at it a bit more logically, I think. You start to think about things a bit more logically and you still want to be competitive and be the best you can be, but it’s just a different outlook. You’ve got so many more reasons. You’ve got a different ‘why.’ You’ve got something different to build off now.”
Stefanou is actually grateful, in some ways, for the COVID-19 pandemic, because rather than spending time in class or at practice and meetings, he’s been able to spend more time around his wife and daughter.
“Being able spend time with her, I think we’re seeing her develop pretty quick, so she’s getting used to us and she’s doing new things,” he said. “She’s doing new things every day and it’s good to be able to be home and see it, but at the same time I want to get back to football.”
The competitor is still there, but there’s no question he’s embracing the dad role. In fact, as excited as he was for multiple Father’s Days, he got into the spirit of Mother’s Day for Laura in May.
“I was writing (the card) with my left hand to try and make it look like Chloe was writing the card for her,” he said with a laugh. “You get creative.”
LINE PLAY: Change in philosophy
During the 2019 season, the Buffs’ offensive line showed some improvement under the direction of Chris Kapilovic. Coach Kap, now at Michigan State, was widely popular among the players, too.
Every coach has their own philosophy, however, and new Buffs’ line coach Mitch Rodrigue is looking forward to molding the linemen to his way of coaching.
“I’ve gone back and I’ve watched a lot of tape,” Rodrigue said. “I’ve watched every single one of them; even though they may be a junior, I went back and watched all of them in high school and watched them in games if they participated in the last couple of years.
“I would say that the No. 1 thing that I know that’s going to be an obstacle for me is just … there’s different philosophies of line play. What I’ve noticed is everybody does things in a different way; not to say one thing is better than the other but I believe what I believe in. One thing that I think that we can improve upon … as I watch plays and I watch film … there’s so many steps that they take before they cross the line of scrimmage.”
Kapilovic got solid results out of the Buffs, but Rodrigue believes the Buffs have been too slow off the ball for a couple of years – even before Kapilovic got to Boulder.
“There are certain ways to block plays and obviously everybody skins a cat in a different manner. I would like to be the guy that imposes their will on a person and not the opposite,” Rodrigue said. “We seem to sit at the line. For example in protections, my philosophy is to create a really strong pocket, a firm pocket, something that the quarterback could step up into. Well, in the last few years of college football, it seems like everybody wants to vertical set. In other words, that means just setting straight back off the line, like a defensive back may get into a back pedal. And that’s what they’ve kind of been doing (at CU), and that’s not me. We’re going to establish a line of scrimmage in run and in pass.”
Rodrigue is in his first Power 5 conference job, but has had great success in finding talented linemen that respond to his coaching. He’s sent several linemen from the FCS ranks to the NFL.
“I have been very successful, I think, over the last 30 years picking offensive linemen,” he said. “I’ve had at least four guys play in Super Bowls already, so I must be doing something correct.
“I like athleticism. No. 1, I’m going to find a defensive end that is tall and rangy and maybe not as twitchy as an offensive lineman, and we’re going to recruit him and make him an offensive lineman. I’m going to find a tight end that’s probably a little bit too big for the position; he blocks well, but he doesn’t run the routes maybe as refined as some other tight ends that we would like to have and I’m gonna make him an offensive lineman. I’m gonna find undersized defensive linemen that are tall and rangy.
“The key is athleticism. If you sign a fat guy that looks like me, you’re going to get a fat guy. He’s going to be slow, and he’s not going to be able to move. But if you sign athletic guys, more often than not you’ll wind up with a really good athletic offensive line at some point, if they’re committed to the weight room.”
DEPTH: Embree on the Buffs’ tight ends
First-year tight ends coach Taylor Embree doesn’t have an experienced group to work with this season.
Outside of junior returning starter Brady Russell, it’s a group filled with players trying to prove themselves. Russell’s not a bad place to start, though.
“I’m happy with what I’ve got,” Embree said. “I think there’s a bright future in Luke Stillwell. I think he can be elite in the pass game and he’s hungry to learn the run game. Then, the guys obviously transferring in (Nick Fisher, Matt Lynch and Jake Peters), we’ve got a bunch of kids transferring and they all got a chip on their shoulder. And then I like our freshmen we got coming in, too. I thinkggggg Louis (Passarello) is going to be really good. And then I think Caleb Fauria, when he gets healthy, he’ll be a weapon in the pass game.”
KEY ADDITION: Wilson excited about Shittu
CU’s new coaching staff includes a first-year graduate assistant who isn’t too far removed from his playing days.
Aziz Shittu, 25, spent part of the 2019 season on injured reserve with the Philadelphia Eagles. After an injury-plagued four seasons in the NFL, the former defensive lineman decided to jump into coaching, where he’ll be working with new Buffs’ defensive line coach Chris Wilson.
Wilson coached Shittu, a former starter at Stanford, in Philadelphia in 2016 and 2017.
“He’s obviously a guy who comes from a great background, a Stanford grad and knows the Pac-12,” Wilson said of Shittu. “He came in as the rookie with a chip on his shoulder, an undrafted free agent. We kind of talked about what our plan was for him was and why we wanted him. He was a guy that could help us as pass rushing specialist we thought and he did that. He came in and did everything we asked.
“Now, fast forward four years later, he wants to extend his career. Two things I think that are really important: He’s a really good communicator and he’s a hard worker. So you can always find places for guys like that. I’m excited to have him.”
Tight ends coach Taylor Embree on recruiting: “I’m excited about it because I’m young. … It’s building relationships at the end of the day. Recruiting has changed so much since my dad (former CU player and coach Jon Embree), even since he was the head coach here (from 2011-12), with social media and even just the mindset of kids nowadays; they think differently. At the end of the day it’s all about building relationships, all about being honest with guys and. I can tell you right now, okay, there’s not a coach in college football that will develop guys and prepare guys for the next level like I can. That’s what I’m telling guys. I’m in this to kind of develop guys and get them ready to play on Sundays.”
Defensive line coach Chris Wilson on getting back to college football after spending the past four years in the NFL: “I think the thing you miss the most is the developmental piece. I had a chance to … coach some really cool guys but they don’t pay you to coach (five-time NFL Pro Bowler) Fletcher Cox. Fletcher Cox is born Fletcher Cox. … You get a chance to kind of start these guys from the beginning to the end and so we’ve got a good group and I think the biggest thing for us is to develop the bottom part of the roster. If we’ve done that, obviously we’re playing well, and we’re gaining some depth and that’s the most important thing that I’m excited about is the developmental piece of it.”
Defensive coordinator Tyson Summers on the NFL core of the defense: “I think one of the nice things with our entire staff is this defense is very NFL-oriented. We are multiple in coverage. It’s obviously a defensive system that really starts with Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. It’s trickled down to a number of different coaches and coordinators through time and it becomes those premises and those people and their beliefs, and the success they’ve had inside of these defenses both in NFL football and in college football. As we move into this, that becomes what our basics are, our base defense and what our fundamental focus is. And then we’ve evolved in trying to make sure that our pressure package is going to be something that’s really challenging for offenses. We felt like that was really what changed our momentum (in 2019) and brought about a lot of confidence within our players, and really the last three or four games of the season.”
Offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini comparing this year’s offense to what the Buffs have done in the recent past: “There’s still going to be tempo involved in our offense, but I think you’ve got to mix and match tempo. (In 2018), there were games were where people weren’t stopping us at all and then there were games where we struggled and we were off the field. You’ve got to mix and match tempo. I do think we’ve got to be better in the run game in 2020. We have to be better running the football. I think I have to incorporate more play-action to help out the quarterback position. Run the football better and be better in the play-action and you’ve still got to be able to tempo people especially when they’re struggling against tempo. I’m excited to really use the things that I learned in 2018 in 2020.”
Head coach Karl Dorrell when asked if diversity in the coaching ranks was important to him as a player: “What makes things have so much more exposure and relevance and things like that (now) is the social media. A lot of these things that you can imagine have been going on for years, before we’ve had the technology to have this exposure instantaneously in any setting in our country or in the world. These things, they occurred way, way back when I was playing. I just think at that time we felt fortunate there were just one or two coaches on the staff that were minority. That’s kind of how things were back in that timeframe. You didn’t see a lot of minority coaches but you did see a couple that were there. And I think that process has gotten better throughout the years. I would say lately now in college football, in the NFL, there’s always things that are going to be in place to try to address this issue. The NFL way is the Rooney Rule and then they’re actually thinking of some ways to revamp that rule. That’s those are things that are drawing attention to the issue. I don’t know if those are really the clear cut solutions to the issue. I think it’s just as much a societal thing than anything. As soon as we get what we’re dealing with as a country, the ramifications that are in our society, in our neighborhoods, on our campuses, in our organizations – as soon as we have a better feel of how we’re addressing those things from that standpoint, from a from a society standpoint, I think it will actually get better from a lot of different perspectives, whether it’s in the coaching profession or in the business world. I think it’ll get better across the board and a lot of areas.”
One last note for CU fans: I’ll be on furlough for the week of July 6-12, so make sure to follow Pat Rooney for Buffs coverage and news.