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Rooney: Karl Dorrell needs to build along the way in ‘redshirt’ year

Year 1 improvement from start to finish more critical than wins and losses

CU Athletics
BOULDER, CO – October 10, 2020: Head coach Karl Dorrell during Colorado football practice. (Courtesy photo/University of Colorado)
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There was enthusiasm, no doubt. Spending August and September on the sideline is uncharted territory for any player or coach, and getting back on the field inevitably gets the blood roiling.

Yet the aftermath of the long-delayed, first official practice of Colorado’s 2020 football season on Friday proved once again as if anyone still needed reminding, that this 131st season of Buffaloes football will be unlike any other in program history.

Instead of recounting to the virtual post-practice media throng information about the Buffs’ unfolding quarterback battle, or how CU expects to fill key gaps in the rotation, Dorrell instead was forced to expound on testing measures, the challenges of keeping college students in a bubble-like atmosphere, and lost practice time.

Welcome to Colorado football in the coronavirus pandemic era. And in a season where every player will receive eligibility relief, one also should be afforded to Dorrell.

To his credit, Dorrell says his personal expectations of his first CU team remains unchanged despite the complete lack of spring practices as well as the Pac-12 Conference’s delayed start this fall. In the end, however, the measuring stick for just how well Dorrell fares in the first season of his second chance at being a Pac-12 head coach should not necessarily be gauged in wins and losses.

“The expectation every year is going to be there to put our hat in the ring to win a conference championship,” Dorrell said. “Our hat’s in the ring, just like everybody else is in our conference. I want to put our team under pressure. I want our team to understand the expectations that we have set before us. That’s our goal. That’s our ambition. That’s what’s driving us as we work.

“We’re going to try to maximize every rep that we get from this point forward until November 7th. And hopefully it’s good enough for us to be successful. It’s hard to forecast what that’s going to look like right now on practice number one. But I know we’re going to get better and better and execute at a higher level as we go.”

Reasonable Buffs fans might have to grapple with the realization this team has a better chance at finishing 0-7 than 4-3. Yet either of those results, or anything in between, might not be the point of Dorrell’s very strange first year in charge.

With a new quarterback, whoever it is that wins the preseason competition, and another season of tenuous depth, the Buffs probably wouldn’t be rated high on anyone’s Pac-12 radar even in an alternate 2020 where spring practice unfolded seamlessly and Dorrell had all the time in the world to dissect his quarterback battle. How Dorrell molds his squad into a functioning unit between now and mid-December, regardless of the win total, might be the biggest comment on how his tenure in Boulder ultimately pans out.

Much like those players getting eligibility relief for the coronavirus-shuffled 2020 season, this is a sort of redshirt season for Dorrell. Certainly that’s not to suggest Dorrell simply will be standing on the sideline while taking a pass on having his Buffs ready to compete every week. The final scores aside, Dorrell’s belief in getting better with every snap between now and the end of the season needs to be taken to heart.

Yet in what typically is a results-oriented business, the seven-game schedule ahead needs to lay the groundwork for what Dorrell hopes to accomplish in Boulder in the years to come. For all the angst stirred by former coach Mel Tucker when he bolted for Michigan State after one season, it should be noted that part of fans’ frustration stemmed from the encouraging finish to 2019, when a Buffs team that finished 5-7 nonetheless provided hope for the future by playing a tougher, more competitive brand of football down the stretch. If Dorrell wants to replicate anything from the eye blink that was the Tucker era, it should be that.

No Division I coach, especially in a power conference, gets free passes anymore. Yet in this season, in this situation, Dorrell’s first year in charge at CU will be as close as it gets.