When the Colorado football team finally put the pads on for full-contact work on Tuesday, there may not have been anyone more excited than Mitch Rodrigue.
The Buffaloes’ new offensive line coach had done all he could to teach his group through Zoom and walkthroughs since he was hired in March, but getting in pads was critical.
“It’s meant a lot,” he said Friday after the Buffs’ seventh practice of preseason camp. “You cannot tell how physical a guy is until you put his face on someone and until you actually get in pads. It’s been great to be in pads and finally teach technique, fundamentals, hat placement, things like that.”
As is the case most years, much of CU’s success this season will depend on the performance of the offensive line. Three starters are back, but there is plenty of competition as the Buffs prepare for the Nov. 7 opener against UCLA.
“I think we’ve made some progress,” Rodrigue said. “I think we’ve gotten a little more physical than when we started camp, but we’ve got a ways to go to be ready to play a football game. I’m happy with the progress, but I’m certainly not satisfied. We’ve got to clean up some missed assignments, and I think we’ll be fine.”
At this point, Rodrigue said the Buffs are better at pass protection than run blocking – and that’s not a compliment.
“In my mind it’s a bad thing,” he said. “I want to be more physical. I want to come off the football and create a new line of scrimmage. Any big old fat guy can pass protect, as long as he can stay in front of somebody. That’s easy, getting your IDs, things like that. But I want to get better at the run game.”
Senior Kary Kutsch (left guard) and junior William Sherman (left tackle) were both full-time starters last year, although Sherman is moving from right tackle. Pursell started five games at right guard, but is back at center, where he started the entire 2018 season.
Around them, there are daily battles.
“We have more guys stepping up into the more responsible roles,” Pursell said this week. “They’re taking initiative. They’re doing more on their own. They’re asking more questions, they’re stepping up. I’m seeing that generally in the whole group, which is awesome to see. That’s what we need. That’s what is going to elevate our unit and make us a better offensive line.”
Sophomore tackle Frank Fillip said at this point, the starting group has included Sherman, Kutsch, Pursell, Casey Roddick (right guard) and Fillip (right tackle). However, sophomore Kanan Ray is competing at guard and tackle and redshirt freshman Austin Johnson at center and guard. Kutsch said that junior guard Chance Lytle has also played well.
“I’ve always said competition is the mother of success,” Rodrigue said. “If we can create competition, then we’ll get better, for sure. I don’t care if you play guard, tackle, center, we’re gonna play the best five. Until we can recruit the type of people that we want at each position, we’ve got to find the best five, period.”
Despite starting last year, Kutsch said the progress of teammates such as Ray and Lytle doesn’t allow him to rest.
“You can never get too comfortable,” he said. “I feel like it’s kind of my job as a senior to take a little bit more leadership, but I kind of take the same approach, still trying to work hard to get there.”
Rodrigue said working with Kutsch “has been a breath of fresh air.”
“I think from day one to right now, he is a totally different football player,” he said. “He has really picked up the scheme. I like what I see out of Kary. He doesn’t say much but he just brings his lunch pail and goes to work.”
On Saturday, the Buffs will hold their first scrimmage of camp. Head coach Karl Dorrell said there will be “at least” 90 to 100 plays of offense and defense, with special teams mixed in.
“It’s gonna be everything, so it’s gonna be a long day, but it’s one of those days that’s made for us,” he said. “It’s going to be kind of how I’ve always done scrimmages on Saturday. It’s going to be the full gamut.”
Sherman played left tackle in 2018 and right tackle in 2019. He’s now back at left tackle and Rodrigue said that has led to some football struggles. Rodrigue isn’t worried, though. “He’s a really intelligent person, and he’s a leader, and he’s invaluable.” … Rodrigue praised Pursell’s leadership among the line this offseason. … For the past week, the Buffs have been staying at the Millennium Harvest House hotel to try to prevent COVID-19 cases. “I’ll be honest with you, I’d rather be at home but I understand why we’re doing it and understand it’s important,” Fillip said. “At this point I think we’re all used to it but the first night or two were definitely a little weird.”