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CU Buffs season preview: Offense looks to get on track

Group has plenty of talent but needs to produce more points

Offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini enters his fifth season on the Colorado coaching staff.
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Offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini enters his fifth season on the Colorado coaching staff.
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(Note: This is the first of a two-part series previewing the Colorado football season. On Thursday, Buffzone will look at the Buffaloes’ defense.)

Over the years, Colorado hasn’t lacked talent on offense.

Phillip Lindsay and Laviska Shenault have been the biggest stars, but they’re not alone. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, CU’s offense has featured the top two passers in program history (Sefo Liufau and Steven Montez), the program’s No. 2 rusher (Lindsay) and six of the top nine pass catchers.

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Senior Sam Noyer takes over as the starting quarterback at Colorado.

Despite all that talent, CU’s point production has been lacking for years. CU’s average Pac-12 ranking in scoring offense over the past nine years is 10.1. They’ve finished 10th or worse seven times and never higher than seventh.

Last year, even with Shenault and Montez leading the way, the Buffs sputtered to just 23.5 points per game – their worst average since 2012.

Offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini is hoping to change that this year, as the Buffs introduce new weapons at quarterback, running back and receiver.

“It comes down to execution,” Chiaverini said. “You can be talented, but you’ve got to execute on Saturdays.”

Shenault and Montez are now in the NFL and last year’s leading rusher, Alex Fontenot, is out – at least for one game, if not more – with an injury, but the Buffs are hopeful they’ve got the talent to produce more points this season.

“I feel like we’ve gotten better up front,” Chiaverini said. “I feel like we’ve got to be able to run the ball better this year, and run it on our terms, and if we can do that it’s going to open up the passing game for us.

“We do have weapons I think we’ve done a good job recruiting. I think this year we’ll start to see the kind of the fruits of our labor come to fruition on the football field. I’m excited about this group. I’ve recruited the majority of these offensive players and I feel like they’re ready to take the next step.”

So is Chiaverini. This is his fifth year in staff, but first in the sole coordinator role. He was co-coordinator from 2016-18, while calling plays in 2018. Last year, he focused on coaching receivers but was promoted when CU hired Karl Dorrell as head coach in February.

“This is the first year I feel like this is really my offense,” he said. “I really feel like it’s going to have a lot of my identity into it, and I’m excited about that. In the past, sharing duties or whatever it may be, I feel like I have full ownership of this thing (this year). Obviously Dorrell is an offensive guy and he’s going to be watching what we’re doing, but I feel good about where we’re at.”

A quick look at each position on the CU offense:

Quarterbacks: Steven Montez, the program’s all-time passing leader, has graduated after making a school-record 36 consecutive starts. For the first time since 2007, CU goes into a season without a single career start among its quarterbacks. Senior Sam Noyer (21-for-41, 179 yards, 2 INT in his career) was named the starter for the opener, but junior Tyler Lytle (4-for-6, 55 yards, 1 INT) will continue to compete and get a chance to play. True freshman Brendon Lewis has tremendous upside, but might have to wait a year for his turn.

Running backs: The Buffs have a lot of talent here, but go into the season without junior Alex Fontenot, who led the team in rushing last year (874 yards, 5 TD). It’s unclear how long he’ll be out, but coach Karl Dorrell hinted it’s possible Fontenot doesn’t play this year. Despite that, sophomore Jarek Broussard had an exceptional camp and starts this week, while sophomore Jaren Mangham (441 yards 3 TD in 2019) will get in the mix a lot, as well. Sophomore Joe Davis and true freshman Ashaad Clayton are also likely to get a chance to run the ball.

Tight ends: Junior Brady Russell has emerged as one of the better tight ends in the Pac-12 and he’s coming off a solid season in which he caught 23 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. CU is thin on experience after Russell, though. Of the five tight ends on the depth chart, four are walk-ons who have never played a snap at CU. Senior walk-on transfer Matt Lynch switched from QB to tight end last year at UCLA and brings some experience.

Receivers: Despite losing Laviska Shenault and Tony Brown to the NFL, the Buffs are in good shape. Senior KD Nixon (35 rec., 465 yards, 3 TD) and sophomore Dimitri Stanley (29 rec., 312 yards, 2 TD) are returning starters, while junior Daniel Arias seems primed for a breakout season. Juniors Maurice Bell and Jaylon Jackson had good offseasons, while the Buffs have exceptional young talent with redshirt La’Vontae Shenault and a quartet of true freshmen.

Offensive line: This might be the most depth and talent CU has had up front in a while. Senior Kary Kutsch (left guard) and junior William Sherman (left tackle) are both returning starters and had good offseasons. Junior Colby Pursell (5 starts at right guard in 2019) is back at center, where he started the entire 2018 season. Sophomores Casey Roddick (right guard) and Frank Fillip (right tackle) fill out the starting lineup and they both have starting experience. The Buffs have talent in their second unit, as well, led by sophomore Kanan Ray, who can play guard or tackle.

Place kicker: James Stefanou returns for his fourth season in this role, although he’s missed parts of the last two seasons with injuries. After offseason hip surgery, Stefanou feels strong and ready to go. In his career, he’s 34-for-47 on field goals and 92-of-93 on extra points and ranks ninth all-time in scoring (194 points). Evan Price, who is 9-for-10 on field goals in his career, also returns, as does Tyler Francis, who 2-for-2 in 2018.

Depth chart

Position      First team                                               Second team                          

QB              Sam Noyer, Sr., 6-4, 220                         Tyler Lytle, Jr., 6-5, 220

RB              Jarek Broussard, So., 5-9, 185                 Jaren Mangham, So., 6-2, 215

TE               Brady Russell, Jr., 6-3, 255                     Matt Lynch, Sr., 6-5, 245

WR             Daniel Arias, Jr., 6-4, 205                        Brendan Rice, Fr., 6-3, 205

WR             KD Nixon, Sr., 5-8, 190                          Maurice Bell, Jr., 6-0, 180

WR             Dimitri Stanley, So., 5-11, 185                Jaylon Jackson, So., 5-10, 180

LT               William Sherman, Jr., 6-4, 310                Jake Wiley, Fr., 6-6, 290

LG              Kary Kutsch, Sr., 6-5, 310                      Chance Lytle, Jr., 6-7, 320

C                 Colby Pursell, Jr., 6-4, 305                      Josh Jynes, So., 6-3, 310

RG              Casey Roddick, So., 6-4, 335                 Kanan Ray, So., 6-4, 295

RT               Frank Fillip, So., 6-7, 295                        Valentin Senn, Fr., 6-7, 310

SNAPSHOT: CU offense

Assistant coaches

Darrin Chiaverini (5th season): Offensive coordinator/Receivers

Taylor Embree (1st season): Tight ends

Darian Hagan (5th season): Running backs

Danny Langsdorf (1st season): Quarterbacks

Mitch Rodrigue (1st season): Offensive line

Five to watch

CU Athletics
Receiver KD Nixon is one of the top weapons for the Colorado Buffaloes.

WR Daniel Arias, Jr.: Just four career catches, but two have gone for touchdowns. He might be the Buffs’ top candidate for a breakout season.

RB Jarek Broussard, So.: With Alex Fontenot out for an undetermined time, Broussard goes in as the starter. He quick, speedy back, he hasn’t played yet in his career, but had a great camp.

WR KD Nixon, Sr.: The lone senior among skill players, Nixon has shown explosiveness, but not consistency, in his career. Buffs could use a big year out of him.

QB Sam Noyer, Sr./Tyler Lytle, Jr.: Noyer is the starter going in, but this battle could go into the season. Either way, the Buffs need the QB to play well.

LT William Sherman, Jr.: A third-year starter, Sherman moves back to the left side and he anchors the line. He’s received some preseason all-conference recognition.

2019 Statistics

Rankings                    Avg.                Pac-12             National

Scoring                        23.5                 10                    100

Total offense               388.5               9                      83

Rushing                       150.3               5                      79

Passing                        238.2               10                    61

Passing efficiency       130.0               11                    84

Sacks allowed             21                    2                      41

3rd-down %                41.3                 8                      48

Red zone scoring        79.1                 10                    89

Top returning individuals

Passing

KD Nixon; 1-for-1, 38 yards, 1 TD

Tyler Lytle: 0-for-1

Rushing

Alex Fontenot: 185 att., 874 yards, 5 TD

Jaren Mangham: 107 att., 441 yards, 3 TD

Deion Smith: 23 att., 68 yards

Receiving

KD Nixon: 35 catches, 465 yards, 3 TD

Dimitri Stanley: 29 catches, 312 yards, 2 TD

Alex Fontenot: 27 catches, 122 yards

Numbers to know

0 – Career starts among the quarterbacks on the roster. CU is one of 17 schools – including seven among Power 5 conferences – that came into this season with no previous starts on the roster.

2 – Career touchdown passes thrown by players on CU’s roster: one by receiver KD Nixon and one by walk-on tight end Matt Lynch (when he was a backup QB at UCLA).

10.1 – Average Pac-12 ranking for CU in scoring offense during its nine years in the conference. CU has ranked 10th or lower seven times and has never ranked higher than seventh.

21 – Sacks allowed by the Buffs in 2019. That’s the lowest number allowed since 20 in 2013.

150.33 – Rushing yards per game last year for the Buffs. They ranked fifth in the Pac-12, the first time they’ve been among the top five in the conference since 2002 when they were in the Big 12.

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