CU Buffs season review: Offense

Group showed progress but struggled at end of season

Colorado running back Jarek Broussard was the Pac-12 offensive player of the year this fall.
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Colorado running back Jarek Broussard was the Pac-12 offensive player of the year this fall.

Coming into this season, the Colorado Buffaloes were loaded with question marks on offense.

They lost the program’s all-time leading passer (Steven Montez) to the NFL and had almost no experience to fill that spot. They lost arguably the most gifted athlete the Buffs have had in 25 years (receiver Laviska Shenault) to the NFL.

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BOULDER, CO – October 17, 2020: Offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini during a Colorado football scrimmage. (Courtesy photo/University of Colorado)

In addition to Montez and Shenault, they also lost receiver Tony Brown and left tackle Arlington Hambright to the NFL and leading rusher Alex Fontenot to injury.

Throw in a new head coach (Karl Dorrell), new coordinator (Darrin Chiaverini, back in that role for the first time since 2018) and some tweaks to the system and there were bound to be significant growing pains – and, that was before the coronavirus pandemic canceled spring ball and didn’t allow the Buffs to get on the practice field together until early October.

On top of all that, they played the first two games without their top returning receiver (KD Nixon), who was recovering from injury; lost starting tight end Brady Russell to injury five plays into game two; and dealt with injury and COVID-19 issues on the offensive line.

Ultimately, the Buffs (4-2, 3-1 Pac-12) went through some expected struggles on offense and sputtered towards the end of the season, but also showed some progress from 2019, produced the Pac-12’s offensive player of the year and have tools in place to succeed in the future.

A review of the Buffs’ 2020 offense shows some highs and lows.

Courtesy Valero Alamo Bowl
Colorado quarterback Sam Noyer was second-team All-Pac-12 and led the Buffs to a 4-2 record.

Quarterback: Fifth-year senior Sam Noyer won the starting job in preseason camp and then earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors – the first CU quarterback to get first- or second-team in 23 years. Prior to this year, Noyer had thrown just 41 career passes and spent the 2019 season playing safety. While his final passing stats (88-for-160, 1,101 yards, six TDs, seven INTs) were mediocre, he set the tone early in the year. Noyer, who battled a sore shoulder all season, won his first four starts, played with moxie and added 208 yards and five TDs as a runner. The Buffs needed more consistency from him, but it was a good first (half) season as a starter. The Buffs also got a look at true freshman Brendon Lewis in the Alamo Bowl, as he led the offense to three touchdowns. Overall, the Buffs finished 11th in the Pac-12 in QB rating (115.36) and last in completion percentage (55.1). Grade: C.

Running back: It starts – and pretty much ends – with Broussard, who was great all year and earned Pac-12 offensive player of the year honors. The first player in CU history to rush for at least 100 yards in four straight games to start a season, he finished with 895 yards and five touchdowns and was third nationally in rushing yards per game (149.17). Broussard was also second nationally in carries per game (26.0) and that left just 8.0 per game for backups Jaren Mangham, Ashaad Clayton and Joe Davis. Combined, they had just 100 yards on 48 carries (2.1 per attempt). Broussard was sensational, but this grade would have been higher if CU could have established a second weapon. In that regard, the Buffs really missed Fontenot. Grade: B-plus.

Receivers: So much of what this group does is tied to the quarterback, so as Noyer struggled in the second half of the season, the production from the receivers dropped. Still, Dimitri Stanley was one of the best in the Pac-12 this season (20 catches, 335 yards). So was La’Vontae Shenault (17 for 193), except that he was suspended for two of the six games. Nixon (15 for 132), Maurice Bell (10 for 115), Brenden Rice (six for 120) and Daniel Arias (six for 105) showed flashes, but not consistency, and the group had 11 drops. Grade: C-plus.

Tight ends: Russell, one of the best in the Pac-12, was exceptional in the season opener (five catches, 77 yards, 1 TD), but was injured five plays into Game 2 and didn’t play again. The Buffs had walk-ons and/or converted defenders playing the rest of the year and never did find a reliable receiving threat. The rest of the group had five catches for 21 yards and three drops. There were times, however, that Matt Lynch, Nico Magri, Alec Pell and C.J. Schmanski came through as blockers. Grade: C.

BOULDER, CO – October 16, 2020: Offensive lineman Frank Fillip during Colorado football practice. (Courtesy photo/University of Colorado)

Offensive line: Between injuries and COVID-19, this was a tough year on the line, which had the original starting five just twice (the opener and the finale). Center Colby Pursell missed three games due to injury; guard Chance Lytle missed two after breaking his leg and guard/center Kary Kutsch missed two because of COVID-19 protocols. Despite all of that, this group played well. Left tackle Will Sherman was second-team all-conference, while right tackle Frank Fillip and guard Casey Roddick were solid all season. When healthy, Pursell, Kutsch and Lytle played well, as did Kanan Ray off the bench. This is a group that paved the way for Broussard’s big season and allowed just 1.17 sacks per game (second-best in the Pac-12 and 10th nationally). Grade: A-minus.

Kicking: CU opened the season with senior  James Stefanou kicking field goals, but injuries caught up to him. Battling injury, he missed two field goals in the opener and then retired from football. Evan Price took over and went 6-for-8 on field goals and made all 16 extra points. CU wound up tied for last in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage (60.0) and had two blocked. Grade: C.

Overall: There was plenty to like from this year, starting with Broussard and the effort by Noyer. Statistically, the Buffs were second in the Pac-12 in red zone scoring (91.3 percent; 21-for-23, with 17 TDs) and were fourth in third-down efficiency (46.8%) during the regular season. CU also showed significant improvement over 2019 with 28.5 points per game (up from 23.5 in 2019) and 413.8 yards per game (up from 388.5). The Buffs, however, left much to be desired on offense. They finished ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring, marking the 19th consecutive season they’ve been in the bottom half of their conference, and struggled late in the year. Two games into the year, they led the conference in scoring, at 41.5 points per game, but couldn’t get past 24 in any of the final four games. Chiaverini and the Buffs dealt with significant challenges and ultimately have plenty of room for improvement, but put together a solid season in relation to the challenges and expectations they faced. Grade: B.