Karl Dorrell officially has one season under his belt as the head coach of the Colorado football team.
As the Buffaloes prepare to open preseason camp on Thursday, however, it feels like the Dorrell era is just getting started.
Dorrell never really felt settled in his job last year. Hired on Feb. 23, 2020 — about two months after most coaching hires are made — Dorrell got started late in the process and then quickly had to pause. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out his first spring and most of his first summer. Then, the pandemic caused a late but rushed start to what was a truncated season.
“I felt it was all just … it was a year of temporary everything,” he said. “It really felt that way.”
CU and Dorrell made the best of it, going 4-2 and earning a spot in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Dorrell took home Pac-12 coach of the year honors.
Dorrell is much more comfortable in his job today than he was a year ago, however.
“I feel like the foundation of what we do, the players have an idea what that looks like on a calendar year now,” he said. “I think we’re off to a good start now.”
Since the Buffs’ last game, a 55-23 loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29, they have been busy.
Several players from last year have moved on, either through graduation or the transfer portal, while several others — transfers and recruits — are on board. The coaching staff has had some changes, too, most notably with Chris Wilson taking over as defensive coordinator and the addition of strength and conditioning coordinator Shannon Turley.
After a full offseason with Turley and a full set of spring practices and summer workouts, Dorrell is ready to get rolling.
“I think the progress of our first offseason went really, really well,” Dorrell said. “It started when I was able to get Shannon on board at the start of February. I felt like we were able to kind of teach how we train.
“I kind of, in my mind, moved COVID into its own separate year. It wasn’t really a great foundational year because we weren’t able to have an offseason before spring, get a break and then have a summer. So this really was our first year of going through that part. I think our players really have learned a lot about particularly how to train and what are the expectations of our training.”
As the Buffs continue to build the foundation and develop the roster, the next step is the 25 practices before the Sept. 3 opener against Northern Colorado.
“Training camp is still going to be developing players, so to speak, but it’s actually going to give those players that chance, since they went through spring, to come and compete for a spot, compete for a position,” Dorrell said.
As the Buffs go into preseason camp, here’s a look at some of the more intriguing competitions and players to watch.
Key position battles
1. Quarterback: Returning freshman Brendon Lewis and sophomore JT Shrout, a transfer from Tennessee, will continue their battle. They split reps with the first team in spring and will do so in the early going of camp. Dorrell said he would like to determine a starter by the middle of camp.
2. Inside linebacker: Nate Landman, who ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in December, is expected to be at 100% health soon. Even with him back, there’s competition for the spot next to him. Jonathan Van Diest had a great spring, but so did Oklahoma transfer Robert Barnes (who could play in a variety of spots). Quinn Perry, Marvin Ham II and Notre Dame transfer Jack Lamb will battle, too.
3. Offensive line: Colby Pursell (center) and Kary Kutsch (left guard) can probably be penciled in as starters, while Ohio State transfer Max Wray will likely start at left tackle. Sophomore Frank Fillip is expected to be the starter at right tackle — where he played last year — but he suffered a torn labrum in spring and Dorrell told BuffZone that Fillip will miss the first two or three games of the season. Redshirt freshman Jake Wiley and Iowa transfer Noah Fenske could factor in at right tackle, at least until Fillip returns. At right guard, 2020 starter Casey Roddick is back, but junior Chance Lytle, sophomore Kanan Ray and redshirt freshman Austin Johnson could be in the mix, too.
4. Defensive line: Juniors Janaz Jordan and Terrance Lang and sophomore Jalen Sami all return and they all have starting experience. Beyond that group, there’s not much experience. Sophomore Na’im Rodman had a good spring, but the Buffs are hoping others step up, as well. Opportunity for playing time is there for junior Justin Jackson and several freshmen — including newcomer Ryan Williams, who has impressed his teammates in summer workouts.
5. Secondary: Cornerbacks Mekhi Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez and safety Isaiah Lewis all return as starters. They’ve all got plenty of teammates with talent to push them for playing time, however. Nigel Bethel Jr., Jaylen Striker and several freshmen will battle at corner. Sophomore Mark Perry is angling to nail down a starting job at safety, while junior Chris Miller is aiming to stay healthy and become a starter, too.
6. Running back: Jarek Broussard was the Pac-12 offensive player of the year in 2020, but he’ll be pushed quite a bit. Alex Fontenot, the Buffs’ 2019 leading rusher, is back after missing last season due to injury. Ashaad Clayton, a four-star recruit in 2020, will battle for carries, as well. Sophomores Deion Smith and Joe Davis and freshman Jayle Stacks make the competition even better.
7. Kicker: During his career, Evan Price, a walk-on from Evergreen, is 15-for-18 on field goals and 26-for-26 on extra points. To keep his job, however, he will have to beat out freshman Cole Becker, the only scholarship kicker on the roster.
Players to watch on offense
RB Alex Fontenot: A healthy Fontenot makes the Buffs a potentially dangerous team in the run game.
QBs Brendon Lewis and JT Shrout: One of them will be the starter — it’s just a matter of when that determination is made.
WR Brenden Rice: He had some big-time highlights last year and has been active in building his brand this summer. His top priority, however, is to try to nail down a starting job.
TE Brady Russell: After missing most of the 2020 season and being limited in spring because of injury, he’s back and is a huge key to the offense.
OT Max Wray: A highly-regarded transfer from Ohio State, is he ready to anchor the offensive line at left tackle?
Players to watch on defense
LB Robert Barnes: He transferred from Oklahoma in January and had an impressive spring. Listed as an inside linebacker, he could play in a variety of spots for the Buffs.
ILB Nate Landman: Rehab from an Achilles’ injury has gone well, but the final step is proving he’s ready to play football at the high level he’s used to playing.
DB Chris Miller: Plagued by injuries throughout his career, he can provide a major boost to the defense if he’s healthy.
DL Na’im Rodman: The Buffs need some young defensive linemen to step up and Rodman is the top candidate after a great spring.
DE Blayne Toll: A transfer from Arkansas, he’s impressed some teammates this summer and could bring some much-needed depth and production to the front seven.