One of the challenges Karl Dorrell faced in his first season as Colorado’s head football coach was in finding players willing to speak up and lead.
With Dorrell and his staff being new to the team, and the COVID-19 pandemic significantly altering the natural off-the-field growth, it was coaches who led the way.
Dorrell isn’t having trouble finding leaders this year.
“(In 2020), they were listening and doing everything that I asked them to do, but part of what I’ve asked them to do is govern themselves, too,” Dorrell said Monday after the Buffaloes completed their 17th practice of the preseason. “That part took some time to develop. I think those things, those qualities really developed over summer.
“They’re starting to take ownership and starting to govern themselves and understanding the purpose of everything that we do. They almost don’t need us, in a way, and that’s kind of the goal. I’m trying to get this team to realize that coaches can only take you to the water, but you have to drink it and make sure everybody is on the same page.”
CU opens its season on Sept. 3 at Folsom Field against Northern Colorado (7 p.m., TV: Pac-12 Network) and team leadership is taking shape.
Junior safety Isaiah Lewis was one of those players who didn’t say a lot in 2020 but is now stepping up as a leader. He’s not alone, as CU has 22 players on its leadership council.
“(Leadership) is definitely something that a lot of us have built and have become, so you can see the difference,” Lewis said. “I know that’s how (CU’s 2016 Pac-12 South) championship team was a couple of years ago. It was player-led, so I’m definitely applying that now.”
Becoming a more player-led team is a major sign of growth for the Buffs in their second year under Dorrell.
“It’s been over a year now. They know kind of what I’m all about,” he said. “They understand the expectations that we all have for each other and they’re owning it. And I’m very happy that they’re moving in that direction.”
Second-year freshman cornerback Christian Gonzalez is one of the players on the leadership council and he said there is some pride in being a part of that group.
“It’s what I want to do, be looked at as somebody that anybody on the team can come talk to if they need something, football or not football,” he said. “It’s a great honor.”
Throughout the history of CU football, it’s been a traditional honor to be named a captain. For the most part that has been a seasonal honor, dating back to Charles Edmundson and John Nixon captaining the very first CU team in 1890. Since the mid-1960s, CU has typically had anywhere from two to six captains named for the season.
Dorrell selected a group of four captains for each game last year and will do the same this year. The captains will mainly be selected from the 22-man leadership council.
“When I played I know that was kind of a traditional way, to have your captains throughout the whole year,” he said. “But I think my philosophy is different. I want a number of leaders to help this team grow and be as good as it can be. To do that you can’t really just land lock your captains to be your captains for the season.”
Setting up a system in which players have a weekly opportunity to earn captain honors promotes competitiveness, Dorrell said, as the Buffs strive to create a winning program.
“We want the guys that should be leaders to be the leaders and the team knows that,” Dorrell said, adding that having a captain who is not performing on the field damages their credibility as a leader.
Lewis agrees with his head coach and said the game captains should be players who earn that honor through their efforts in practice and on game day.
“I think our team really feeds off that because we know that they earned it in the game before, they know they worked hard in practice,” Lewis said. “To represent the team, especially this team, which I think is gonna be a pretty big shock (to outsiders), it would be a pretty proud thing to be able to be a captain.”