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Rooney: Young QB, growing pains on deck in Year 2 of Karl Dorrell era

Brendon Lewis during the University of ...
Brendon Lewis during the University of Colorado Football Spring Showcase on April 30, 2021.
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In an empty Folsom Field, it was impossible to ignore the agonized screams.

The Aug. 14 scrimmage hosted by the Colorado football team offered one of the few opportunities in any given season for media members to observe a Buffaloes workout. And unfortunately, we got to bear witness when quarterback JT Shrout crumpled to the turf, grabbing his knee while his cries echoed across the field.

Certainly it wasn’t an ill-omen moment for a Buffs team hoping to build off the surprisingly competitive and successful run through the delayed and shortened 2020 season. Shrout, the transfer from Tennessee, might very well have lost the preseason quarterback derby with Brendon Lewis anyway.

Yet after turning heads during Karl Dorrell’s surreal CU debut season in the pandemic year of 2020, Shrout’s injury illustrated just how thin that fine line will be between wins and losses for the 2021 Buffs. Beyond perhaps the groups at running back and receiver, small injury issues will equate to big problems for CU. On the other hand, the top of the depth chart abounds with experience, including the sort of cast on offense that has the potential to make life a little easier for a young, first-time starter.

The 2021 Buffs should be entertaining to watch on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the Buffs are expecting linebacker Nate Landman to be back at 100% following the torn Achilles that cut his season short by a game and a half at the end of 2020, but even a Landman back to 80 to 90% of his former self would give the Buffs a solid front seven. Add a secondary riddled with players looking to use their experience to take the next step — Chris Miller, Christian Gonzalez, Isaiah Lewis, Mark Perry, Mekhi Blackmon — and certainly the unit has potential.

Offensively, the Buffs boast the personnel that, if there was an experienced quarterback leading the huddle, would automatically be ticketed with high expectations. Lewis and his backups are anything but, and whatever the Buffs hope to achieve will be dependent on Lewis staying healthy and absorbing the playbook smoothly (Dorrell recently estimated the Buffs used only about “30 to 40 percent” of the playbook after having no spring practices ahead of the 2020 pandemic season).

On the plus side, Lewis impressed during his relief performance in the Buffs’ Alamo Bowl loss against Texas. He is the unquestioned No. 1 and shouldn’t have to worry about looking over his shoulder when he makes his first career start against Northern Colorado. He has one of the top running backs in the Pac-12 in Jarek Broussard, a talented group of receivers, and a tight end in Brady Russell who proved to be a reliable target last season. There also will be a veteran offensive line in front of Lewis.

Working in the Buffs’ favor this season is the Pac-12 will be riddled with a mediocre middle pack, from which any team could emerge as a bowl contender. Yet it’s difficult for this crystal ball to see beyond a 5-7 record for CU in Year Two of the Dorrell Era.

How the strides the Buffs made in 2020 translate to the relative normalcy of the 2021 season is a viable concern. While the Buffs ambushed teams like UCLA and Stanford out of the gate last year those teams, unlike CU, improved as the season wore on.  The Buffs also achieved something altogether unthinkable just a few years ago by winning twice on the road in league play (Stanford, Arizona). If CU can prove that actually was the turning of a corner and not the result of the sterile, fan-less road environments, it could make the difference in potential coin-flip road games this fall, like at Cal or UCLA.

The fast start last year obscured much of the rebuilding work Dorrell still has ahead of him. He was a worthy choice for the Pac-12 Coach of the Year after navigating through the program through the pandemic shutdown that arrived just weeks after he was hired, and then making the Buffs one of the biggest surprises for much of the shortened 2020 season. But catching that sort of lightning in a bottle two straight years is a tough ask.