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Brian Howell’s Rewind (Sept. 6, 2021)

Chris Miller’s return and looking back at the CU Buffs win against Northern Colorado

Colorado junior safety Chris Miller celebrates a tackle for loss against of Northern Colorado on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at Folsom Field in Boulder.
Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer
Colorado junior safety Chris Miller celebrates a tackle for loss against of Northern Colorado on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at Folsom Field in Boulder.

There are a lot of things that make sports great, but there’s no question that comeback stories rank near the top.

Last year, Jarek Broussard’s out-of-nowhere season after two ACL tears was remarkable for the Colorado Buffaloes.

McKenzie Milton playing quarterback for Florida State on Sunday after a devastating knee injury three years ago was sensational.

Sports history is filled with amazing comeback stories. The CU football team has got a few of them this year.

Nate Landman recovering from an Achilles’ tendon injury and being a beast on Friday night against Northern Colorado has been the most talked about comeback for CU. Running backs Alex Fontenot and Deion Smith both played well and scored touchdowns after missing the 2020 season. Brady Russell is back after missing most of 2020 with a leg injury.

For me, though, it might be Chris Miller’s journey that sticks out the most. The junior defensive back has battled through so many injuries at CU, yet played a great game in the Buffs’ 35-7 win against UNC.

In this edition of the Rewind, we look back at Miller’s return, as well as …

  • Fontenot’s 2020 debut
  • Buffs inspired by Folsom atmosphere
  • Best of the Buffs
  • Notes and quotes

LEADING OFF: Miller’s back

A fifth-year junior from Denton, Texas, Miller got the start at nickel back and was credited with four tackles. Like a lot of starters, he sat the last part of the game but wound up playing 41 snaps and made his presence known when he was on the field.

It was a big deal because Miller played just two games and 57 snaps a year ago. He injured his shoulder in the opener and played just 14 snaps the rest of the year.

For Miller, it was the latest in a long line of injuries, including an ACL tear, a torn hamstring, a fractured thumb and two shoulder injuries.

Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer
CU safety Chris Miller during preseason camp in August.

Although he is one of CU’s most talented defensive backs and he’s now in his fifth year with the Buffs, Friday was just the 12th game of his career. It was his first full game in two years.

“Honestly it felt really good just to be out there contributing somewhat because really it’s basically my first full game since 2019,” he said. “So it felt really good to be back out there playing my role and doing whatever I can do for my brothers.”

Of course, for Miller, the hurdle to clear is not necessarily playing a game, but being able to get through a full season. He had a season-ending thumb injury during his second start of 2018 and had a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game of 2019. It was a shoulder injury in the 2020 opener that derailed that season.

We’ll see if this can be the year he breaks through, but having Miller back in the lineup on Friday was a boost to the Buffs.

“Me and Chris are the same age, so when he was getting injured, that took a toll on me a little bit,” cornerback Mekhi Blackmon said. “Then I followed him with an injury, so it was like we were both in rehab together.”

During their rehab, Miller and Blackmon bonded over the experience, but also knew their potential.

“Being in rehab together and understanding that we really can play good, but we’ve just got to stay healthy,” said Blackmon, who also missed the last eight games of 2019. “It hurts to see him out, but once he’s back, as you can tell, we ball together. It’s just an upside for me.”

And, for Miller, who has wanted for so long to be an impactful player for the Buffs. Every time he seems to get going, however, he gets hit by the injury bug.

What makes Miller so remarkable is his attitude about his injuries. Despite the constant setbacks, he’s remained upbeat.

“I’m a self-motivator,” he told me last month. “I’ve got a lot of heart, so I don’t really let injuries get me down. I just keep fighting and keep going on. Life gets hard for everybody. Everybody has their own struggles and their own things that they have to persevere through and mine have been little injuries, but it’s been nothing. I still have my family and my friends so I’ve been able to get by things. I’m still here – still pushing, still playing.”

Throughout his years at CU, I’ve had several opportunities to talk with Miller and I’ve always enjoyed it. I especially appreciated the conversation we had on June 5, 2020, at the Buffs March, when a group of CU athletes, coaches, administrators and community members gathered, along with some police officers, for a roughly mile-long walk to support the Black Lives Matter movement and protest against racial injustice in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Miller told me about his own experiences as a young Black man growing up in the Dallas area and why it was important for him to be involved with the march that day.

“It’s sad to say this, but this stuff is regular,” he told me. “You see it happening to somebody and it’s like, ‘Damn,’ but in reality, I know it could be me. I’m out here and standing up for this and I’m trying to be peaceful because we can’t be violent because that just hasn’t worked yet. I’m just going try to use our platform, whatever we can just to help and change.”

“I really just want to see everybody do better. I don’t want this to be a problem. If people can watch us play sports and be our fans in that, support us outside of (sports); we’re more than just an athlete.”

There’s no question about that with Miller. He graduated this year with a degree in strategic communication and, according to the CU media guide, he was pursuing a minor in leadership studies.

I’ve had a relatively small amount of interaction with Miller, but I’ve seen his leadership skills and have no doubt he can be a success off the field. Yet, this is a young man who deserves to enjoy some success on the field, as well as a healthy end of his career with the Buffs.

Our conversation at the march in the summer of 2020 eventually drifted to football. He was healthy and looking forward to the 2020 season, which we had no idea would wind up being delayed. He looked good in the 2020 opener but got injured again in that game.

Miller had worked hard to be ready for the season, though, because he still has his eye on the NFL dream.

“I’m trying to be ready and have a great year and show the NFL scouts that I can be a great player and I will be,” he told me then. “If I stay healthy, they’ll see.”

That’s why I felt so good for Miller on Friday. He’s a good young man with a lot of talent that could potentially get a look at the next level if he’s healthy. Maybe this can be the year he plays a full season. It would be great for Miller – and great for the Buffs.

“It was good to get him back in a game where he’s healthy and where he can make some plays,” head coach Karl Dorrell said.

Colorado junior tailback Alex Fontenot (8) celebrates a touchdown against Northern Colorado on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at Folsom Field in Boulder. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

WELCOME BACK: Fontenot shines again

A solid 2019 season put Alex Fontenot among the top returning running backs in the Pac-12 a year ago, and he even earned a spot on the Doak Walker Award watch list.

His 2020 season never got going, however, because of an offseason hip injury. Instead, CU’s leading rusher in 2019 watched Jarek Broussard take the Pac-12 by storm last year.

This year, Broussard is still the Buffs’ lead running back and he was great on Friday, but Fontenot showed he will be a factor this season. Following a good offseason, Fontenot made his return to action, gaining 40 yards on eight carries and scoring a second-half touchdown to give the Buffs a 21-0 lead.

“It’s always good just putting the pads on again,” he said. “For the fans and stuff, I haven’t had that feeling in like a year, so it’s just great having that feeling again.”

Did the hip feel good?

“Oh yeah, definitely,” he said. “A hundred percent.”

Fontenot didn’t have any breakaway runs against the Bears, but he displayed the toughness he showed in the offseason, and he was the workhorse on a third-quarter scoring drive. The Buffs had a 16-play, 90-yard drive early in the third and on the last eight plays, Fontenot carried the ball six times for 32 yards, including his 3-yard touchdown.

In 2019, Fontenot rushed for 874 yards and five touchdowns. With Broussard, Ashaad Clayton and others in the backfield, Fontenot may not hit those numbers, but he will make an impact. Friday’s opener was just the start for Fontenot after going through the recovery process.

“It was really just doing more (in rehab) than what was expected and getting back out there even faster so when I do go out there I was better than before I was hurt,” he said.

The University of Colorado Boulder student section cheers during a third down in a game against University of Northern Colorado on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo.(Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

INSPIRED: Fans make a difference

CU probably would have defeated UNC in an empty stadium, but after playing in front of nobody at Folsom Field last year, the Buffaloes were thrilled to see 44,153 fans in the stands. The student section was the largest in CU history – and they were LOUD and spirited – the band was back and the debut of Ralphie VI made for quite an atmosphere. It all made a good impression on the Buffs. A few of their comments:

Head coach Karl Dorrell: “The environment is awesome. I thought the student section was rocking. They were right behind us. I think our players really gravitated to that and they fed off that energy.”

DB Chris Miller: “It’s really good to see everybody out there again, supporting us, getting the students back into it, letting them get the experience of just watching us play. That felt good too.”

RB Alex Fontenot: “It’s kind of crazy. It’s great having Ralphie out there. We got to see her at practice a couple weeks ago. It was cool how they let us see her first. That was a cool experience.”

BEST OF THE BUFFS

Although the opener was not a clean game by the Buffs, there were several players who looked good. Here’s my take on the best of the Buffs against UNC:

CB Mekhi Blackmon: Solid night in coverage and had one of the biggest plays of the night, picking off a Bears’ pass in the end zone near the end of the first half. That preserved CU’s 14-0 lead going into the break.

Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer
Colorado freshman wide receiver Montana Lemonious-Craig (15) celebrates a touchdown catch with freshman offensive lineman Jake Wiley (60) on Friday against Northern Colorado.

RB Jarek Broussard: The overall numbers weren’t eye-popping, but he was very good in rushing for 94 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, including a 30-yard run to set up the Buffs’ second touchdown. He added a 7-yard catch, finishing with 101 yards of offense.

LB Nate Landman: Made a triumphant return after an Achilles’ injury just nine months ago. He recorded four tackles and broke up a pass.

WR Montana Lemonious-Craig: He hauled in two passes for 23 yards, including his first career touchdown. That alone earns him a spot on the list, but he also had a really good night as a blocker. He had big-time blocks on a 12-yard run by Jarek Broussard on the first play of the second quarter (to set up a touchdown) and on an 11-yard run by Alex Fontenot in the 3rd quarter (setting up another TD). He also had an exceptional downfield block on Ashaad Clayton’s 35-yard run in the fourth quarter.

QB Brendon Lewis: Yeah, he was up and down. Yeah, he missed some throws. But, he did a nice job managing the game and avoided mistakes in his first start. He also had really nice throw to Lemonious-Craig for a touchdown, finished 10-for-15 for 102 yards and added 44 yards as a runner.

DB Chris Miller: Returned to the starting lineup and was active all night on defense, finishing with four tackles.

C Colby Pursell: Anchored the offensive line, which helped pave the way for 281 rushing yards.

DL Na’im Rodman: Got the starting nod and played well, with three tackles, a sack and a QB hurry.

DL Jalen Sami: Like Rodman, he played a good game in the trenches, with two tackles, both of which were behind the line of scrimmage – including a sack.

WR Dimitri Stanley: Although he caught just one pass, he had a big impact. Stanley had three punt returns for 68 yards – nearly matching the 75 yards he had all of last year – including a career-long return of 27 yards.

NOTES AND STATS

  • Nationally, the Buffs are still viewed as one of the lower-level teams in the Pac-12. Dating back to the last few games of 2019, however, CU has been one of the best teams in the conference. Win-loss records in the last 10 games each Pac-12 team has played:
      • 8-2: USC
      • 7-3: Colorado, Oregon
      • 6-4: ASU, Utah, Washington
      • 5-5: Cal, UCLA
      • 4-6: Stanford
      • 3-7: Washington State
      • 2-8: Oregon State
      • 0-10: Arizona
  • CU’s non-conference schedule this year has a notable absence: the Mountain West Conference. Since 1995, the Buffs have played at least one MWC team every year, going 29-12 against the current members of the conference. Most of those matchups, of course, have been against Colorado State, but the Buffs have also faced Air Force, Fresno State, Hawaii, San Diego State, San Jose State, Utah State and Wyoming during that stretch. Unless the Buffs get matched up with a MWC team in a bowl game, this will be the first season since 1994 that they won’t play the MWC.
  • Brendon Lewis was just the second freshman to start at quarterback for the season opener at CU since 1959. The other was Cody Hawkins, who led the Buffs to a 31-28 win against Colorado State in the 2007 opener. In 2007, Hawkins started every game, went 6-6 during the regular season and led the Buffs to a spot in the Independence Bowl (where they lost to Alabama to finish 6-7).
  • Lewis was the third consecutive CU quarterback to win his starting debut, along with Steven Montez (in 2016) and Sam Noyer (in 2020).

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

Head coach Karl Dorrell on four different running backs scoring touchdowns against UNC: “It was good to see that. We have really good depth in our backfield as you guys all know. … I’m happy about all those backs. I can’t keep them all happy. That’s the challenge right now is trying to keep them all happy when not all of them can carry the ball at the same time. But it’s a great problem to have. And it’s good to have that type of production from all those guys.”

University of Colorado Boulder mascot Ralphie ...
Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer
University of Colorado Boulder mascot Ralphie VI runs across the field for the first time before a game against University of Northern Colorado on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo.

Dorrell on Ralphie VI and why the team didn’t run behind her, but rather waited for her to nearly finish her first run: “We’re trying to progress to that next stage when we can run out with her, but she’s a baby and she looks good. I think she enjoyed it, having the crowd cheering for her. Everything’s kind of different right now from that standpoint, but it’s good to have Ralphie back and she’s gonna be a good one. She’s got an interesting personality, too. I got to meet her a few times and I’m sure that she’s gonna enjoy this every step of the way in the future.”

Cornerback Mekhi Blackmon on his second quarter interception in the end zone: “Really it’s just our D-line; our front seven was able to pressure him all day so he just probably wasn’t comfortable back there, overthrew the ball and I just made a good play on it.”

DB Chris Miller on the overall performance of the defense: “I felt like it was a decent game for us, for a first game. We made some mistakes, but those are fixable. We all had great effort and great energy the whole time. So I think that was really good for us and just a good learning experience. We’ll get back in the film and learn from all the mistakes that we had and we can grow from because I think we have a lot more in store for us.”

RB Jarek Broussard on Jayle Stacks blocking for a few of the touchdown runs: “Having a guy like Jayle is really good to clear the hole up for us, but another thing a lot of people don’t know is he can actually tote the ball as well. You all should look forward to seeing that soon.”

WR Dimitri Stanley on playing the first game of the year: “There’s always those first-game jitters. We have a new quarterback. The fans are back. It’s a lot of stuff coming at you all at once. I think the coaches mindset was to get (Brendon Lewis’) feet wet. I know he played in a big game last year, but he still hasn’t really started off a season. We were just kind of running plays to kind of get him prepared honestly. I feel like we’re right where we want to be, but we definitely need to start faster.”

RB Alex Fontenot when asked if CU’s talented running backs are excited to face Texas A&M’s talented group of running backs this week: “Honestly, I don’t care. I’m gonna let the defense worry about that.”