It didn’t take long for a portion of the Colorado football fan base to turn on the head coach.
That’s the nature of fans, of course, but it’s also a reflection of how CU fans have been conditioned.
The Buffaloes (1-3, 0-1 Pac-12) lost their third in a row on Saturday night in Tempe, Ariz., 35-13 against Arizona State. For many, the losing streak and a sputtering offense have killed hope for this season and served as a reality check that the road ahead is long.
This tired CU fan base has been here before, so I get the frustration.
The Dan Hawkins era (2006-10) ended poorly. The Jon Embree (2011-12) era was brutal.
Mike MacIntyre (2013-18) got the program going again and engineered the exceptional 2016 season, but back-to-back 5-7 seasons, berating officials on the sidelines, weird press conferences and a six-game losing streak in 2018 added up to the fans – and CU’s administration – having enough.
The Mel Tucker blip (2019) was promising but ended abruptly, leaving many fans and players bitter as he took Michigan State’s money and told CU it wasn’t good enough.
Give Karl Dorrell credit for easing the pain of the Tucker departure with a better-than-expected 2020. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Dorrell took the Buffs to 4-2 and a trip to the Alamo Bowl, earning Pac-12 coach of the year honors.
In year No. 2, Dorrell hasn’t made it out of September without the calls for his job. It’s too early for that type of impatience, however.
Granted, “patience” might as well be a four-letter word in Buff Nation, but unfortunately for fans, patience is needed in this situation.
In this edition of the Rewind, we look at some of CU’s struggles and why firing Dorrell isn’t the answer, as well as …
- Mekhi Blackmon shining again
- Passing game is historically bad
- Buffs of the Week
- Notes and quotes
LEADING OFF: Patience
Let’s get this out of the way: Karl Dorrell is not going to be fired any time soon, for various reasons. But, really, the three years and $11.4 million remaining on his contract make him pretty safe at this point. CU isn’t the type of program that can drop that kind of coin to dump a coach in normal times, let alone on the heels of a global pandemic.
Just three years ago, CU paid $7.238 million to fire MacIntyre. And, just a few months ago, the athletic department closed out a 2021 fiscal year that included a deficit of more than $20 million because of the pandemic. So, if for no other reason than financial, forget about Dorrell being fired after this season, even if it ends 1-11.
The contract isn’t the only thing keeping Dorrell from being fired, though.
Dorrell, who is 5-5 at CU, needs time to build his program and he doesn’t even have a full season’s worth of games under his belt. He’s coached 10 games, six of them during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season.
Keep in mind, Bill McCartney, the greatest coach in CU football history, went 2-7-1 in his first 10 games with the Buffs, in 1982. His third season produced a 1-10 record – and CU barely beat Iowa State, 23-21, for that one win. He was 7-25-1 in his tenure at that point and there were plenty who wanted him gone then.
Had that happened during the age of social media, McCartney might have been run out of town after that dismal 1984 season. It’s possible we would have never experienced the glory days of CU football, including the 1990 national title and the 1994 Heisman Trophy campaign of Rashaan Salaam. Patience – by the uadministration, if not by fans – paid off.
Patience paid off with MacIntyre, too. He was 10-27 through his first three years, but year No. 4 saw CU go 10-4 and win the Pac-12 South.
Dorrell, already off to a better start than either one, may not follow McCartney’s path and win a national title at some point, but he could very well follow a path that leads CU to regular postseason appearances. That would be a major improvement for a program that’s been to just three bowls in 15 years.
I asked Dorrell on Monday what he would say to the frustrated fans at this point to keep them buying into his program. The answer was long but thoughtful.
“There’s a process that goes with it,” he said. “We were all hoping that what happened in the shortened season was going to be the extension for this season. But there’s that thing that we say that each team and each year is different. Sometimes you acquire new pieces, and you lose pieces there. Some of those (players) were useful in some areas that I think we had some experience in last year.
“But I would say for our fan base is just to hang in there. The goal for us is to continue to improve and to build this team the right way, and build it with a really solid foundation. There’s no skipping steps for doing that and a lot of the time when you try to do that, it ends up making it even more of a difficulty than what you’re really trying to build within your program. But, I will tell you this: the foundation is pretty close.
“We’re not that far away from being very successful. It’s going to take some hard work from the coaches and the players to get there. I’ve been through this before, so I’m relying on my experience from being in those situations before, but I get it. We’re just as frustrated as our fan base, and our players are, too. I don’t want our fan base to get disappointed to the (point) that they think that our players are numb to the process.
“Believe me, they want everybody to be excited about who they are and what they’re doing. I hope that’s not the impression that anybody (gets), that when you hear these interviews and people are talking about how we’re not frustrated, believe me, we’re extremely frustrated. But I also know that there’s success down the line here.”
There will be fans that read or hear that quote and brush it off, because they’ve heard it before – from Hawkins, from Embree, from MacIntyre, from Tucker. They also heard it from McCartney about 40 years ago.
But, guess what? The next coach is gonna say the same thing. And, in each case, it’s true: this is a process.
Every head coach has his own ideas on how to build the program and it doesn’t get built quickly. Fire Dorrell at the end of this season, and the process starts all over again. Either way, Buff Nation has to be patient. At least right now the process is underway.
In addition to having only 10 games under his belt at CU, Dorrell also has had just one recruiting class – and the staff put that together without being able to conduct in-person visits.
Only 25 of the scholarship players on the roster were brought here by Dorrell and his staff, and 17 of them are fresh out of high school. So far, 14 of those newcomers have already played and are carving out roles.
One newcomer who isn’t playing is JT Shrout, and that’s significant. The transfer from Tennessee was battling for the starting quarterback job with Brendon Lewis until he suffered a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 14.
Several people who were able to watch practices have told me Shrout looked fantastic and likely would have been the starter. Had Shrout won the job, we don’t know how he would have played, but the most glaring issue with CU at this time is at quarterback. A healthy Shrout could have significantly impacted this season – and the perception of Dorrell.
Regardless of how this season turns out – or would have looked with Shrout – Dorrell is still shaping the roster with the type of players he wants. This winter there could be heavy turnover in the roster, including a number of players coming and going through the NCAA transfer portal. There could be some staff changes, as well.
Without question, the past two weeks have been difficult to watch. The offense stinks right now, the schedule isn’t easy going forward, and hope of a successful season is fading quickly (if not already gone in the minds of some).
And, I know it’s frustrating for a fan base that is desperate for a consistent winner for the first time since Gary Barnett was head coach (1999-2005).
But firing Dorrell isn’t the answer right now. It just might turn out that keeping him and having patience through his process is what the program needs.
“There’s hope and belief in hard work that’s going to get us to where we need to get to and it’s just going through a process of time,” Dorrell said. “Who knows how long that will take? But that’s definitely what we’re dealing with right now.”
SETTLING IN: Blackmon stellar again
Although the team, in general, is struggling, there are several individuals playing well this season. That includes junior cornerback Mekhi Blackmon.
A year ago, Blackmon, a former junior college transfer who got to CU in 2018, had his best season as a Buff. He’s continued that path this year, allowing just 92 yards on 10 receptions, according to Pro Football Focus.
“My coverage is great, but still could be a little bit better,” he said. “Right now I’m doing what I need to do in doing my job for the team.”
Blackmon has developed into one of the better corners in the Pac-12, in part because of how he’s developed his body. When he arrived at CU in 2018, he had only 160 pounds on his 6-foot frame. Last year, he played at around 170 pounds, but he’s now approaching 180.
“This is the most confident I’ve been; the biggest I’ve been; the fastest I’ve been, so all that put together with the second year of the (coaching) staff, as you can see, I’ve been playing really good,” he said. “Just have to continue doing my job.”
Where Blackmon isn’t satisfied is with the number of turnovers he’s created. He picked off a pass in Week 1 against Northern Colorado but has just two interceptions in his career.
“I still want to get more turnovers,” Blackmon said. “I don’t have enough yet, so I’m still working on at that.”
As a team, CU has gained only two turnovers this year, and none in the last two games.
GROUNDED: Passing game historically bad
It’s obvious in watching the Buffs’ offense that the passing game isn’t good. But, how bad is it? Through some research, I discovered that it’s really, really bad right now.
CU is averaging 4.20 yards per pass attempt and ranks 128th nationally with 85.0 yards per game – on 20.3 attempts per game. Of course, there is still plenty of time to change both of those numbers and improve the statistics, but the Buffs are on a terrible pace.
This year, only one team has a worse average-per-attempt than CU: Connecticut, at 3.88. But, both CU and UConn are currently on pace for the worst averages in nearly 30 years.
In 1993, Vanderbilt (3.48) and Oregon State (3.75) both had awful numbers, but since then the lowest average per attempt for a full season has been Army’s 4.23 in 1997. CU and UConn are both on pace to be worse.
From 1994-2020, only two teams finished a season at less than 4.3 yards per attempt: Army in 1997 and New Mexico State (4.24) in 2009.
CU has team stats for every season back to 1946 and the current Buffs are threatening the record-low number of 4.14 yards per attempt in 1958. Since 1946, the only other season in which the Buffs have finished with less than 5.0 yards per attempt was 1962 (4.44).
As for the yards per game, several teams over the years have had worse than CU’s 85.0, but those are typically option teams that don’t throw the ball much (such as Air Force, Army, Navy and Georgia Tech).
CU is currently on pace to join New Mexico State (in 2009), as the only FBS team since 1999 to produce less than 100 yards per game while throwing at least 15 passes per game.
From 1991-2020, only two teams – New Mexico State in 2009, Clemson in 1994 – averaged less than 100 yards while throwing at least 20 passes per game. CU is on pace to become the third.
BEST OF THE BUFFS
Here’s my take on the best of the Buffs against Arizona State:
PK Cole Becker: After a missed field goal to start the game, he came back to hit two, including a 51-yarder for the first made field goal of his career.
CB Mekhi Blackmon: He gave up only 14 yards on three receptions, while also recording seven tackles.
RB Alex Fontenot: He ran hard and ran well for the most part, finishing with a team-high 65 rushing yards and scoring the only touchdown.
CB Christian Gonzalez: Racked up six tackles, including a tackle for loss, and gave up only 51 receiving yards.
LG Kary Kutsch: Maybe CU’s most consistent lineman, he had a good game blocking in the run game and in pass protection.
ILB Nate Landman: All over the field again, he led the Buffs with 10 tackles, including four of them at the line of scrimmage.
WR Ty Robinson: His 26-yard catch in the third quarter set up a touchdown and was the longest “pass” play of the season for the Buffs. It was really a jet sweep, where Brendon Lewis tossed the ball about a foot in the air to Robinson, who got the ball 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage, avoided a tackle for loss and another at the line of scrimmage before picking up 26 yards.
LB Carson Wells: It’s been a slow start for Wells, but he picked up four tackles, including a tackle for loss.
S Mark Perry: He gave up some plays in the passing game, but did finish with nine tackles, including a tackle for loss.
P Josh Watts: Another good day for Watts, who averaged 47.8 yards on six punts, including a long of 55 yards.
NOTES AND STATS
- With the Buffs struggling, it’s human nature for some fans to nitpick. One of the common targets I’ve seen is Karl Dorrell’s sideline demeanor, as some think it looks like he doesn’t care or that he looks checked out, or doesn’t interact with people. In going back to watch the broadcast, there’s no question he’s often standing still and watching the field, but he does interact with players and staff. In fact, when Cole Becker hit his first field goal, Dorrell was very animated in his excitement for Becker on the sidelines. I asked Dimitri Stanley about Dorrell on the sidelines, and he said, “He’s kind of a completely different person on game day. He’s so locked in and so focused and so driven that if you don’t see him really talking to people, it’s because he’s pretty much watching the game, trying to make adjustments, trying to do his part in helping us win that game. At halftime, he gives us those adjustments. He’ll even come up to us during the game, and I don’t know if people see this, but he definitely helps us, tells us what’s open, tells us how to run our routes. … We have coach (Reggie) Moore helping us out on the field and then coach Dorrell kind of steps in with his knowledge, obviously, with his background as a receivers coach. So, he kind of just steps in and helps us along the way.”
- There are 70 players in the Pac-12 with at least 50 receiving yards this season, but none of them play for the Buffs. Daniel Arias, CU’s leader with 45 yards, ranks 75th in the conference. Each of the other 11 teams in the conference has at least six players with more receiving yards than Arias.
- Last year, outside linebacker Carson Wells led the country in tackles for loss per game, with 2.67 per game (16 in six games). So far this year, Wells has just two TFLs in four games.
- Brenden Rice is averaging 25.8 yards per kickoff return (103 yards on four returns). CU hasn’t had a primary kickoff returner average at least 25 yards per return since Marques Mosley in 2012 (26.1).
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
Head coach Karl Dorrell on running backs Jarek Broussard and Alex Fontenot getting the run game going on Saturday against ASU: “It was good to see them kind of get some yards through the line of scrimmage and hopefully that kind of starts to create some momentum for us offensively. We still have a tremendous amount of work there but it was good to see that some of those runs were hitting up in there and we’re getting some good yards.”
Fontenot on the mood of the team after the loss to ASU: “The mood overall is probably more disappointment. But we’ve just got to get back to work next week and on to the next weekend; just don’t dwell on this. … We’re definitely going a step in the right direction, so I see us progressing in the future.”
Fontenot on seeing QB Brendon Lewis get more comfortable: “Yeah, I think he’s doing the best he can. It’s really up to us as skill players to make those hard catches and make him look good, so I put that on us.”
Former CU receiver KD Nixon and his new team, the USC Trojans, will be in Boulder on Saturday for a matchup at Folsom Field.