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Rooney: Addressing offensive line long overdue for CU Buffs coach Karl Dorrell

Big men clearly regressed under now-former coach Mitch Rodrigue

BOULDER, CO - Oct. 15, 2021: ...
University of Colorado, Boulder’s head coach, Karl Dorrell, before Arizona NCAA football game on October 16, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

There was nothing subtle about this change.

Three weeks after promising subtle changes to an offense that has struggled mightily throughout the season, and just days after that offense laid yet another embarrassing egg in a loss at Cal, Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell finally shuffled the deck with his beleaguered offense.

Early this week, CU made official news that had been circulating pretty much before the Buffaloes’ plane arrived from Berkeley, announcing the firing of offensive line coach Mitch Rodrigue.

By his own admission, Rodrigue had been “on vacation for two years,” before landing at CU in the spring of 2020, as was his description of his coaching job at Spanish Fort High School in Alabama. Given the curious regression of a veteran offensive line under Rodrigue’s watch, Buffs fans might be wondering if that vacation was quietly extended over the past two years.

What impact Rodrigue’s midseason firing will have on the struggling Buffs is unclear. Youngsters still discovering their coaching chops, quality control coach William Vlachos and graduate assistant Donovan Williams, are taking the reins up front for the remainder of the season. And whoever is next in line at offensive line coach will have a big mess to clean up, quite likely with many of the same players.

What made Dorrell believe Rodrigue was a good fit in Boulder in the first place could give Buffs fans reason to hesitate about being confident in his next choice. Granted, Dorrell’s late hiring in February of 2020 put him in a slight bind when former offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic followed Mel Tucker to Michigan State. The pool of potential coaches is much thinner in late February than it is when the coaching carousel is truly spinning in December and January. Regardless of who Dorrell ultimately settled upon, he might not have checked every box as Dorrell’s ideal candidate.

Still, such stark philosophical and fundamental differences should have been taken seriously much sooner, even if last year’s surprising 4-0 start glossed over the issues brewing in the background. Rodrigue boasted shortly after his arrival he essentially was going to have to re-teach CU’s linemen many of the techniques and calls that led to 1,804 rushing yards (150.3 per game, 4.1 per attempt) in 2019.

In that regard, Rodrigue’s tenure was a resounding success. Despite experience across the bulk of the line, the Buffs have been unable to protect quarterback Brendon Lewis or make holes for a running back duo with proven track records in Jarek Broussard and Alex Fontenot. It’s startling that just days after letting the youngsters take over the management of the offensive line, Dorrell told reporters, “They (the linemen) all expressed to me that they’re learning more in the last couple of days than they have been in quite some time.”

Certainly that’s good news, but it’s also a harsh comment on Rodrigue. Perhaps Dorrell felt the financial constraints of possibly removing any of his assistants last summer (CU still would have owed Rodrigue $400,000 for the second year of his contract), yet that doesn’t explain Dorrell’s hesitancy at making this move three weeks earlier, at the beginning of a bye week.

Asked this week about that decision, Dorrell replied:

“We didn’t do it then because I wanted our staff in that bye week to kind of go through the details of improving their position and their players, specifically. So that was the time that was well-allotted to do. We did see those levels of improvement in the Arizona game. I felt that our team overall in all three phases played well. What happened last week (at Cal) was something that it just, in my opinion, it came up one more time too many. Just the way we had an inefficiency at the start of the game. We were struggling in protection. Things that I felt that we had some opportunities to correct when we did it in the bye week. It seemed like it didn’t quite get remedied in a way that it should have been. That’s what led me to make the decision now.”

Thing is, even if Rodrigue had been let go at the start of the bye, the Buffs probably handle Arizona just the same. The offense did little of note until CU’s defense and special teams provided a comfortable lead. Would it have changed things at Cal? Pure speculation, except that it probably wouldn’t have been worse.

To Vlachos and Williams: Good luck, young men. If you can get this line rolling over the last five games, your coaching resumes might be set for life.