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Football: Colorado Buffaloes still searching for answer at quarterback

Freshman Owen McCown in running to start Pac-12 opener against UCLA

CU quarterback Brendon Lewis (12) warms up prior to the team's game at Minnesota last Saturday in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
CU quarterback Brendon Lewis (12) warms up prior to the team’s game at Minnesota last Saturday in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
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Mike Sanford came to Colorado as the offensive coordinator last winter with visions of sparking a group that desperately needed a spark.

Three games into his tenure, it hasn’t clicked, with the winless Buffaloes (0-3) ranking near the bottom of the country in points per game (10.0) and yards per game (245.3). They’ll try to change that in the Pac-12 opener against UCLA (3-0) on Saturday at Folsom Field (noon, Pac-12 Network).

There are many reasons for the struggles, Sanford said. Turnovers, costly penalties and missed assignments are among those issues, but Sanford didn’t shy away from the obvious main area of concern.

“Everybody on planet earth that follows our football program can know that we haven’t had the kind of continuity at the quarterback position that we want,” Sanford said after practice Wednesday.

It appears the lack of continuity will continue this week. What has always been a two-man competition for the starting job between Brendon Lewis and JT Shrout is now a three-man race. It’s very possible that the third contestant, true freshman Owen McCown, will get the start on Saturday.

“We’re splitting them all, getting them doing that,” head coach Karl Dorrell said Wednesday when asked if McCown is taking first-team reps this week. “We’re going to continue to kind of get anything and everything ready. Those are the three primary guys that are getting the reps. So we’re seeing how (McCown’s) week goes and we’re also … B-Lew and I think JT had some really good days today, too. We’re evaluating still.”

BOULDER,CO-August 12:Quarterback, JT Shrout, runs through ...
Quarterback, JT Shrout, runs through the gauntlet during University of Colorado football practice on August 12, 2022. Fellow quarterbacks Brendon Lewis, center, and Owen McCown look on. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Lewis started the opener and played half of Saturday’s 49-7 loss at Minnesota. He’s 15-of-24 for 92 yards this season. Shrout has started the last two games and played in all three, going 22-of-55 for 232 yards with two touchdowns an interception.

Those two battled throughout the summer and preseason camp, but neither took hold of the job.

“You go through three games and you don’t have the ability to fully, clearly name a starting quarterback based off the information that we had from spring ball and fall camp,” Sanford said. “Really, the information never truly clarified itself and that’s just a reality. You could go back and forth and say that you’d want to make one guy the guy and just live with it, but that was a challenging proposition from the standpoint that nobody had truly stood out as the sole starter.

“Basically, the rest of Buff Nation had a chance to watch the same thing unfold over the course of the first three games.”

McCown entered the picture when he got a chance to play in the final five minutes of Saturday’s loss at Minnesota. Although he played against backups, he completed 4-of-7 passes and actually led the Buffs with 52 passing yards.

That has led to more uncertainly this week but Sanford, a longtime coordinator and quarterbacks coach, said, “I think the continuity of the position is important.”

That’s not the only reason for the offensive struggles, however.

“It’s a new system; brand new terminology,” he said. “When we go back and watch the film, from a coach’s perspective – which is not going to suffice the fan, but from a coach’s perspective – and from a player’s perspective we have seen in all three games just abundance of opportunities with slight executional pieces in the run game and the pass game. For us, it’s also about putting the right people in the right positions.”

Still, it comes down to who is taking the snaps.

Senior tight end Brady Russell said he will continue to run the same routes and block the same way regardless of who is playing quarterback, but acknowledged this is a unique situation.

“It’s different than I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “My first three years it was all (Steven) Montez. That’s kind of what I was used to is there is that guy that was the man the entire time. These last couple of years, you just see different faces every day. It’s something to get used to for sure, but … it probably should push everybody to get better.”

That’s the hope anyway, as the Buffs continue to search for an answer.

“I think this week has been a fantastic week from a perspective of just seeing everybody raise their levels of play as a result of this thing being open,” Sanford said. “I’m excited about what we have in store. It’s been competitive to this point, but we have a plan and I think this whole team and this whole fan base, and more importantly, the guys in that locker room, we want to be able to have some continuity in that position.

“The turnaround (on offense), I think it will be as a result of everybody knowing who the quarterback is and then everybody rallying behind that quarterback, good, bad or indifferent.”

First, the Buffs have to figure out who will play at quarterback. But, Russell and Sanford both expressed confidence in the offense as a whole.

“I don’t believe we’re far off relative to what the scoreboard says; I really don’t,” Sanford said. “I’ve felt in my career like I’m far off and I don’t feel like we’re that far off.

“I have a lot of faith in our players. I have a ton of faith in their belief in what we’re doing. I’ve been a part of (offenses) where tangibly, it wasn’t going well on the field and you can see the players were starting to doubt it. The players (at CU) believe. We’ve just got to get that execution gap completely closed.”

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