The last time the Colorado football team went to a bowl game it had a quarterback who took nearly every snap during the season, a running back who fell just short of 1,000 yards and a linebacker who finished as the runner-up for the Butkus Award.
The Buffs kickoff the 2014 season Friday night in Denver against Colorado State hoping to get back to the postseason for the first time since Cody Hawkins, Hugh Charles and Jordon Dizon led the program to the 2007 Independence Bowl against Alabama.
Coach Mike MacIntyre insists he needs all 105 men on his roster to be at their best to end the six-year bowl drought, the second longest in the modern era of CU football. He wouldn’t dare single out a handful of his players and identify them as those who must have memorable seasons for the team to do well. He views it in the opposite fashion. The team must do well for individuals to make a name for themselves.
“They all have to play good,” MacIntyre said. “Our backups that get thrown in the game when somebody goes down, they’ve got to play great.
If they just do their job to the best of their ability, with all their heart and soul, with a tremendous amount of focus and a tremendous amount of fight, we’re going to be all right. They’ve got to do that every week.
“Every week is going to be a different couple of guys that have to step up.”
Sure, there are unsung heroes every year for every team, but the good teams also have at least a few all-conference performances and national award candidates. At the very least, the good teams have go-to guys who have a knack for coming through week in and week out.
The Buffs probably aren’t getting to the promised land without more of that this season. Here are six Buffs who could play a pivotal role in this season’s team beating expectations and making bowl season relevant again here in Boulder.
The starting quarterback is the most obvious choice. He touches the ball on just about every offensive play after all.
Liufau was impressive at times during his true freshman season when he played in eight games and made seven starts, but like most young quarterbacks, he was inconsistent and mistake prone. There is plenty of room for growth.
He completed 59 percent of his passes and threw eight interceptions along with 12 touchdown passes. He won’t have a weapon as electric as former Buff Paul Richardson to throw to, but every position group on the offense is deeper and more talented than it was this time last year. Liufau also could help his team by making smart decisions in choosing to run the ball.
“We’re going to see a quantum leap this year in Year Two in the system,” former CU coach and current Pac-12 Networks analyst Rick Neuheisel said when he visited practice this month. “You can’t put a price tag on the confidence that he gained from a year ago. He’s got some familiar weapons in (Nelson) Spruce, (Tyler) McCulloch and those guys, but he’s losing Paul and in losing Richardson, he’s losing that big play, that chunk guy. So third down is going to be that much bigger a down this year.”
CU coaches and their counterparts on the opposite sideline know they have a strong dependable cornerback in senior Greg Henderson. He doesn’t make many mistakes which encourages opponents to look across the field and target that side.
Crawley has been victimized often in the past two seasons. He played as a true freshman because CU didn’t have many other options. He improved as a sophomore, making the first two interceptions of his career.
Now he must take a big step forward and become a complement to Henderson, making it tougher for opposing offenses to game plan each week. Crawley seems to be embracing that challenge. He missed a part of spring ball with a hand injury and watched junior college transfer Ahkello Witherspoon become a strong challenger for the starting role.
But Witherspoon has been injured at times in fall camp and Crawley has looked much more assertive and confident, responding well to the fight for his job.
The most consistent offseason storyline around the program has centered on who replaces Richardson’s big plays and overall production in the offense.
Coaches and players have consistently said there isn’t one guy on the roster capable of filling those shoes. The player who seems to be closest is redshirt freshman Bryce Bobo.
He’s bigger and stronger than Richardson ever was during his CU career but not quite as fast. He can still get deep and will toast opposing cornerbacks who doubt that ability.
Richardson set single-season school records last season for receptions and receiving yards. He averaged 16.2 yards a catch and scored 10 touchdowns. It’s unfair to expect Bobo to match that level of production in his first college season, but it’s not unreasonable to think he could provide half of it while giving the offense big play potential.
“We all want to make our own legacy while we’re here,” Bobo said. “We all need to live up to our own expectations and be a receiving group that doesn’t actually need Paul Richardson to be here.”
Colorado gave up 468 yards of offense per game last season, including more than 200 rushing yards each week. In the program’s most recent bowl season, CU allowed 389 yards of offense per game and 128 yards a game on the ground.
The big man in the middle of the CU defense could have a lot to do with bringing those averages down.
“Stuff has just slowed down now that I’m a junior,” Tupou said. “It’s a lot easier to comprehend everything.”
Tupou was the first player taken in the draft when players chose sides for the spring game back in April. He’s the guy Mike MacIntyre says he wants with him in a dark alley in a bad part of town.
MacIntyre began to praise Tupou’s ability to be a disruptive force in the second half of last season and believes he has the potential to be an all-conference performer. Achieving that status would mean the Buffs defense had a much better year.
“I’m not a stats type of guy,” Tupou said. “I just want the best for the team. So that’s my biggest goal is to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Three of the past four young men to play left tackle in Boulder are still playing for NFL teams. Irwin has the potential to make it four of five.
Offensive line coach Gary Bernardi said it was “vital” to the Buffs’ offense to have Irwin healthy and on the field this season. He’s a difference maker.
Irwin is a tenacious blocker which should help the CU running game improve from averaging just 3.4 yards a carry and 121 yards a game. Those numbers must increase for the Buffs to earn the six wins needed to become bowl eligible.
He played sparingly as a true freshman in 2012 before sitting out last year with a broken foot. He has all the tools coaches look for at the position. It’s a matter of refining them now and making incremental improvements that only come through experience against other good players.
Barring something unforeseen, Irwin could be a three-year starter protecting the quarterback's blind side. This team needs him to become that guy.
Gillam made history as a true freshman in 2013 setting the freshman tackle record at CU and receiving freshman All-American honors from several organizations.
Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Kent Baer says Gillam still has a lot of room for improvement in terms of making the right reads and decisions and causing more turnovers.
This season’s team needs him to do exactly that. He could match his tackle numbers from last season or even exceed them and it wouldn’t necessarily mean the Buffs defense made significant improvement.
But if he can cause more fumbles, intercept a few passes and be in position to help teammates also make those game-changing plays, it will boost the Buffs effort to earn a 13th game in December.