Colorado special teams coach Toby Neinas' reaction to the Buffaloes 41-27 win over Colorado State last season in the Rocky Mountain Showdown went something like this.
The Buffs won the game in head coach Mike MacIntyre's debut and Neinas' debut as an assistant coach on the staff, but it wasn't because of a sterling performance in the kicking game, particularly in punt and kickoff coverage.
The Buffs surrendered an 84-yard kickoff return to Thomas Coffman and a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown to CSU wide receiver Joe Hansley in the game. If not for a stellar performance from then-CU wide receiver Paul Richardson and a game-changing turnover by the CU defense, Neinas and his units might have been blamed for a loss.
A year later, Neinas is preparing this season's team for its season opener against the Rams on Friday night (Sports Authority Field, 7 p.m., FS1) with something working in his favor that he didn't have at this time last year. He has players whom he knows well and who know their roles and assignments much better.
"I think we're better prepared, but it doesn't matter until you're actually in the game," Neinas said. "Obviously I didn't work last year to have us poorly prepared, but I had us poorly prepared.
"Right now, I do feel better, but the proof will come out on Friday."
Neinas and MacIntyre ironed out one of the final decisions they had remaining for their special teams units before releasing the first depth chart of the season on Monday. They chose redshirt freshman running back Phillip Lindsay as the kickoff return man.
Obviously, Lindsay must prove himself in the role to keep the job long term, but coaches liked what they saw from him this month in practice and they love his fearlessness.
"We looked at a number of kick returners back there and I think that Phillip is really exciting, hard-nosed and I think Buffs fans are going to enjoy watching him play, not only as a kick returner but in other places," Neinas said. "By our evaluation, we just felt he was the guy we wanted to carry the ball on that first return."
The Buffs made steady improvement in most areas of special teams over the course of the 2013 season. According to research by the CU sports information staff, CU ranked eighth nationally in kickoff coverage, 40th in punt coverage and 25th in kickoff returns over the final nine games of the 2013 season.
When this season begins Friday, we'll learn if the Buffs were able to build on that success in the spring and summer.
"I hope so," Neinas said. "We certainly attempted to do that. We've really emphasized some of the things we felt we needed to do to make us better from a fundamentals standpoint. We tried to carry that over from the fall to the spring and the spring to summer ball."