Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
It’s finally fun to be a Colorado football player again.
That hasn’t been the case very much in recent years, but as CU prepares for the 2015 season, their team pride is overflowing.
“I can see everybody is excited to be here,” senior running back Christian Powell said during the team’s media day over the summer. “Everybody is excited about where we’re going, about what we’re able to accomplish.”
CU’s excitement and energy may seem odd considering it is coming off a season in which it went 2-10, and 0-9 in the Pac-12. And, it might seem odd for a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2005 or been to a bowl game since 2007.
Yet, there’s no question that the energy coming out of that locker room is more positive than it’s been in years.
“Yeah, because I think there’s a sense now that we’re going to be competitive in the Pac-12, and stuff like the new facilities and the new uniforms, it almost feels like a new era for us,” receiver Nelson Spruce said.
It’s a new era that the Buffs believe will include a bowl game appearance this season. Despite their struggles in recent years, they haven’t shied away from making their bowl game intentions known to the public.
“That’s all we envision is a bowl game,” safety Tedric Thompson said. “We don’t want to settle for anything less than a bowl game. We have to believe in ourselves.”
CU head coach Mike MacIntyre has talked about a bowl game many times already, and said he’s doing that because of his players.
“That’s not something I preach to them,” he said. “That’s something they say to me and I hear them say to each other. I can talk about it with this team because they believe it.”
The goal of reaching a bowl game has been made public in recent years, but this year’s team believes there are legitimate reasons for their optimism.
For starters, taking a handful of Pac-12 opponents down to the wire last year has given this team tangible evidence of being on the cusp of something big.
“We were in so many close games last year and it may sound funny, but I think that gave us confidence,” Spruce said. “That’s fueling us and getting us anxious to get back on the field so that when we’re in those situations this year we can turn them into wins.”
After showing some progress on the field in 2014, the Buffs turned their confidence into what has been, by all accounts, a sensational offseason.
Quarterback Sefo Liufau and Spruce have both said it’s the best summer the Buffs have had since they arrived on campus. Offensive tackle Stephane Nembot, a fifth-year senior, agreed.
“After the season you have to sit down and re-evaluate what happened, why the wins wouldn’t come, what really happened,” Nembot said. “We figured out we have to be more disciplined, we have to get in that weight room and get bigger, faster, stronger, like everyone else in the conference, if you want to compete.”
MacIntyre said the Buffs use a point system to measure the players’ strength and they post a chart in the weight room. A score of 25 or more puts a player in the “ultimate warrior” category; 20 or more labels a player as strong.
“We’ve got 40-some guys 25 and above, where last year going into the season we had eight,” MacIntyre said.
For examples, MacIntyre said linebacker Kenneth Olugbode has gained about 15 pounds of muscle, Nembot added about 20 pounds of muscle, Spruce added eight, and receiver Shay Fields added about 15.
“Physically we’ve seen a lot of changes in a lot of guys,” Spruce said. “I think we’re finally looking like a real Pac-12 team.”
They’re acting like it, too.
Thompson said strength coach Dave Forman used to have to remind players to get into the weight room.
“Now, you hardly ever heard him say that and you see a lot more guys in the weight room now,” Thompson said.
Unveiling a new set of jerseys in the spring and watching the rapid construction of the new facilities has given this team a jolt, too. At some point this month, the players are expected to move into their brand new locker room.
“It definitely re-energizes us because it’s a new field of things; it’s like a fresh start,” sixth-year senior Jered Bell said. “They’re putting all this money into the facilities, showing they have faith in us. We have to return the favor and go out and win some games.”
Entering their third year under MacIntyre, the Buffs truly believe the wins are coming. And, soon.
“You can see we’re on the rise,” Bell said. “We’re not down in the dumps anymore. The team has a confidence as a whole that we’re going to win this year. The morale has changed because of that.”
Brian Howell: twitter.com/BrianHowell33.