CU offense preview: Buffs excited about versatility, potential

Aug. 27—In the last week of the summer that the Colorado coaches had for vacation, first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and his wife took their three children to Steamboat Springs.

"It was by far our best trip (of the summer)," Sanford said. "I built it in on purpose because I know there is so much to offer here in Boulder, so much to offer in the state of Colorado. It is just a great place. I have coached at some really neat places in my career. I don't know if I have ever been anywhere that has so much right in your backyard in terms of getting out on the river and fly fishing, taking the kids up and doing zip-lining, alpine slides, all the stuff you can do."

On the field, Sanford is just as excited about the versatile potential of what the Buffaloes can do on offense.

"What I do want to be known is that our players, they're learning a multitude of football and that's probably the biggest hint that I would give is that we're not just going to be one thing," Sanford said. "We're going to have a multiplicity and with our skill set at quarterback, it suits us well to be able to have an offensive scheme that fits each one of our quarterbacks as we go through the year."

Exactly what CU will do offensively, well, Sanford won't say. He prefers to keep that under wraps until the Buffs unveil their offense in the season opener.

A week before the opener, CU also hadn't announced who will steer the ship. Incumbent Brendon Lewis and JT Shrout continue battling at quarterback.

What isn't a secret, however, is the energy and confidence that has been added to an offense that desperately needs a jolt. CU had one of the worst offenses in the country a year ago, posting just 18.8 points and 257.4 yards per game.

"(Sanford) teaches us everything we need to know to come out here and run the offense by ourselves and I feel like he's done a good pretty good job teaching us that," Lewis said. "I wouldn't say it's simpler; I would just say he's done an exceptional job breaking it down detail-wise, showing us little things that we need to know, what we need to look out look for. I think he does a great job showing all of us and we do a good job bringing it out here on the field."

Quarterbacks aren't the only group excited about what the Buffs are doing offensively. Running backs and receivers have talked about their potential to make plays. The offensive line is more confident. And, the tight ends foresee more chances to make an impact.

"I'm really comfortable with it, with the multiplicity of things I get to do," senior tight end Brady Russell said.

Building confidence was the first priority for Sanford and the rest of the offensive staff, most of which is new to the program. Running backs coach Darian Hagan is the only returner to the offensive staff.

"Confidence comes because of belief in a scheme that our players feel like they will go into a game with the answer to the test," Sanford said.

Sanford has made several stops during his career and he's experienced ups and downs. He, too, has enjoyed some renewed energy as he works with a coaching staff loaded with experience.

"We wanted to make sure as a staff that we put over 100 years of coaching experience in our offensive staff room — myself 17, going on my 18th season," he said. "I've learned a lot from success and I've probably learned even more from failing. And to me, what do you do with that? Well, you learn from those experiences. But ultimately, as a coordinator, I wanted this offensive scheme to be a reflection of my experiences and then a reflection of the collaborative experiences of our offensive staff, which all has to fit under the umbrella of (head coach Karl) Dorrell's vision."

Dorrell's vision is for an offense that will dominate up front so the Buffs can run and pass the ball with success when needed. He believes this offseason was a step in that direction.

"I want an offense that can dictate the game," Dorrell said "I feel I hired the right guy (Sanford) to do that. If I want to go fast, we can go fast. If I want to go slow and beat you up, we can do that. If I want to go over your head, because those guys are playing too tight, we can do that. We have the skill, the talent to do all the facets of offensive football."

A quick look at each position on the CU offense

Quarterbacks: The last time CU went into a season with a returning starter at quarterback was 2019. That year, there was no question that Steven Montez would be the guy again. This year, incumbent Brendon Lewis is fighting for the job with JT Shrout and a week away from the season opener the Buffs had not picked a starter. There's a good chance both will play at some point. Sophomore Drew Carter, redshirt freshman Maddox Kopp and true freshman Owen McCown give the Buffs some talented depth.

Running backs: Sixth-year senior Alex Fontenot has rushed for 1,243 yards during his CU career and he aims to take over the lead role for the first time since 2019. Junior Deion Smith (260 career yards) is expected to have a bigger role. The rest of the group doesn't have experience but is filled with talent. Sophomore Jayle Stacks, freshmen Anthony Hankerson and Victor Venn and walk-on Charlie Offerdahl provide quality depth.

Tight ends: After leading the team in receiving a year ago, Brady Russell is back for a sixth year and has improved his overall game. He is the unquestioned leader at tight end because of the inexperience behind him. Redshirt freshmen Caleb Fauria and Erik Olsen have flashed their potential in practice and appear ready to fill key roles on game day. Austin Smith could get in the mix, as well.

Receivers: Baylor transfer RJ Sneed is a veteran with a load of production in his career, but this group is filled with talented players eager to prove themselves. Seniors Daniel Arias and Maurice Bell had good offseasons and sophomore Montana Lemonious-Craig is primed to make a jump. True sophomore Chase Penry and Ty Robinson are joined by a true freshman group led by Jordyn Tyson, who was one of the stars of preseason camp.

Offensive line: Three starters are back in tackles Frank Fillip and Jake Wiley and guard Casey Roddick. All three project as starters again, but could be in different spots this year. Fillip and Roddick were on the right side in 2021, with Wiley on the left, but they've all worked on opposite sides this month. Noah Fenske and Austin Johnson have battled at center and they both should play throughout the year, either at center or guard. Alabama transfer Tommy Brown is a likely starter at guard when healthy. There is young, developing depth behind the top group.

Projected depth chart

Pos — First team (Second team)

QB — JT Shrout, Jr., 6-3, 220 (Brendon Lewis, So., 6-2, 215)

RB — Alex Fontenot, Sr., 6-0, 200 (Deion Smith, Jr., 6-0, 190)

TE — Brady Russell, Sr., 6-3, 250 (Caleb Fauria, Fr., 6-5, 235)

WR — Daniel Arias, Sr., 6-4, 210 (Maurice Bell, Sr., 6-0, 185)

WR — Montana Lemonious-Craig, So., 6-2, 185 (Jordyn Tyson, Fr., 6-2, 180)

SL — RJ Sneed, Sr., 6-1, 195 (Chase Penry, So., 6-1, 190)

LT — Frank Fillip, Jr., 6-7, 295 (Travis Gray, Fr., 6-7, 300)

LG — Casey Roddick, Jr., 6-4, 310 (Lucas Eckardt, Fr., 6-6, 290)

C — Noah Fenske, So., 6-5, 305 (Austin Johnson, So., 6-4, 300)

RG — Tommy Brown, Jr., 6-7, 330 (Alex Harkey, So., 6-6, 300)

RT — Jake Wiley, So., 6-6, 310 (Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan, So., 6-10, 325)

SNAPSHOT: CU offense

Assistant coaches

* Mike Sanford (1st season): Coordinator/Quarterbacks

* Kyle DeVan (1st season): Offensive line

* Darian Hagan (7th season): Running backs

* Phil McGeoghan (1st season): Receivers

* Clay Patterson (1st season): Tight ends

Five to watch

* RB Alex Fontenot: CU's leading rusher in 2019, he missed 2020 and played a backup role last year. He's eager to regain his spot in pacing the Buffs' rushing attack.

* QB Brendon Lewis or JT Shrout: One of them will start. Perhaps both of them will start at some point. Either way, the Buffs need to be better at QB than they were a year ago.

* OG Casey Roddick: Praised by coaches and teammates for his leadership, he also transformed his body and had his best offseason since coming to CU.

* TE Brady Russell: He led the team in receptions and yards last season and could be one of the keys to the entire offense playing better this year.

* WR RJ Sneed: One of Baylor's best receivers the past couple of years, he transferred in the offseason and could lead what is a talented group.

Numbers to know

* 3.46 — Yards per rushing attempt for the Buffs last year, ranking 107th nationally. It was CU's lowest average since 2013 (3.44).

* 5.9 — Yards per passing attempt for the Buffs in 2021, ranking 121st nationally. It was the lowest number for a CU team since 2012 (5.7).

* 133 — Career catches for RJ Sneed during his five seasons at Baylor. He had a career-high 46 in 2021.

* 80 — Career catches for the rest of the CU receiver group, combined. Daniel Arias leads that group with 29, followed by Jaylon Jackson (14) and Maurice Bell (12).

* 120 — Career starts for the players on offense. Tight end Brady Russell has the most (28), followed by guard Casey Roddick (18) and tackle Frank Fillip (17).