BOULDER — Walking off Folsom Field after a humuliating 28-point loss to Oklahoma State last October, a chorus of bitter taunts by CU fans escorted Shawn Watson.
Facing budding problems at quarterback, a running back cloaked in pain and a set of receivers still struggling to ditch their training wheels, the University of Colorado offensive coordinator’s problems came to a head.
Although Watson’s squad rebounded to respectability as the season progressed, it still finished the year ranked ninth in the Big 12 and 85th in the country in total offense.
So with spring practice starting Wednesday, the only way CU will quiet the roars of its critics will be to straighten last year’s offensive wrinkles.
Through the air
Because CU has no real experience at tailback, the resurgance must start with the passing game and two-year starting quarterback Joel Klatt.
Although Watson and head coach Gary Barnett elected to bench Klatt before the sixth game of last season — the move lasted less than two quarters — and he threw 15 picks to just nine touchdowns, the job is his unless mobile backup James Cox makes a big move this spring.
“Joel is going to have to prove himself, but what I mean by saying that is we’re going to allow the others to chase him,” Watson said. “The quarterback has to be pushed.
“But he’s accomplished a lot this winter and he’s better conditioned and stronger than he’s ever been. He learned a lot of lessons last year, and now the challenge is applying it.”
Klatt’s struggles were not all his fault, however. Playing with a receiving corps that had almost no experience coming in and never produced a leader, Klatt didn’t have anyone resembling a go-to guy.
Evan Judge and Dusty Sprague are the most reliable receivers returning, but if speedy Blake Mackey improves his catching ability and becomes more in tune with Klatt, he could emerge as the best.
The sleepers of the group are Reggie Joseph, Alvin Barnett and Patrick Williams.
“This spring, we need to sort out exactly what we have at receiver,” Watson said. “We really feel good about the talent level, but we need to see who’s going to step up and be mainstays.”
Also helping the receiving corps is the new coaching structure.
When receivers coach Ted Gilmore left CU for Nebraska in January, Watson absorbed Gilmore’s duties. The job gives Watson another task on his already crowded docket, but it also means he will have a better handle on what goes on between Klatt and the receivers — something he hopes will make a big difference this season.
“It’s been really good, and I see it really being able to put everybody back on the same page,” Watson said. “I feel more in touch with what they need.”
The Buffs are solid at tight end with talented veteran Joe Klopfenstein returning. Quinn Sypniewski, who earned a sixth year of eligibility due to medical hardship, also gives the squad a boost.
On the ground
The graduation of star back Bobby Purify left the Buffs with a sizeable hole at running back, but lightning-fast youngster Hugh Charles, who rushed for 53 yards and a touchdown against UTEP in the Houston Bowl, has the early edge for the job. Brandon Caesar and Byron Ellis also have shots to start.
The battle at running back could be moot this fall, however, if top recruit Maurice Greer has the grades to be eligible.
“I think we have some real talented players at tailback,” Watson said. “But we need to find out exactly what we have.”
The Buffs can also fall back on versatile veteran Lawrence Vickers, who had 60 carries last year. Although Watson said Vickers will see more time at tailback this year, he would rather use him at fullback, where he’s a solid blocker and legitimate pass-catching threat.
Fullback Paul Creighton, who split time at tight end last season, will also see plenty of time, especially in short-yardage situations.
In the trenches
The offensive line lost two starters to graduation — tackle Sam Wilder and guard Terrance Barreau — but does return three starters.
However, when tackle/guard Edwin Harrison went down with a shoulder injury — he should return this fall — the Buffs were left with just 11 offensive linemen for spring drills.
The group’s biggest challenge this year will be to protect Klatt against blitz-happy Big 12 defensive fronts — a major issue last season.
The offensive line gave up only 20 sacks last year, which isn’t exactly repulsive, but it allowed 62 pressures and a host of batted balls.
The players to watch this spring are junior to-be Mark Fenton, who moves from tackle to guard, and youngster Tyler Polumbus, who played mostly on special teams as a freshman last year but will start the spring at split tackle.