2023 Pac-12 Football Preview: OL Play Key for Colorado

With 50+ player changes, CU's current roster is nothing like the 2022 version that went 1-11

Posted on June 12, 2023


  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

This Colorado preseason football preview is the first of 12 to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the Pac-12 season on August 26th.

Pac-12Each preview consists of nine sections: OverviewBest-Case ScenarioWorst-Case ScenarioWhat Should HappenWhat Must HappenGreatest StrengthBiggest ConcernDeciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.

Nothing is set in stone, however, as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer.

Colorado Buffaloes Fast Facts

2022 Record: 1-11
Head Coach: Deion Sanders (0-0 at Colorado)
Offensive Coordinator: Sean Lewis
Defensive Coordinator: Charles Kelly
Home Stadium: Folsom Field (50,183), Boulder, CO
Last Conference Title: 2001, Big 12


Overview
Deion Sanders completely revamped Colorado’s roster over the offseason.

With more than 50 players transferring in and out, the composition of CU’s  current roster is nothing like the 2022 version that went 1-11

Two-way cornerback/wide receiver Travis Hunter is the No. 1 ranked transfer of the 2023 cycle, according to 247Sports, while quarterback Shedeur Sanders is listed as the 28th-best transfer.

Each has been brought in and figures to make immediate impacts.

Colorado CB/WR Travis Hunter | CU Athletics

The Buffs also added former Alabama linebacker Demouy Kennedy, who 247Sports rates as the 97th-best transfer prospect and the 8th-best LB in the cycle.

With the No. 1 rated transfer class, Colorado will look like an entirely different program in the first year of Sanders.

Whether or not that produces immediate results, however, remains to be seen. Roster chemistry figures to play a prominent role, but the implementation of offensive coordinator Sean Lewis’s system could decide the season.


Best-Case Scenario
Shedeur Sanders immediately adjusts to the FBS level and leads Colorado to a respectable 6-6 record.

Lewis adapts his run-skewed system to Sanders’ passing ability while Houston running back transfer Alton McCaskill thrives under the scheme.

Rated as a four-star transfer prospect, McCaskill’s efficiency is probably the most under-the-radar key to Colorado’s success in 2023.

Offensive Coordinator Lewis was the former head coach of Kent State who has a preference for running the ball within a spread scheme.

New Buffs RB Alton McCaskill IV | Michael Wyke/AP

Whether it’s McCaskill, Kentucky transfer Kavosiey Smoke, or four-star freshman Dylan Edwards, CU’s ability to move the ball on the ground will arguably make-or-break their chances of reaching bowl eligibility.

To do so, the offensive line must shine.

Lewis brought along Kent State tackle Savion Washington, a three-star OL transfer prospect, but the Buffs lost Casey Roddick to Florida State and the O-Line was just average last season.

For the Buffs to reach bowl eligibility, their offensive line must adequately protect Sanders—and more importantly, consistently open lanes for McCaskill, Smoke, or Edwards.


Worst Case Scenario
Shedeur Sanders struggles to adjust to playing in the FBS and is only able to lead Colorado to three victories.

The troubles along the offensive line hamper the passing game, forcing CU to once again be a one-dimensional offense.

Sanders

At the same time, the transfers on defense aren’t able to contain the various explosive offenses the Pac-12 has to offer.

Hunter may meet the high expectations set for him, but the rest of the transfers don’t live up to their billing. Outside of Kennedy and Hunter, all the defensive prospects are rated as three-star transfers by 247Sports.

Sanders appears to have depth throughout his defense, though, particularly along the defensive line and secondary.

Cokes

Defensive linemen Derrick McLendon II, Leonard Payne Jr., Sav’ell Smalls, Jordan Domineck, and Shane Cokes are all high three-star transfers that figure to have an immediate impact.

In the secondary, Myles Slusher, Brendan Grant, Vito Tisdale, Omarion Cooper, Rodrick Ward, and Kyndrich Breedlove are also high three-star transfers, mostly from the SEC, who should contribute from Week One.

Combined with five-star freshman cornerback Cormani McClain, the Buffs figure to have a respectable group of defensive backs.

In other words, the Buffs have the depth on defense to avoid the worst-case scenario.

But if Sanders struggles, the team won’t meet expectations.


What Should Happen
The nation’s top-rated transfer class should lead Colorado to a five-win season.

The Buffs have the depth on defense to keep games within reach and enough weapons on offense to win games.

The one-two punch of McCaskill and Smoke should be potent. The running back duo figure to excel under Lewis’s spread-RPO system and make CU relatively efficient in the Red Zone.

Edwards should end up cracking the rotation, too, giving Colorado a three-headed ground game.

But it’s Colorado’s receivers that should make the difference on the scoreboard.

The Buffs lost four-star transfers Jordyn Tyson and Montana Lemonious-Craig to Arizona State and Arizona, respectively, but have filled the gaps to make up for it.

Transfer wide receiver Jimmy Horn Jr. | Buffaloes Wire-USA TODAY

South Florida transfer Jimmy Horn Jr. is rated as a four-star by 247Sports while Auburn transfer Tar’varish Dawson Jr. and South Florida transfer Xavier Weaver are both high three-stars.

Coach Prime also brought in two four-star freshmen in Adam Hopkins and Omarion Miller, who each have an opportunity to contribute in their first year.

Combined with the top-rated transfer prospect of the class in Hunter, the Colorado receiver unit should have the necessary firepower.

Quarterback Shedeur Sanders was a prolific passer at the FCS level, too, and should maintain respectable production in Boulder.

Again, the key to the offense will be the efficiency of the run game and the strength of the O-Line. But the weapons at the skill positions should take advantage of their opportunities.


What Must Happen
Football is won and lost in the trenches.

Oregon and Utah have set the standard for offensive line strength in the Pac-12 for the last several years, while Oregon State and Washington have substantially closed the gap.

Colorado was middle of the pack last year, ranked 53rd in the nation in sacks allowed per game and 56th in tackles for loss allowed per game.

But the departure of starter Roddick to Florida State and starter Jake Wiley to UCLA could hamper the line’s efficiency.

Colorado OL Van Wells | Derek Marckel/CU Athletics

Sanders does have the benefit of two starters returning in Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan and Van Wells, though.

Mixed with the transfer portal additions of Washington, Tyler Brown, and Jack Bailey, the unit must develop chemistry quickly.

The chemistry issue is complicated, however, by the requirement to learn Lewis’s system. Washington and Bailey have familiarity with it after playing for Lewis at Kent State. Yet, the two returning starters must adjust.

Lewis’s scheme itself is geared toward the run, doubling the importance of the offensive line to get it together quickly.

If the group fails to meet expectations, Colorado won’t win many games.


Greatest Strength
The depth on defense brought in via the transfer portal is probably Colorado’s greatest strength.

Coach Prime aimed high and secured several transfers from various SEC schools. His defense will be comprised of players from Florida State, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Ole Miss, and Kentucky.

Woods

Defensive lineman Smalls was also reeled in from Washington while Payne was added from Fresno State.

Starting safety Trevor Woods returns, as well, giving Colorado plenty of pieces to have an improved defense.


Biggest Concern
The linebacker group is arguably the biggest red flag that’s waving in Boulder. The top four LB’s from last year’s squad are no longer on the roster, creating a glaring problem in the second level.

Brown

Alabama transfer Kennedy is highly rated and brings significant expectations, but he only has eight career tackles to his name.

Jackson State transfer Jeremiah Brown is a high three-star who had five sacks last year, yet it’s unclear if he will thrive at the FBS level.

Clemson transfer LaVonta Bentley has been brought in, too, yet he is a middle three-star prospect per 247Sports who had just 12 solo tackles and one sack for the Tigers last season.

The bottom line is Colorado has many questions at the linebacker position with no obvious answers at this point in the summer.


Deciding Factors
The offensive line and run game are arguably the deciding factors in Colorado’s season.

Most of the discussion around the rebuilt roster is focused on the passing attack, yet it’s the ground game that will make or break the team.

Christian-Lichtenhan

The addition of McCaskill, Smoke, and Edwards provides the weapons in the backfield, but that could be relatively meaningless if the O-Line doesn’t perform.

Coaching can make a substantial difference in the line’s efficiency. Still, most programs need two or three years to build an improved offensive line.

Unless the unit exceeds expectations, the CU hype train driven by some of the national media needs to simmer down.

It’s not going to happen in a single season.


Schedule Analysis
2023 Colorado Buffaloes Schedule

Sept. 2 at TCU
Sept. 9 vs Nebraska
Sept. 16 vs Colorado State
Sept. 23 at Oregon
Sept. 30 vs USC
Oct. 7 at Arizona State
Oct. 13 vs Stanford
Oct. 28 at UCLA
Nov. 4 vs Oregon State
Nov. 11 vs Arizona
Nov. 17 at Washington State
Nov. 26 at Utah

In all likelihood, the season begins with a loss to TCU.

But, the matchup in Boulder the following week against Nebraska should result in a Colorado win. It’s the home opener and rivalry matchup, which favors the Buffs.

Colorado State comes to town in Week Three for a game that should result in another Buffaloes win.

Then comes a tough two-week stretch of the season against Oregon and USC. Both will likely end in losses with blowout potential.

The game on October 7th against Arizona State is fascinating. The matchup is a bellwether for CU’s season. A loss would likely rule out a bowl game while a victory could set the team on a path to six wins.

The home game against Stanford on October 13th is a must-win. A loss to the Cardinal in Boulder would be one of the more embarrassing defeats of the season.

The following game against the Bruins is another interesting matchup. A Colorado win might be within reach, especially considering UCLA’s annual propensity to lose a game they should win.

The matchup against Oregon State at Folsom Field is one that could be closer than some expect. The Beavers are a strong team that should find a way to win, yet Colorado has a chance to pull off the upset.

Then Arizona comes to town in another game that is arguably a must-win.

Jedd Fisch has one of the more potent offenses in America and should have an improved defense, yet if CU can’t beat Arizona in Boulder then a bowl game is highly unlikely.

The season ends with road matchups against Washington State and Utah. Both figure to end in defeat.

The Cougars will once again have a strong defense and playing in Pullman is never easy. The finale against the Utes in Salt Lake City has blowout potential.

In the end, five wins is probably the ceiling with three victories as the floor.

Giving Coach Prime the benefit of the doubt, a four-win year is a reasonable expectation for Year One.




—More from Dane Miller—