BOULDER, Colo. - While the Buffaloes' position coaches will get a chance to work with the true freshmen for the first time on Monday, Malcolm Blacken has been working with them since they arrived earlier this summer. BuffStampede.com caught up with CU's strength and conditioning coach to get his early impressions of the newcomers. He also talked about the returning players that have improved the most.
Which true freshmen showed up and had a maturity level that really impressed you this summer?
Coach Malcolm Blacken: "Donta Abron has done excellent as a freshman running back. So has Terrence Crowder, he has done great. Davien Payne is a big bruising running back. I spent some time this summer getting some body fat off of him. He came in at 225-pounds. He is down to 214-pounds now. Most people say, 'you are making a big running back skinny.' No, no, no. That wasn't the right kind of big. So we have been working on that. He has been working his butt off.
"Defensive lineman Josh Tupou is a kid with some leadership skills. I can't wait to see him play, to be quite honest with you. Samson Kafovalu is another one of my freshmen defensive linemen that has a real chance of being something special with his years to come here at CU.
"Wide receiver Jeffrey Thomas is a big kid that can stretch the field. He runs well. He has jumped into a strength and conditioning program that I know is hard. It is not easy. There is nothing easy about it. He has jumped into it and not missed a beat in training at altitude. That is tough to do. He looks like he has been here for two years. We still have some other little things to work on with his game, like not being the last one to the running session. Be the first one sometimes. I am trying to teach these guys how to be leaders even though some of them might not have what it takes at this point but you see the possibility. You see that there is potential there. Now we just have to kind of corral it and put it in the right direction. But he is a guy that has been doing well.
"Gerald Thomas, a wide receiver, is another that has done well. He is happy to be here, loves what we do and feels confident that he can help contribute right away. Yuri Wright is quiet but leads with example by just how he works. He does a great job for us. Kenneth Crawley is just a prototypical great looking corner. He is lanky, he can run, he has got long speed. He is not the most vocal guy but you can tell he has all the tools to be successful at that position in the Pac-12. Vincent Hobbs, a freshman tight end, is another kid that I think has a real opportunity.
"Don't get me wrong, I like all of our freshmen, but I am highlighting a few of them that I think can play and contribute right now. I am not a position coach and I don't claim to be one. I just see certain indicators that I have seen over my last 20 years of coaching that has proven me right to be able to say he can play football or he can't play football. A lot of these kids have given the indication they can play at a high level.
"I can tell how a kid hang cleans what kind of hip pop he has. I can tell if he is a good blocker. I can tell if he is a good striker at the point of contact just by looking at how they hang clean, squat, front squat, all those things. That takes years of learning but, yeah, that is why we do those movements because it is power from the ground. What is football? Power from the ground. So we look at that, we try to translate it, give it to the coaches because they don't get to work with them in the summer, only my staff does. I like this freshman class. I am happy with these kids."
Are there any players that were on the team last year that made big strides physically this off-season and appear primed for a breakout season?
"I look for Ray Polk, David Bakhtiari and Tony Jones to have great seasons in the Pac-12. I am also impressed with what Gus Handler, Jon Major, Woodson Greer, Greg Henderson, Tyler McCulloch and Keenan Canty have accomplished this off-season.
"I really like Nelson Spruce. He is put together. He is a 197-pound wide receiver. He was 212-pounds when we got him. We trimmed off the fat, taught him how to eat, taught him about nutrient timing. He is just responding. The kid catches everything at seven-on-sevens. I am really excited to see him play.
"The quarterback race is going to be interesting just because we have some athletes at that position now. Not that we didn't before, but I don't know if we've had three or four quarterbacks that are looking at you like, 'coach, I am ready!' So that is going to be fun. Good luck Rip Scherer figuring that one out. (laughing) That is why he gets paid the big bucks, huh?"
You mentioned Nelson Spruce… Colorado fans didn't get to see him on the field last season because he redshirted. Is he faster than most people give him credit?
"Yeah. You know what he is going to be? He is going to be that guy who gains a lot of yards after the catch because his legs are so strong. His quads look like a fullback's. He is put together that way. If you run up and if you don't hit him low, he is going to run through some stuff. He is physical at the point of contact and I think he has a real chance of contributing to that group, especially having the situation that we have with Paul Richardson. We have to be in a position where the guys that are out there and are healthy, they got to step up. I think we have some real talent in there. I think we can be okay there, if it all comes together the way it needs to and we can ward off the hamstring injury bug and things like that that seems to step up and get your skill guys at certain points during August."
You mentioned Paul Richardson… have you and the training staff had to make sure he doesn't do too much, too soon? He seems raring to go less than four months removed from major knee surgery.
"Yeah, it is challenging. I have had three conversations with him now. I have told him, 'I know you feel like Superman and that is fine, I want you to. That is part of what we do in here, is to make you feel that way. But at the same time, there are some signs behind what is wrong with you and there are some signs behind how long it takes for that injury to heal. Not the incision, not the part we can see, the part that we can't see.'
"You know how Paul plays. He runs full speed at you and then plants that foot in the ground and cuts back at your inside at a million miles an hour. He hasn't done that yet so we are going to have to make sure that that knee is ready for all that type of abuse, because that is what it is, before we ever let him go out there.
"He has a bright future in this sport. And as his coaches, as his mentors, as his friend, we are going to make sure that his knee is right before I let him go out and let him jeopardize himself. We can't let his emotions get the best of him when it is time to be healing. He is doing some great things already. I am happy with it, the training staff is happy with it, he is happy with it, Coach Embree happy with it. But we still need time.
"We've had that conversation three times and I am about to have it a fourth time starting next week because I know when he is sitting out there at practice, watching everyone running around, his juices will get flowing and he will want to say, 'I'll be back in two weeks.' Nope. He knows exactly where I stand on this issue and where his doctor stands on this issue. We are going to keep moving along and then we'll use this time also to strengthen his upper-body, which is good. When I first got here, he couldn't [bench] 225-pounds one time. He is doing it six reps now. So we're taking a negative and trying to turn it into a positive because he needed to get his upper-body stronger. We are doing some things with him where it is benefiting him in other ways."
What about freshman quarterback Shane Dillon? He had off-season shoulder surgery. Has he been able to participate much this summer?
"Not yet. As soon as [head athletic trainer] Miguel [Rueda] and his crew let him go, we'll be ready to start working on him. That upper-body is going to be a challenge because he is a basketball guy. Now he has to start training like a football player. But at the same time he is another guy I am excited about. He just has all the intangibles you want at that position. He already walks through the locker room like he has been here for six years. He just has that charisma about him that you want your quarterback to have. He is a bright spot."
What is the biggest challenge for linebacker Douglas Rippy at this point in his recovery from his knee surgery?
"His biggest thing is he has to watch his weight. Doug is a big guy. We've got him conscious about his weight because I want him to play at about 236-pounds. He is about 240-pounds right now. I have seen him as high as 252-pounds when he hurt his knee last year so we got to watch that, get that weight down to the point where he feels good. You can't be overweight and be rehabbing a knee at the same time. Why? There is no sense in doing that. You can do it but that doesn't help you. That defeats us trying to get you back on the field as fast as possible and you helping this team as fast as possible so he knows his weight is an issue. He is doing what he needs to do to get it down. Four more pounds to go and then he'll be good. Is he 99 percent right now? No, but I think he will be when it is time to play football for real."
Defensive back Parker Orms has been one of the better players on the team when healthy, but he has struggled to stay healthy. He had the hamstring injury most recently this spring. Has he been participating this summer?
"He spent A Term with the training staff, running on the side. He spent B term with us. He is a competitor as you know. He wants to compete at a high level. He has a lot of good things working for him. He is dropping his weight a little bit and trying to get back in the form of things. He is moving real well now. Hopefully he is ready to go. He tells me he is. But we are still going to watch his pitch count when we start camp next week, keep track of how many reps he is taking."
Offensive linemen Kaiwi Crabb and Ryan Dannewitz both missed action this spring due to back issues. Is that still an issue?
"Crabb is doing really good. I keep a close eye on Dannewitz because I get concerned about his back. We have had no setbacks the last eight weeks, fingers and toes crossed. He is doing really well. That was my goal with him this summer: put on some good size, strengthen the back but at the same time don't put him in a position where he has any setbacks. When he did have setbacks in the past, he would be down for two or three weeks. I couldn't afford for him to have that happen this summer. He is one of the smartest offensive linemen I have ever been around. Dannewitz really knows the game."
What about sophomore Malcolm Creer and true freshman Terrence Crowder? Both running backs suffered a torn ACL last fall.
"I'll start with Malcolm, who has the best attitude I have ever seen someone have coming off an injury. The kids just wants to work, work, work. Malcolm does everything we ask plus 20 percent. And he is a cyclist. He is all over Denver with that bike. I think that has helped him with the endurance of his knee. He is doing really well. I am excited about getting back him back on the field. He is very, very close.
"Terrence had some range of motion issues when he first came in. He is a fierce competitor, he wants to do well and finish everything, he just wasn't in good enough shape to finish everything at first. But now he has turned the corner. He doesn't wear any braces or anything on the knee when we run. Malcolm still does for precautionary measures. Terrence has a certain leg drive about him that I can't wait to see him play. When we are pushing sleds, we run half-gassers. That is 53-yards over and 53-yards back with 90 pounds on the sled. That is hard to do and this kid, when it gets down to 'what you got time', he just gets mad and starts pushing even harder. So I like how he competes from that standpoint. Hopefully that carries over."
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