Olin Buchanan Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Though it might seem a distant memory, it wasn't too long ago that Colorado played in the Big 12 championship game four times in five seasons.
But the Buffaloes, who will be in the Pac-12 next season, haven't even managed a winning record in any of the past five seasons.
In hopes of reversing that trend, Colorado officials turned to their past to hire new coach Jon Embree. He is a former Buffs player and was an assistant on the '94 team that beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and the '01 team that upset Texas in the Big 12 championship game.
Embree and his staff are installing a pro-style system in hopes of boosting an offense that averaged just over 24 points last season. They also have to patch a defense that allowed more than 30 points in six games.
Here's a look at the Buffs as they enter spring drills.
Rodney Stewart returns to lead the Buffs' rushing attack.
COACH: Jon Embree LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in the Big 12 North.
SPRING DATES: March 11-April 9
RETURNING STARTERS (minimum seven starts last season)
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH: The Buffaloes look OK at tailback. Senior Rodney Stewart is a three-year starter and is coming off his best season; he rushed for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. His backups were all underclassmen, too. Colorado is set at defensive tackle, as Curtis Cunningham and Will Pericak have started every game in the past two seasons. Last season. they combined for 76 tackles. The offensive line returns four starters.
HELP IS NEEDED: Although Colorado was dreadful against the pass last season, its cornerbacks actually were sound. But 2010 starters Jimmy Smith, who is projected as a possible first-round selection in the NFL draft, and Jalil Brown have completed their eligibility. Coaches will be looking at Jered Bell, Makiri Pugh and Jonathan Hawkins as possible successors on the corners. With the Buffaloes scheduled to face such standout quarterbacks as Hawaii's Bryant Moniz, Arizona's Nick Foles, USC's Matt Barkley and Stanford's Andrew Luck, it's imperative the Buffaloes upgrade their pass defense. The linebacker corps has to be rebuilt. The Buffs also need to develop depth at wide receiver.
3 GUYS TO WATCH
QB Brent Burnette: Quarterback play has been inconsistent for the past five season. Burnette, a junior college transfer by way of Middle Tennessee State, will push Tyler Hansen for the starting role. Word is he impressed teammates in player-organized seven-on-seven drills. We'll see if coaches will be impressed, too.
CB Makiri Pugh: He sat out last season after transferring from Georgia and played well on the scout team. Pugh has a chance to step in right away and shore up a position in need.
LB Derrick Webb: A successor is needed for 2010 leading tackler Mike Sipili at middle linebacker. Webb is the front runner. A former three-star prospect, he had 17 tackles in a backup role as a redshirt freshman last season.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
FS Ray Polk: He arrived in Boulder as a highly rated running back, but coaches loved his size (6-1/210) and athleticism, so he made the transition to safety. He has been at least a part-time starter in each of the past two seasons, but he has been inconsistent on a defense that has had difficulty stopping the pass. The new coaching staff is hopeful he's due for a breakout season in 2011. But he'll need to show improvement this spring for that to happen.
Change almost always stirs interest, and Colorado may have made more changes than any program in the nation. This spring, the Buffaloes will be preparing to compete in the South Division of the reconfigured Pac-12. They also have a new head coach and a new coaching staff; that staff is installing a pro-style offense and changing defensive schemes. Colorado fans just hope to see signs this spring that will lead to changes in the results on the field this fall.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.