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Opponent Spring Review: Colorado

With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, HuskerOnline.com will take a look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2019 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.

Today we take a look at the Colorado Buffalos coming out of the spring, as they will be breaking in first-year head coach Mel Tucker.

The Huskers travel to Boulder in Week 2, and HuskerOnline caught up with CU Sports Nation editor Justin Guerriero to get his thoughts on the Buffs coming out of the spring.

Related: South Alabama

Mel Tucker comes to Colorado after a successful run at Georgia under Kirby Smart.
Mel Tucker comes to Colorado after a successful run at Georgia under Kirby Smart. (@runralphierun)

Spring overview

Mel Tucker comes to Colorado from Georgia, where he worked under Kirby Smart, and before that Nick Saban at Alabama in 2015.

However, most of his coaching background was in the NFL, where he served primarily as a defensive coordinator from 2005 to 2014 in Cleveland, Jacksonville and Chicago.

Tucker retained three of Mike MacIntyre's assistant coaches, as they were able to blend in some of what they were able to do last year. With several key guys returning, Colorado's players have really bought in, and have a sour taste in their mouth after the way they finished last season 0-7, after starting out 5-0 and being ranked inside the top 25.

There are still plenty of questions that need to be answered, but the thought now is there's enough coming back for the Buffs to have a very competitive season in 2019.

Returning starters 

On offense, the Buffs have a solid group returning. Led by quarterback Steven Montez, he'll also have his top two receivers in Laviska Shenault and KD Dixon back this year. On the offensive line, they return starting right guard Tim Lynott, center Colby Pursell and left guard Aaron Haigler. William Sherman also returns at tackle, as he took over a starting job by the third game of the season. CU added Oklahoma State grad transfer Arlington Hambright, who is expected to be the other starter.

Running back is probably their biggest question on offense, as they lost 1,000-yard rusher Travon McMillan from a year ago. Six different guys are in contention for the job, with sophomore Alex Fontenot the leader coming out of the spring. Fontenot had 45 yards rushing on 11 carries a year ago. However, most think it will be a wide-open race that lasts into the season.

On defense, Colorado will continue to run the 3-4. On the defensive line, CU returns leading pass rusher Mustafa Johnson, who led the Buffs with 8.5 sacks in 2018. They must find two other new starters next to Johnson on the defensive line, and Terrance Lang and Jalen Sami leave the spring as the most likely candidates.

The key piece the Buffs return on defense is linebacker Nate Landman, who led CU in tackles a year ago. He's the unquestioned leader of the defense. Sophomore Jonathan Van Diest looks to be the other guy with the best chance to win the spot opposite of Landman.

At outside linebacker, Carson Wells comes back after finishing second on the team in quarterback sacks. The right outside linebacker is probably the biggest question.

Delrick Abrams and Mekhi Blackmon will lock down the two corner spots, but safety still remains a big question.

Wide receiver Laviska Shenault caught 10 passes for 177 yards against Nebraska in 2018.
Wide receiver Laviska Shenault caught 10 passes for 177 yards against Nebraska in 2018. (USA Today)

Offensive star: WR Laviska Shenault 

The 6-foot-2, 225 pound Shenault needs no introduction to Nebraska fans, as he torched the Big Red for 177 yards on 10 catches a year ago in Lincoln, including a 40-yard touchdown catch with 1:06 left that won the game for Colorado.

Shenault is regarded as a first-round draft pick on many early boards next season, as he had 86 catches for 1,011 yards in just nine games a year ago. Having Montez back should also go a long way in helping him put up back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

Defensive star: LB Nate Landman 

The 6-foot-3, 230 pound Landman led Colorado's defense with a team-high 123 tackles, including nine tackles for loss and four quarterback sacks.

Look for Landman to be the anchor of CU's front seven, as he'll man one of the two inside linebacker spots in their 3-4 defense.

Spring surprise: RB Jaren Mangham 

Freshman running back Jaren Mangham was the talk of CU's spring game, as he rushed for over 130 yards and three touchdowns.

The 6-foot-2, 215 pound Mangham was a former four-star recruit out of Michigan. He turned some heads this spring and he'll be a guy to watch closely in the running back battle in August.

CU quarterback Steven Montez was pressured heavily a year ago, as he was sacked 30 times in 2018.
CU quarterback Steven Montez was pressured heavily a year ago, as he was sacked 30 times in 2018. (USA Today)

Biggest question: Safety 

Running back has a lot of questions for Colorado, but safety is probably their biggest one heading into 2019.

Junior Trey Udoffia was moved from corner to safety this spring. The thought is he's a very good open field tackler, and this should be a much better fit for Udoffia.

Juniors Aaron Maddox and Derrion Rakestraw are two other names to watch at safety that Tucker hopes can step up in 2019. Expect CU to try a lot of different combinations at safety early on.

Early outlook on Nebraska at Colorado

Guerriero: "I think it's certainly reinvigorated interest by the so-called 'old guard fans.' There is a large contingent of people out there that are really borderline disgusted that Colorado State has been the Buffs main rival into the 21st century. I think the fact that Nebraska is coming back into the fold, it's a ticket seller. Obviously, it generates a lot of excitement.

"At least in terms of on the field, last year was certainly a close affair and a fun game to watch. Heading into this season, the Buffs are a new team under Mel Tucker. The coordinators are trying to take the team in different ways than what Mike MacIntyre did.

"I think ultimately the Buffs have enough of their key personnel returning that I think it can balance out the holes and the positions where there are question marks or guys that need to prove themselves.

"This is one of those games and series where an x-factor exists. It's really hard to say what's going to happen. I have a hard time predicting which way the game is going to go just because of that overarching reason. I see this game being the flip of a coin. It could go either way."

Overall 2019 win-loss expectation

Guerriero: "I don't know if I'd feel comfortable taking the over line on 7 wins. I almost feel somewhat confident this team is going to have a 7-5 year in Mel Tucker's first season.

"I think at the end of the day they have some core guys back, but the question marks on this team I think could be contributing factors to some losses. This is a very important year for Mel Tucker, especially looking down the barrel to future recruiting classes. After the team had done so well in 2016 to spark recruiting interest, to follow that up with back-to-back 5-7 years destroyed what they were doing.

"When I look at the Pac 12 South, I'm concerned about Arizona State. I think they do have some talent and could win the division, but I think Colorado will have a winning record in Pac 12 play. Right now, I'll say 7-5."