Buffaloes' running game grounded
A year ago, Erik Greenberg was living in the Cochabomba Mission in poverty-stricken Bolivia, without a football or anyone to throw to. His weight program consisted of pull-ups, pushups and sit-ups and his playbook was the Book of Mormon.
Saturday he'll start at quarterback for the Colorado Buffaloes against Florida State.
This amazing turnaround is fitting, because Greenberg plays for a team that's taken an unpredictable path of its own. A year ago -- while the walk-on Greenberg was finishing up his Mormon mission -- a walk-on quarterback named Robert Hodge simply handed the ball to Chris Brown and watched an experienced and dominant offensive line wear down opponents on the way to a Big 12 North title. Over the last two seasons no team in college football got more rushing production from their tailbacks (2,830 last year). Average yards per rush: 5.16.
This year the Buffalo rushing game is unrecognizable. Gone is Brown, gone are four of five line starters and most of the top backups, and gone are the days when Buffalo running backs fed defenders their kneecaps and made them like it.
"You rely on it sometimes to a fault,'' said CU offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, "when you have a great back and great linemen."
Through three games this season the Buffs running game is anything but buff. CU ranks 97th in the nation in rushing and, even more damning, only three of 117 Division I-A teams are averaging fewer than their 2.31 yards a carry.
One starting lineman was a defensive tackle last year, two have been injured, while a fourth hasn't played. Only guard Marwan Hage, who in the preseason praised the Buffs' last two offensive lines and then said this one could be better, was back from last year's crew. Couple all this with the fact that unlike the physical Brown, halfbacks Bobby Purify and Brian Calhoun favor slashing and jitterbug styles, respectively. Oh, and add in that Purify has a bad ankle that's going to keep him out a couple of weeks.
Still, Watson said experience is all that stands between now and the line fulfilling Hage's prediction.
"We'll be really good, with everybody back for the next two or three years,'' Watson said. "The future bodes bright. But we've got now."
Now wasn't looking so bad a week ago. Though the Buffaloes defense, which coach Gary Barnett bragged could be his best at Colorado, hasn't lived up to billing, the offense has.
The key was another walk-on quarterback named Joel Klatt, a former farmhand for the San Diego Padres who came back to football and won the starting job last spring. Klatt showed three positive attributes -- the arm quickness and footwork expected of a middle infielder and a strong notion of leadership he picked up from watching former Padre great Tony Gwynn during spring training.
Watson knew Klatt was special early in the opener against Colorado State, when he picked up a change from a two-deep to a three-deep zone, looked off the safety and threw a 78-yard touchdown pass to Derek McCoy.
"He was awesome, absolutely awesome,'' Watson said. "He was playing lights out, taking us where we hadn't been before."
But just as soon as Klatt had found a place among the national leaders in passing and it looked like Colorado might be able to blitz opponents with the pass instead of the run, he took a couple of hard shots on his throwing shoulder. He dinged it first against UCLA and then reinjured it twice against Washington State and had to take a seat with a bruised shoulder.
That left the job to Greenberg, whose not quite as quick and not blessed with as strong an arm as Klatt, but who brings that same indefinable maturity from life away from football. Greenberg's new mission will be to put the ball up, early and often, against the Seminoles.
Klatt is expected back in a few weeks, and so too is the CU run game, though that will take longer. Watson said the Buffaloes have recruited with the intention of being more balanced, and their receiving corps of McCoy, D.J. Hackett and Jeremy Bloom reflects that.
For now, there's patience.
"There's patience with urgency," Watson said. "The urgency is we know what league we play in."
Mark Wangrin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.