Turnover has been the recent story of the University of Colorado Boulder football program—in the sense of personnel, not coughing up the ball (although they’ve done a little bit of that too). After just one season, head coach Mel Tucker earned the nickname “Midnight Mel” by leaving CU for Michigan State University in February 2020. Then COVID-19 hit, further curtailing new head coach Karl Dorrell’s ability to prepare his players for what ended up being a shortened season; restrictions remained through spring 2021, and last year, the team finished a disappointing 4-8.

Perhaps that’s why Dorrell kicked off 2022 by sending the Buffs—and his six new assistant coaches—back to what he called football school. The team, about three-quarters of whom are underclassmen, sat in actual classrooms to study fundamentals like how to break down film and learn new systems and terminology.

“There is definitely a different feeling in the building about moving forward and having a sense of urgency and having some success,” Dorrell said at a February press conference. “It is being manifested in all areas in and around our program.”

The preseason pollsters aren’t buying it, widely ranking CU at or near the bottom of the embattled Pac-12 Conference. Those experts cite big losses to the transfer portal, including three starting defensive backs and three wide receivers, and a tough schedule: CU’s only non–Power Five game is at the U.S. Air Force Academy on September 10. But the Buffs—who gained some key players as well, including former Alabama offensive lineman Tommy Brown—are eager to prove the naysayers wrong.

“The veteran players are definitely eager and champing at the bit to continue to improve and re-establish themselves in the program,” Dorrell said as the team began on-field practices in March. “We have a lot to prove.”

They’ll get that chance starting with a Friday night game against TCU under the lights at Folsom Field on September 2, which is also when Buffs faithful will find out who is playing quarterback for the team: The offseason has seen returning starter Brendon Lewis battling with Tennessee transfer J.T. Shrout, who missed last year due to a knee injury. But given the University of Colorado Boulder football program’s overhaul, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the newcomer calling plays or a split-duty strategy.

Can’t-Miss Matchup

CU football bison mascot Ralphie runs with her handlers across Folsom Field
University of Colorado Boulder football mascot Ralphie VI runs on the field with handlers before a game between the Buffs and the USC Trojans at Folsom Field on October 2, 2021. Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Vs. Oregon, November 5: With the Flatirons as a backdrop and the pregame and halftime tradition of running Ralphie (currently a two-year-old bison and the sixth animal to serve as CU’s live mascot) across Folsom Field, any home game at CU is a good time—especially now that beer is available throughout the stadium. There’s also a new sound system for the first time in 26 years. Although holding out to see seventh-ranked Utah on November 26 is tempting, we’ll be settling for 11th-ranked Oregon earlier in the month in hopes of perfect fall football weather. (Tip: You can visit Ralphie before kickoff at her Duane Field tailgate.)

3 Players to Watch

CU tight end Brady Russell runs with the football
CU tight end Brady Russell. Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Brady Russell, tight end: Known for his flowing locks as well as his catching and blocking abilities, this sixth-year senior from Fort Collins walked on to the team in 2017 and earned a scholarship during fall 2018. The veteran will spend his final season making plays along with progressing the group of young tight ends in waiting behind him.

Daniel Arias, wide receiver: Paired with his NFL body type, CU’s coaches love Arias’ consistency, and they hope his mental game will be even sharper after the fifth-year senior from Washington state started working with a sports psychologist this past spring. “If I drop a ball, if I miss an assignment, how am I gonna respond?” he told BuffZone in April. “Am I gonna think about the past, or am I gonna think about the future? That’s what I’m trying to think about.”

Tommy Brown, offensive lineman: Any player transferring from a program like the University of Alabama is worthy of attention, and Brown has generated excitement on and off the field since coming to Boulder via the transfer portal. The six-foot-seven, 330-pound offensive lineman took advantage of the NCAA’s new-in-2021 name, image, and likeness rules to sign a contract to model underwear for Colorado-based Shinesty. “He’s my jokester. He’s been great,” Dorrell told BuffZone. “He came in with a great work ethic about just getting to work and being very responsible. And now he’s grown to being one of the popular guys on the team.”