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Colorado’s ace in the hole for 2017

Steven Montez and the Colorado Buffaloes may make a leap on offense that keeps them in contention for the Pac-12 crown.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Colorado vs Washington Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Mike MacIntyre has had a very interesting tenure in Boulder trying to rebuild Colorado into a regional power in college football. Initially the vision was to build the program around defense and a “pro-style offense” but things started poorly on that front.

Besides a blip of offensive competence in 2014 when the Buffaloes finished 39th in offensive S&P+ (and finished 109th on defense while going 2-10), Colorado was struggling to get anything going on either side of the ball. Then in 2015 MacIntyre hired Jim Leavitt to coach the defense and in 2016 he hired Darrin Chiaverine from Texas Tech to bring a spread flair to the offense.

This all came together in the breakthrough 2016 season when the Buffs went 10-4 and 8-1 in the Pac-12, played for the Pac-12 title, and then recruited the nation’s 36th rated class.

That 2017 class was notable for its inclusion of eight Texans, including 4-star WR K.D. Nixon and 4-star OT Grant Polley. The Buffaloes hit the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex pretty hard in this class and nearly landed some other top Texas players but lost out late, particularly when Matt Rhule and Baylor made their January push.

Yet despite the departure of Leavitt to Oregon and four defenders to the NFL, including three starters in the secondary, the Buffaloes have an ace in the hole that could help them maintain their momentum with another winning season. That would be a sophomore QB that Colorado had to venture WAY outside the normal talent hotspots in Texas to find, Steven Montez.

Montez and the Colorado spread run game

The offense that longtime MacIntyre assistant and QB coach Brian Lindgren and Darrin Chiaverine have built in Boulder requires “a very particular set of skills” to execute properly. They now frequently utilize three and four-receiver formations but still make the “power” run scheme a foundational piece of the offense.

The key to successfully running “power” from spread sets is having a QB that can run the ball and run the ball between the tackles. They started to build this offense for Sefo Liufau, a 6’4” 230 pound scrapper but found that 6’5” 225 pound freshman Steven Montez was also quite capable.

Perhaps the best components to that scheme are the popular “power toss read” play that Clemson made famous a year ago as well as the “counter” run that goes along with it. The toss-read is a nasty adjunct to the spread staple “power-read” play because it prevents the defense from aligning their front to defend one or the other. Teams often like to defend power-read by setting their 3-technique tackle opposite the running back, which frees up the DE who’s being read to stay wide to force a QB keeper while making it harder for the OL to reach the linebackers:

The double team has to move out the tackle, the pulling guard has to connect on the weak side linebacker, and the double team probably needs to reach up to the middle linebacker here for the QB to have a chance at a good gain.

But if you add the toss-read play...

Now the double team has an easy angle to crash down on the nose tackle and reach the backside linebacker. The defensive end has to step inside to defend the B-gap because there’s no 3-technique inside of him, which keys the QB to toss the ball to the RB. The middle linebacker is responsible for the RB but he’s already probably a slower athlete and the toss gives the RB a nice head start to the perimeter.

You can’t align your defensive tackle to take away both of these plays, the addition of the toss read to the normal power-read allows the offense to run the play to either side of the formation without providing the defense a tell.

You run the toss play successfully a few times and the linebackers start flowing hard to stop the toss, then you mix in the counter:

Linebackers always rely at least partially on the flow of the running back to tell them where to find the ball. Schemes in which the RB tells them to go to one perimeter while blockers tell them to go to the opposite end are tricky to handle, these sorts of plays are some of the cutting edge weapons of modern spread offenses.

Of course the QB has to be able to follow a lead block and get downhill in the run game for it to work properly. That requires some burst, some toughness, and some size. Sefo Liufau had those qualities but Montez brings an even greater measure.

Time to throw the ball

Of course the underlying assumption of the “spread to run” offensive philosophy is that opponents won’t just leave receivers open in space in order to load the box. There are varying ways for defenses get numbers into the box but the solution is always the same for the offense, you have to make them pay on the perimeter with the passing game.

Montez was only a freshman a year ago and high level passing proficiency takes real time, but he has two exceptionally valuable skills for this style of spread offense. One of those is arm strength, Montez can throw accurate balls on quick throws to narrow windows outside the hash marks:

The ability to make quick reads, know where to go with the ball in a short window of time, and then punish teams with short throws on the perimeter is a really nasty component to pair with a power run game. Especially when you're executing both from spread sets.

Each of those two components to the offense attack very different areas of the field, getting help to one side negates the ability of the defense to bring help against the other dimension of the offense. Eventually opponents are trying to play press man everywhere and becoming vulnerable to deep shots against their weakest coverage defenders.

The other area where Montez has unique ability as a passer is in executing the classic college trump card, scrambling for time and then throwing the ball down the field.

This kind of playmaking requires the ability to stay calm under pressure, avoid the pressure with athleticism, and then either quickly reset the feet or else throw while on the run. Quarterbacks that can do this consistently well and then add just a basic ability to make progressions and accurate throws from the spread often find a ton of success without really needing any elite tool in their skill set.

Montez is bringing that ability along with the size and power to run the ball between the tackles and throw the ball outside the hash marks. The cumulative effect of all those skills in this offense start to create a pretty nasty composite for opposing defenses to counter.

The 2017 Colorado Buffaloes

Losing Jim Leavitt and all of that NFL talent across the defense is going to be tough on Colorado, particularly when it was their defense that keyed their breakthrough season. However, Montez and company have a lot going for them on offense. The Buffs’ OL returns four starters from a year ago, all four of the top receiving targets, starting running back Phillip Lindsay, and then Montez who saw a lot of action a year ago in relief of Sefo Liufau.

There’s a lot of potential for the Buffs to make a leap on offense and be one of the better units on that side of the ball in the Pac-12. If MacInyre can raise up another wave of future pro DBs across the defense than Colorado won’t be going away in the Pac-12 South.