Skip Myslenski chats with Kain Colter and Pat Fitzgerald following the team's final practice before dispersing for the holidays. The team will reconvene on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 25.
Making comparisons to the past can be a sensitive matter. But when pressed to specify differences, he did say, "Those guys last year worked their butt off and they wanted it bad, just as bad as this team. But I think the difference between this year's team and last year's team is our confidence level. You look back at this season, we've dominated almost every game, and the games that we lost, we let it slip. So our confidence level is high, that's the biggest thing, so even when we're down, we know we can play better, we know we can play with any team that's on the field that Saturday and strap it up and play well. Like I said, it's our confidence. Guys last year, they wanted it too. But we had a rough season last year, and here we're building and our confidence is up and guys are eager to make plays."
* Later, when we were with Fitzgerald, we asked if the confidence Colter had mentioned was evident, and that led to another of our intermittent exchanges that give a glimpse into his philosophy and his program. "Absolutely. There's no question, and I like the quietness about it, and I like the humility about it," he began. "But we step (between) the white lines, we think we're pretty good. This group has worked everyday, and I think they've played their tails off in every game. I haven't walked into the locker room after any game and been like, 'We left something out there.' So. I think this group, especially the seniors and then kind of going back to the guys who are a little bit older, they've learned a lot. They've had great leaders before them, they've seen some areas where maybe we haven't gotten it done, and they've kind of filled in those gaps through their experiences. I think they've done a terrific job of leading the younger players. All those things are very encouraging for right now, the micro, but I think even more so for the big picture. That legacy that I think they're going to leave is something that's really, really strong, and really exciting. Still, at the end of the day, there's a lot of work that goes into this one."
When he says big picture, we wonder now, is he talking about building a program, not just a team?
"Yeah. Yeah," he replied. "You and I have been around each other now for a while doing this, and I told you back in year one that we're not looking for just this year. This is a long-term approach. In college football now, that's getting increasingly more difficult. You see so many coaches, a few more dollars are thrown at them, and all of a sudden they jump ship. Well, that's not what we're doing here. The same thing with our assistant coaches. Our support from the administration has been phenomenal. We've got, of the three goals that we have, we have two in place. Obviously, we've got the academic component in place, being No. 1 in the country, and we believe we're number one in developing young men and preparing them for life when they're done with football. And I think we're knocking on the door of being champions, and our first chance to be champions is this game. That's a huge catalyst for that confidence you talked about, to take that next step as a program, then finish up a recruiting class we feel very strongly about on paper, and then keep the steps going. I feel very encouraged by where the program's at."
* It is not much discussed since the focus, of course, is on the upcoming game. But the extra practices that come with a bowl appearance are a welcome perk for any coach, who will use many of them to develop younger players (true freshmen and redshirt freshmen and sophomores). Fitzgerald, in fact, said that he has had seven developmental practices and then added, "That's half of a spring practice. You get that, that's huge, especially in our game with the NCAA rules. We don't get, basically between the end of the (bowl) game and spring practice, we don't get to have a football in anything we do. So for (third-string quarterback) Zack (Oliver) and the young receivers and our DBs to be able to go do one-on-ones and be coached on technique and fundamental, and for our O-line and our D-line to be able to be in pads for seven more practices, it's critically important. You want to stay healthy, and we have. But we got a lot of work done, a lot of reps, probably 300-plus reps for those young guys."
Any of those young guys jump out?
"I really like the group as a whole. I like that O-line a lot. I think that group has a bright future ahead of them. A young man on the defensive line that's jumped out at me is (redshirt freshman) C.J. Robbins. I like the improvement he's made coming off of injury. Still not quite there yet, but I think the future's very bright for him. In the linebacking group, (true freshman) Jaylen Prater to me has been really solid throughout. In the secondary, (true freshmen) Terrence Brown and Dwight White have had really good bowl prep along with Mike McHugh (another true freshman). Steven Buckley and Malin Jones (two more true freshmen) in the backfield. I'm missing a few guys, but I think the whole group is solid. I think we got what we thought we would get in recruiting."
* And finally, a snapshot of one of the great oxymorons, a working vacation: Colter was hoping to fly home to Denver Thursday afternoon and -- if he got out -- he would not be alone. He would be accompanied by a laptop filled with Mississippi State film that he would study each day. "We've seen it and you don't want to overcrowd your mind with that stuff. But you definitely want to keep it in there and keep thinking about it," he said. He would also have a plan given to him and all the 'Cats by the strength-and-conditioning coaches and, once home, he would find time to throw with old friends or maybe his dad (a member of Colorado's 1990 championship team). "My dad's always up for throwing or going to lift," he said with a smile. "I might even just go play some basketball to get my blood flowing.
"We all want to take a little break away from football and kind of just enjoy the holiday season and be with family. We all haven't been home probably since the summer. So it's been a long time and you want to spend time with your family. But, at the same time, you can't let anything slip. This bowl game is really important to all of us, so we definitely have to keep our bodies right. We all want this bowl game for Christmas. That's the most important thing."