Two-Man Race at QB

Nelson, left, and Hawkins/BSN

When a team goes 2-10 and a passing game manages just 1,422 yards — its lowest output since Ronald Reagan was president — much remains uncertain heading into the following season. But this much we know about the CU offense in 2007: It will feature a new starting quarterback.

With four players on the track, it's a two-man race to be Colorado's quarterback this fall. Last year's starter, Bernard Jackson, returns for his senior season. But in case you haven't heard, he won't be under center in September. Except in certain situations.

After playing with a lot of heart, and providing a spark to the offense at times in 2006, Jackson will play a multitude of roles in 2007. He'll line up at tailback, spread out at wide receiver, take turns returning kicks. He may even get a shot at playing some safety. And, occasionally, he'll take the snap from the line of scrimmage.

Jackson was the team's most effective offensive weapon last fall. Take away yards he lost in sacks and Jackson rushed for 832 yards and seven touchdowns. He threw for 1,298 yards as well. But the CU offense should fare better with either Cody Hawkins or Nick Nelson as its full-time QB, as both players are better suited to run the system CU coaches have been installing over the past 12 months. To use the basketball analogy, Hawkins and Nelson are better suited to play point guard and distribute the ball, while Jackson can be most effective as a scoring guard.

CU opens practice the first week of August. Exactly when offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich names the starting quarterback remains up in the air.

"Ideally the faster the better," Helfrich told BSN recently.

But, the coach added, he will take as much time as needed to make the decision.

"That's something that has to play its course," he said. "You can't force that. If you force it, then half the team is thinking, ‘What are you talking about?' That's a very visible thing. Those (quarterbacks) have to decide it.

"We'd like a great competition and have one guy step up and take the reins. It usually works out that way."

Hawkins soaked up the offense last fall during a redshirt campaign. He came out of spring ball a little ahead of Nelson, who showed up in January from Saddleback Community College in southern California.

Look for the situation to be settled no later than Aug. 18, two weeks before Game 1, and the time coaches begin implementing the game plan for Colorado State.

In Hawkins, the Buffs have a kid with leadership abilities beyond his years. He's got a strong grasp of the offense — not only his job, but usually what the other 10 players are supposed to be doing on any given play. Much like his father, head coach Dan Hawkins, Cody combines a relentlessly positive approach with a fire to win. He's got decent arm strength and good accuracy. Hawkins' has put on several pounds, as well, which should help him through the punishment a Big 12 schedule can deliver if he ends up the starter.

Nelson presents a more reserved face, but he's just as competitive as Hawkins. He spent the summer in the playbook and working out with the team. Don't count him out.

Whichever player ends up the starter, it's easy to imagine there will be improvements in the passing game over last year. Both Hawkins and Nelson are heady players. The CU offense went much further into the passing game playbook in the spring than they had the previous fall. In fact, the offense moved the ball better through the air against the defense this past spring than they have in any spring in recent memory.

It will be interesting to see how Jackson fits in. His role is likely to change from week to week. And just to keep defenses guessing — look for Jackson to pass the ball from time to time, wherever he lines up.

"There'll be times that he'll be a decoy, times he'll be the guy," Dan Hawkins said. "‘(Some might say) if he's a quarterback, it's a running play.' Well, maybe not. Bernard's got a good arm, he can throw the football."

Finally, this will be a crucial camp and season for true freshman Matt Ballenger. At 6-5, 230 pounds, and with better-than-you-think mobility, the former two-sport high school star (basketball/football) has the opportunity to dive into the playbook during a redshirt year.

The Roster
Matt Ballenger, Fr., 6-5, 230
Cody Hawkins, R-Fr., 5-11, 190
Bernard Jackson, Sr., 6-0, 200
Nick Nelson, Jr., 6-1, 225

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