BOULDER, Colo. — Four weeks ago, cornerback was a four-letter word in the University of Colorado football camp, an abyss that new coach Jon Embree has filled with rookies, converted safeties and nickel backs with bad knees.
As the Embree Era kicks off at 8:15 Saturday night, CU must find answers to its biggest question while playing against the most prolific passer in the game.
It sounds like a pilot for a bad comedy. Saturday night’s Colorado-Hawaii game is on national TV, and after three weeks of trial and a decreasing number of errors, Embree has seen enough to feel ESPN2 won’t show anything funny.
"I have a lot of confidence in them," Embree said. "I believe a lot in this team. I believe a lot in these players."
Unfortunately, he also believes a lot in Bryant Moniz. He’s the Hawaii quarterback who lit up Colorado’s secondary last September for 330 yards on his way to throwing for 5,040 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2010.
Hawaii lost 31-13, but Colorado’s cornerbacks were Jimmy Smith, a first-round draft pick, and Jalil Brown, a fourth-rounder.
Moniz goes against senior Travis Sandersfeld, a converted safety starting his first game at cornerback, and Greg Henderson, a true freshman whose last game was with Norco High in Corona, Calif.
The choices became clearer as camp wore on. Sandersfeld is a veteran. He has played in 15 games over three years on special teams, safety and nickel back, and his savvy earned him the job.
"Part of being a good player is knowing what you can’t do and not put yourself in that position," Embree said. "Travis does a very good job of that. He does a very good job of using angles. He has good ball awareness. He’s a physical player."
Henderson has continued to make big plays in practice against Colorado’s best receivers, Paul Richardson and Toney Clemons. Hawaii’s lone significant returnee at receiver is Royce Pollard (64 catches, 901 yards, seven TDs in 2010), but with Hawaii’s manic run-and-shoot offense, Moniz could top 400 yards a game throwing to surfers.
Without spelling doom, Embree has cushioned the blow to his young corners.
"I’ve had a little talk with Greg Henderson, and I already told him, in case he didn’t know, the quarterback’s going to complete some passes on him," Embree said. "He may complete a couple of touchdowns on him. Don’t worry about it. You can’t get caught up in the situation and the circumstances. You can’t let it become bigger than you."
Henderson, ranked as the No. 10 corner in California last year, got the message. He didn’t need one. He watches TV. He sees Darrelle Revis and Champ Bailey get beaten occasionally.
"I have a lot of confidence because I know the playbook, and once you know that, you can be more comfortable on the field," Henderson said. "Just preparation gives you more confidence as well."
The trick is what new defensive coordinator Greg Brown, a former secondary coach, can do. The Warriors have no tape on Colorado’s defense, giving it a slight edge.
The Buffaloes must get a fierce pass rush. Hawaii gave up 40 sacks last year and has a whole new line. But Moniz often releases passes before a defensive end gets within an area code of him.
"No question, it’s to our advantage to change things up," Brown said. "Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith don’t play here anymore. So let’s get some help when we can help and let the chips fall as they may."
One problem: Moniz is a third-year starter who knows he’s throwing against rookie cornerbacks.
"Being creative, unless we’re going to get 12 guys on the field, we’re not going to show him anything he hasn’t seen," Embree said. "What we have to do and what I’ve been impressing on the defensive side is we have to do a good job of tackling."
Sandersfeld and Henderson will play on a very small island tonight. And we’re not talking about Oahu.