ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Vance Joseph and Eric Bieniemy have experienced University of Colorado football at its greatest heights. They were both a part of the team — Bieniemy, the star senior running back; Joseph, a freshman backup quarterback — that won a split national championship along with Georgia Tech in 1990. They were both young assistants on the Colorado coaching staff in 2001, a banner year that saw the Buffaloes crush rival Nebraska, 62-36, and then beat Texas to win the Big 12 championship.
They know what it feels like when Boulder has that bounce.
That’s why the two NFL coordinators are thrilled with the environment Deion Sanders has created during his first season as the head coach of the Buffaloes. An astonishingly rapid turnaround has CU (2-0 with in-state foe Colorado State on deck Saturday night) crashing the polls and turning into arguably the biggest story in football — if not all of sports. ESPN’s College GameDay will be on campus Saturday. So will Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff show, which has followed the Buffs for each of their first three games.
“Very happy, very proud, and looking forward to all the things that I know they will accomplish this year,” said Bieniemy, whose three stints as a player or coach at Colorado included a stretch as the school’s offensive coordinator in 2011 and 2012. “I’m happy for the things that have taken place down in Boulder.”
Deion Sanders can add Jay Norvell to his list of detractors.
The Colorado State coach criticized Sanders’ proclivity for appearing in news conferences wearing a hat and sunglasses.@davidubben on the motivation for the Buffaloes.https://t.co/A2ViSfd8kV
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) September 14, 2023
“It’s been fun, man,” Joseph added. “It’s been a long time since they won up in Boulder. The excitement from the spring game until now has been fun for all of us. Obviously, Prime has done a great job of making the program relevant, but now it’s right. He’s winning games. The quarterback (Shadeur Sanders) is a special player. What (two-way star Travis) Hunter is doing is special.”
It is against the backdrop of their alma mater’s revival that Joseph and Bieniemy will meet as opposing coordinators on Sunday afternoon when the Broncos host the Commanders in a Week 2 matchup — Joseph as the architect of Denver’s defense and Bienemy as Washington’s first-year offensive play-caller. This will be the fourth time the two former college teammates and longtime friends will face each other when both are in the role of coordinator or head coach in the NFL. Bieniemy’s teams have won all three of those matchups — two as the offensive coordinator of the Chiefs in 2018 against the Joseph-coached Broncos; one with the Chiefs against the Cardinals defense called by Joseph last season.
“I know we’ve had the best of him for a few years now,” Bieniemy said with a grin Thursday while talking to reporters at the Commanders’ facility in Ashburn, Va., “so I know he’s licking his chops.”
Joseph and Bieniemy both had a lengthy list of fixes to make stemming from their team’s season-opening performances. For Joseph’s Denver defense, the issues included a lack of disruptive pass rush (13.8 percent pressure rate, lowest of Week 1), red-zone miscommunications (two short touchdown passes allowed to Jakobi Myers) and frequent penalties (a league-high six defensive infractions for 58 yards).
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Bieniemy this week has grappled with the challenge of providing better protection for his second-year quarterback, Sam Howell, who was sacked six times by the Arizona Cardinals defense in the opener and threw an interception under duress in the second quarter. Howell also fumbled while getting sacked at the end of the second quarter. Arizona recovered the ball and returned it for a touchdown. There were aspects of Howell’s second NFL start, though, that left Bieniemy encouraged. Like how the quarterback found daylight on a six-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to give the Commanders the lead and how he generally responded to the mistakes he and the offense made throughout the game.
The bottom line is Howell is still going through many of the things he is seeing on an NFL field for the first time. Mistakes are simply a part of the baked-in calculus at this stage of his development. Bieniemy is no longer coaching two-time MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes and he knows Washington’s opponents are trying to prey on Howell’s inexperience. That will be especially true of Joseph, his old teammate believes.
“I know VJ and I’m not going to say I know his entire defensive scheme, but he has a heck of a scheme,” Bieniemy said. “The thing I know about VJ, because VJ played in the secondary (Joseph moved from QB in college to defensive back in the NFL), he’s always going to give a quarterback, especially a young quarterback, an unscouted look to where he can cause confusion. So our job is to make sure each and every week that we’re preparing our guys for all those unscouted looks, always expect the unexpected, apply your rules and go play.”
Bieniemy said it was Joseph who “inspired me” to get into coaching back in 2000. At the time, Joseph was a graduate assistant at CU. Bieniemy spent a year as an assistant coach at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver before joining Joseph on former head coach Gary Barnett’s staff in Boulder the following year. Joseph reached the NFL first, hired by the San Francisco 49ers as an assistant defensive backs coach in 2005. Bieniemy was in the league one year later as the running backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings. Joseph worked his way from there into a head-coaching opportunity with the Broncos, which lasted the 2017 and 2018 seasons before he was fired and replaced by Vic Fangio. After four years with the Cardinals, Joseph returned to Denver in February as Sean Payton’s new defensive coordinator, once again setting him up to cross paths with Bieniemy.
“He’s always had that leadership quality about him,” Bieniemy said of Joseph. “He played quarterback. He was a backup that whole entire time, but he was one of the smartest players on our team as a freshman. And obviously it, you know, it led to him playing a few years in the NFL. But on top of that, when I was thinking about getting the coaching, he was already involved in coaching and he kind of inspired me. VJ is a well-versed individual who has accomplished a lot. And the thing that I love about him, first and foremost, he has not changed. Second of all, he continues to grow in this industry. And, and third of all, he has a way about himself that keeps himself around because when jobs are coming available, he’s always one name that’s always discussed.”
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Though they are opposing coaches this week, Bieniemy suggested this week the two may catch up briefly on Saturday night. If they do meet, one of the topics of conversation will be obvious: the revival of the program so dear to both coaches. Life as an NFL coach doesn’t feature ample pockets of free time, but Bieniemy and Joseph have followed the job Sanders has done with Colorado as closely as possible. Bieniemy joined a group of alums in the Washington D.C. area on Sept. 2, cheering along as Sanders and the Buffaloes stunned TCU. He said he’ll watch the matchup with Colorado State from his hotel room Saturday night as goes over final preparations for Sunday’s game against the Broncos.
“It’s back to what it used to be a long time ago,” Joseph said of the Prime-led Buffs. “It’s exciting for all of us to see what’s happening.”
(Top photos of Vance Joseph and Eric Bieniemy at Colorado: Tim DeFrisco / Getty Images)
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