Playing quarterback is in the Pac-12 is never easy. On the West Coast, a lot is expected out of the position. It's not typically about simple game management. It's not about handing the ball off, getting out of the way and leaning on your defense.
Playing quarterback in the Pac-12 as a true freshman is even more difficult. And, finally, playing quarterback in the Pac-12 for a team that is outmanned most Saturdays is most challenging.
That was the situation for Colorado QB Sefo Liufau last fall. He came off the bench against a rugged Arizona State team in Week 6, replacing a struggling Connor Wood and was the Buffaloes' starter thereafter. He took plenty of lumps from Pac-12 defenses, which eagerly schemed with the express purpose of stressing out the youngster.
It certainly was a bit more difficult than things had been at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash., just a year before.
"I would say it was pretty overwhelming," Liufau admitted. "The whole experience is a a lot different from high school. But as the season progressed, things seemed to slow down and become a lot more natural to me."
When the smoke cleared, the numbers weren't too shabby. He completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,779 yards -- 222.4 yards per game -- with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. While he didn't see enough action to rate on the Pac-12's official statistics, his pass efficiency rating of 128.3 would have ranked ninth in the conference, ahead of Arizona's B.J. Denker, Washington State's Connor Halliday and California's Jared Goff, a fellow freshman.
With Liufau at the controls, the Buffs improved from 1-11 and woebegone in 2012 -- arguably the nation's worst AQ conference team -- to 4-8 and fairly competitive. They weren't throwing a parade in his honor in Boulder, but Liufau's potential upside hinted that it was not unreasonable for Colorado fans to again be hopeful.
While Liufau felt he progressed steadily throughout the season, he also knows there were plenty of missed plays, missed opportunities and what-might-have-been moments that revealed themselves in the postgame film room.
"Key moments in the game, me trying to come up with a big play -- there were a couple of games when I felt like I let the team down, either by making a bad read or throwing an interception at a costly time," he said. "Turnovers were the main things for me."
The good news is the 6-foot-4, 215 pound signal-caller will be bigger, stronger, smarter and more experienced heading into spring practices on March 7. The same will be true for his team, which has been one of the youngest in the conference the past two seasons.
The bad news is dynamic receiver Paul Richardson is off to the NFL. Richardson accounted for 1,343 of the Buffaloes 2,989 receiving yards and 10 of the Buffs 21 TD passes. He will be missed, and one of the chief tasks on offense this spring is discovering playmakers to make up for his departed production.
"We can't place the burden of replacing Paul on one guy's shoulders," Liufau said.
Colorado's next three leading receivers from 2012 are back in Nelson Spruce (650 yards), D.D. Goodson (262 yards) and Tyler McCulloch (138 yards). Liufau said he believes true sophomore Devin Ross, who caught six passes a year ago, and redshirt freshman Brice Bobo are ready to step up.
It will be interesting to see how the screws tighten this spring as Colorado tries to rise in the tough South Division. Last fall, coach Mike MacIntyre was in the getting-to-know you phase with a team that didn't have much confidence. He was more focused on bucking guys up than challenging them with tough love. That approach held true during the season. Mostly.
"There were definitely times during the season when [MacIntyre] yelled at me during practice, just for little things, [such as] not throwing ball out of bounds during the 2-minute minutes drill," Liufau said.
While MacIntyre is a coach who leans more toward positive reinforcement, one would expect him to be more demanding of his players in Year 2. After all, new athletic director Rick George is on record with expectations for a bowl game.
Liufau is fine with that. He has high expectations, too.
"We expect to win," he said. "We believe we can beat every team we play next year."
Coming from a freshman, that would sound naive. But coming from a second-year starter, it sounds more like a mature competitor who isn't willing to give any ground, no matter what outsiders might think of his team's chances.