BOULDER, Colo. — A sweat-drenched Steven Montez came off the field just moments after the first summer practice of his final year in school, a college journey that started in 2015 and has taken some serious twists along the way.
But the Colorado quarterback wasn’t ready to move on to his next challenge, despite the Buffaloes’ back-to-back five-win seasons and seven straight losses in 2018 after a 5-0 start. That led to the firing of head coach Mike MacIntyre, along with much of his staff.
As a freshman, Montez was thrown into the thick of a Pac-12 title race, even torching Oregon that year. Now, entering his redshirt senior season, he’s plateaued as a passer and is restarting with a new coaching staff and low expectations — both for him and the team.
New Buffaloes head coach Mel Tucker’s mission, he said, was to make his team much better conditioned and more fundamentally sound after Colorado finished last season 100th in turnover margin and 102nd in penalties committed. But he’s also trying to get his team more mentally tough.
As the perspiration dried and his quick breaths slowed, Montez tapped into a little salt and vinegar in his veins when asked about the outward projection of his team this season.
“I think everyone picked us dead last in the Pac-12, which is … whatever,” Montez said in early August. “They pick us last every year. I don’t give a [care] about that. What are we going to do? Are we just going to live up to their expectations? Or are we going to do something about it?”
Montez also decided to do something about his own game this summer. After hearing the NFL’s return-to-school suggestion when Montez was exploring his options following the 2018 season, he said he was fine with hearing the painful truth about his own projection rather receiving bad information that could have led to a poor choice.
So even though Montez is now on his third QB coach in three years — with Jay Johnson replacing Kurt Roper, who earned Montez’s trust. But the 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback knew he had unfinished business and plenty to clean up if he wants to realize his eventual goal of making it to the NFL.
And it all starts, Montez says, with his feet.
How Steven Montez’s feet can help his golden arm
Blessed with a terrific frame and very good athleticism, Montez checks one key box. He also has extensive experience, having started 27 college games. And Montez isn’t shy about his arm talent, either.
“I’ve got, I believe, one of the strongest arms in the nation,” he said, and Montez might not be wrong about that.
But without proper foot discipline, fundamentals, balance and weight transfer, a lot of that natural ability has been undercut. Although Montez was named honorable mention All-Pac-12 following his sophomore season, he was benched briefly in 2017 and didn’t show noticeable improvement last season, albeit with a slightly higher completion percentage.
Right now, his draft stock is highly volatile. While some scouts can’t help but get excited about his physical traits, others are stuck on his noticeable flaws and wonder about his true upside. The path to determining Montez’s 2020 draft stock starts Friday night in a game against Colorado State at Broncos Stadium at Mile High.
Montez’s biggest mistakes the past few years have come on plays when he’s tried to do too much, throwing his feet out of whack, which often led to wild throws and missed opportunities.
“At times last season, it was just atrocious,” Montez said. “Bailing out of the pocket when I didn’t need to. Seeing color flash and nobody was really getting beat. That’s been a major key for me: just keeping my feet underneath me and not getting real antsy to leave the pocket.
“I know I can create plays outside the pocket, but you don’t always need to do that and make it that difficult.”
Tucker and his staff, especially Johnson (who once started over Kurt Warner at QB at Northern Iowa), have placed an emphasis on fixing Montez’s feet so that they can take better advantage of that arm. They’ve also harped on better understanding fronts, coverages and blitz packages, as well as absorbing a new scheme that Montez said would be “noticeably different” from what the former staff ran.
“Just imagine if I get my feet right, I continue to gain knowledge of the game and I just consistently get better at all the little things,” he said. “How much better could I be? That’s pretty much what I think about every day.”
But Montez has also tried to focus on getting his head right.
Getting his mind and body right
Montez admitted he thought about moving on briefly following last season, but that the feeling quickly dissipated once the NFL evaluation came in and when he knew departing would leave his legacy largely incomplete at Colorado.
“I thought we had unfinished business here,” he said. “I am back to try to win a lot of games, win a bowl game and do the best I can in my last shot here.”
Had Montez faced the adversity of the past two seasons earlier in his career, he said he “probably would have checked out.” Redshirting one year and sitting for another behind his predecessor, Sefo Liufau, allowed Montez to gain the proper perspective.
“I was not mentally tough enough back then,” he said. “In high school, we didn’t lose to much. If we did, it was in the third round of the playoffs or something.
“In college when you lose games, it’s such a big thing. You have to learn how to lose, I think, and that can help you prevent it next time. You can ask, ‘Why me?’ all you want. You can feel sorry for yourself. But the more productive thing is to take those losses and do something with them. Take the information and make it a learning experience.”
He’s made changes. Montez first started working on himself, cleaning up his diet the past few years after ballooning up to 248 pounds.
“I’ve been eating out a little bit more, but trying to stay away from pizza,” he said. “Trying to stay away from a ton of soda and stuff. Trying to drink a lot of water, get some low-sugar drinks in me.
“Basically, I’m just trying not to blow up again.”
He’s also tried to sharpen his football acumen and get it to an NFL level. Tucker certainly is helping in that regard, having coordinated defenses for seven NFL seasons.
“Just gaining knowledge of defenses, knowledge of fronts, Steeler pressures,” he said, “whatever we’re learning and whatever opponents are doing, I want to know as much as I can. Coach Tucker, the other coaches, they’re throwing a lot at me.
“I just want to feel more prepared.”
Said Tucker: “We’re explaining to him why it’s going to help and why it’s important. He’s a really smart kid and a coachable guy. We give him the information, and he appreciates it. He’s going to take it and apply it to the field.”
— Scout Kelley (@ScoutKelley) October 6, 2018
Montez also said he’s tried his best to turn negatives — bad plays, bad practices, bad games — and use them as positively as possible. That includes outwardly showing more leadership and encouraging his teammates to follow his lead.
“I’m not quitting when things get hard,” he said. “But that just does something to you mentally. At some point you look yourself in the mirror and ask, do I really want to do this? Am I really going to take the time to put in the work and get better?”
A half-dozen Colorado players entered the transfer portal this spring, but the vast majority stuck around. Montez is happy he has a core of “hungry guys” he can lead who have tasted that disappointment but are back to change things.
“A lot of the guys [took the same approach] and came up with the same answer,” he said. “Hell yeah, we want to get back out there. Hell yeah, I want another shot at this. We want to win games. Badly. That’s why we’re back.”
Montez has a clear-cut No. 1 receiver in Laviska Shenault, one of the best wideouts in the country and a possible 2020 first-rounder. The new offense, we believe, will include pistol and shotgun formations and a concentration on play-action passing that could generate some big plays. The offensive line is bigger and deeper than last season, and the backfield might be in better shape than anticipated.
Montez believes Tucker’s toughness will help everyone and likes the offensive changes. He’s also on the radar of the Senior Bowl, giving him ample opportunities to boost his stock over the next nine months before the 2020 NFL draft.
“I’ve just got to go do it,” Montez said, “and I believe we’ve got the coaches and players to get it done.”
More from Yahoo Sports: