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Injuries provide opportunity for CU Buffs’ CJ Schmanski

Walk-on from Monarch High School starting at tight end

BOULDER, CO – November 28, 2020: Colorado tight end C.J. Schmanski looks for yards after catching a pass against San Diego State game at Folsom Field in Boulder on November 28, 2020. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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As a senior at Monarch High School in 2017, C.J. Schmanski was tasked with playing quarterback and running head coach Phil Bravo’s double-wing offense.

Mainly, it required Schmanski to hand the ball off to the running backs, but he also threw 73 passes for 575 yards and two touchdowns and led the Coyotes to the playoffs.

Schmanski wasn’t going to be a quarterback in college, but he still had the drive to play.

Two years after taking the opportunity to walk on at Colorado, Schmanski has been thrown into the starting role at tight end because of numerous injuries at the position.

“Yeah, I feel (the pressure),” he said. “I love the pressure. (Offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini) talks about it all the time; it’s a privilege to have pressure and I feel like I’ve taken that to heart.”

Now a redshirt sophomore, Schmanski had never played in a game at CU until Nov. 14 at Stanford.

Going into that game, CU was already shorthanded at tight end. Three of the five on scholarship – Jared Poplawski, Luke Stillwell and Caleb Fauria – are recovering from injuries, while true freshman Louis Passarello is still developing and not ready to play.

On CU’s fifth offensive snap of the game at Stanford, starter Brady Russell went down with an undisclosed leg injury that still has him sidelined. Later in the game, Russell’s top backup, Matt Lynch, a senior walk-on from Legacy High School, went down.

Suddenly, Schmanski was the No. 1 tight end.

“Obviously, seeing Matt and Brady go down in front of me was tough,” Schmanski said. “After the first couple plays I just realized: it’s just football. It’s just another game playing against another group of 18 to 23 year old dudes, so I’m just going out there and having fun with it, really.”

Last week, Schmanski became just the 10th walk-on to start on offense or defense at CU since 1992. With Russell and Lynch still sidelined, he’s expected to start again when the Buffs (3-0, 2-0 Pac-12) play at Arizona (0-3, 0-3) on Saturday (5:05 p.m., TV: FS-1).

Against San Diego State, Schmanski played 54 offensive snaps and had the first two catches of his career.

“I think I played decent, but there’s definitely stuff I’ve got to work on and keep getting better at,” said Schmanski, whose father, Charlie, was a student at CU. “Overall I feel good. I feel like I’m flying around, still getting comfortable with the offense and everything, but there’s still a lot of work to be done from my end.”

Schmanski is grateful to have Buffs’ tight ends coach Taylor Embree – “the best coach I’ve ever had,” he said – and he leans on Russell and Lynch. (Ironically, Schmanski and Lynch were opposing starting quarterbacks when Monarch and Legacy met in 2015).

“Those guys have been huge,” he said. “They’re still out here every practice, helping me in the meetings. They’re telling me stuff they might have saw that I could have done better or they’re always give me kudos when I’m doing good things out there.”

Making the situation even more interesting is that Schmanski’s top backup is Nico Magri – another walk-on from Monarch. Magri, who is a year older, walked on at CU in 2017 and spent three years as a defensive lineman before being moved to tight end during preseason camp because of injuries. He played six snaps on offense against Stanford and 32 against San Diego State.

“We’ve joked about it a couple of times just thinking about it,” Schmanski said of the unique journey they’ve taken to become CU’s top two tight ends. “It’s been super fun. I’ve known Nico for a while now, so it’s always fun playing with him.”

In 2016, Magri was a starting defensive end at Monarch, while Schmanski lined up behind him at outside linebacker. The last two years, they’ve gone up against each other in practice with the Buffs.

“(At tight end), it seems like the communication is pretty flawless between us,” Schmanski said. “We’re pretty comfortable calling each other out when one of us isn’t up to standard that day or whatever it may be. It’s been a lot of fun. Honestly, it’s pretty funny though (that both are at tight end). I love it.”

Schmanski had about 175-180 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame when he chose to walk on at CU in the fall of 2018. The Buffs’ head coach at the time, Mike MacIntyre, put him at tight end – and it’s paying off now.

“Transitioning to tight end was tough,” said Schmanski, who is now 240 pounds. “My freshman year, I definitely got beat up a little bit, but, I mean, it worked out for me. I’ve gotta give a huge shout out to coach MacIntyre, really, for giving me a shot my freshman year and then the strength staff, as well, for just putting the weight on me.”

With that added weight and the mentorship of Embree and his veteran teammates, Schmanski is enjoying his new role.

“I’m gonna play the best I can,” he said. “I’m going to give this team everything I’ve got.”