It’s mid-August, and the Colorado Buffaloes have entered the second week of Fall Camp under new head coach Mel Tucker. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson is starting to install the fun part of his “menu” as he calls it.
On this day, Johnson has a new play for the Buffs, one that he’s quite fond of. A play by the name of “Flea.”
“We shorten it, we leave out the flicker and call it ‘Flea,'” he says.
It’s classic football trickeration with a few wrinkles to freshen it up, including some eye candy at the line from the quarterback, and some inside motion from the primary receiver.
With the play in, Johnson decides to take it for a test drive.
Motion. Snap. Handoff. Toss back. Throw.
“Yes sirrrrr,” says primary receiver K.D. Nixon.
“It worked the majority of the time,” he adds.
Over the coming weeks, Johnson dials up the play on a near-daily basis “to keep it up and live and ready to go at any time,” as he says, sharpening a sword he knows could be a game-changer for him at some point this season.
“We practiced it over and over and over again,” says running back Alex Fontenot.
Johnson knew he had something good, what he didn’t know, though, was that this play would eventually become a three-word phrase that would live forever in Colorado Buffaloes folklore.
This is the story of “The Flea-Flicker,” as told by those who made it happen.
After nearly a decade, the hated Nebraska Cornhuskers have returned to Colorado, and they’ve helped draw the biggest crowd at Folsom Field in years. The Husker Faithful have promised to come in droves, and they’ve followed through.
As kickoff nears, red stains the stands like blood on a perfect white shirt. The hate in the air is palpable.
Jay Johnson: I’m trying to look for a specific presentation from the defense. In the first drive of the game, we were in the same formation and they gave us a formidable presentation.
With 13:01 to go in the first quarter, Colorado comes out in 12 personnel. The Nebraska defense counters with a Quarters defense, and both safeties within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. As quarterback Steven Montez hands the ball off to running back Jaren Mangham, both safeties crash toward the play. Johnson files it away.
Unfortunately for the Colorado OC, that tidbit is about the only good thing that comes out of the first half of the game for the offense.
As the teams head in for halftime, the Buffaloes trail 17-0. The red is loud.
With the clock ticking down in the third quarter, Colorado still has a big, fat bagel on the scoreboard. Facing 2nd-and-15 on their own 32, the Buffs are once again staring at a drive ending in their own territory.
Johnson: I thought that was really the start of the momentum change. K.D. broke a tackle on a 2nd-and-15 and ended up getting it and we ended up scoring… I really felt K.D. started it.
Quarterback Steven Montez: He caught a hitch and kind of outran the safety and the ‘backer and got like 20 yards. That was really where the momentum started to shift a little bit.
Running back Alex Fontenot: You could definitely feel the momentum shift on that drive.
Mark Johnson (play-by-play)
Slot-right formation. Handoff to Jaren Mangham, runs off the right side, turns the corner at the 5-yard line, steps out of a tackle! And into the end zone goes the freshman!
It’s the start of the fourth quarter in a 17-7 game, and after the Cornhuskers move the ball out to midfield, the Buffaloes defense is able to hold, forcing a punt and ticking the momentum one more notch in their favor.
Unfortunately, Huskers’ punter Issac Armstrong hits a perfect ball, sailing over the head of Nixon and stopping pefectly on the 4-yard line.
As the Buffaloes come out of a TV timeout and head from the sideline to the field, Johson takes his opportunity. Despite being pinned deep, it’s time.
Johnson: When we put it in, we didn’t really give it qualifications of where we would call it from, but we felt collectively as a staff that was a good time to call it. Some of the guys had mentioned it and I had thought it so we decided to go do it… I was comfortable with it either way because we gave Steven some directions. If we didn’t have the right look, he could get us into something different and I had all the confidence in him that he’d do that.
Montez: Right when we called it, I was just kind of like, “Man, I don’t know if this is the call we need right now.” … If the middle was closed, if they were in a single-high look, they were manned up, it would not have been a good play call and I would have probably went Zone Away.
Fontenot: I was, like, really worried [laughs]. When we called it, I was like overthinking everything, “Don’t get tackled, don’t toss the ball off target.”
Montez: I was thinking, “anything but a safety.” I was thinking, “Oh man, if this doesn’t work out and they actually cover it, I gotta get out of the pocket and throw it away, because you can’t take a safety there. We were down 17-7 so that was the No. 1 thing on my mind: “Alright, we’re going to be three yards deep in the end zone when we catch this. Don’t take a safety.”
Johnson: Don’t overthrow it, make sure it’s caught. I always tell those guys they’ve gotta give the receivers a chance to make plays. It’s gotta touch their hands somehow, someway.
Nixon: I was hype, man. I was ready. I knew my time had come. As soon as we called the play, I knew I was about to get it. I knew all I had to do was do my job, the same thing I do in practice.
Montez: We walked out on the field and got under center and I saw what coverage they were in. They were in Low Quarters, which is exactly what you want for that play. The safeties were expecting run, which I mean, why wouldn’t they? We were on the 4-yard line. Right when I saw them in quarters, I was like, “Oh my God, this is going to be a touchdown.” I was like, “This is going to be a touchdown with how low these safeties are sitting.” The safeties were sitting at like eight yards.
Fontenot: Right when we got to the line, my mind cleared.
Montez walks up the the line and points at No. 31, Nebraska Linebacker Colin Miller.
Johnson: That’s part of the design, we have to do that to be able to run the play effectively.
Montez: That’s all just eye candy for the defense. If we start pointing at backers and stuff, in their minds, they’re thinking that we’re pointing them out to go block them.
14:46 to play in the fourth, 17-7, Nebraska. Montez under center, tight end Jalen Harris to the right. The one running back is Fontenot.
Montez: I went up to the line, brought K.D. in, snapped the ball, handed it off to Alex… K.D. did a fantastic job selling it.
Nixon: As soon and we handed the ball off, he did it. The safety did his job. All I had to do was my job. Count it, one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two. Once I do that, I’m just being me.
Montez: He came up, sold the block, and slipped him. I think even the corner was peeking in the backfield for a run and he kind of bit, too… Right when I handed off to Alex, he did a good job. Two steps, toss it back to me, snapped his head back around to get a block.
Fontenot: Right when the toss left my hands, I knew it was perfect. I just had to keep doing my job. I got my head around and laid a block on 79 [Darrion Daniels]. He was about to come free.
Montez: I was looking for the ball and right when I caught it I looked up and there was nobody in the secondary. All I saw was just K.D. running and I was like, “Oh man, I gotta get this up quick.” One of the safeties bit down so hard on the run fake, that he ended up getting in a gap and he was trying to get a safety basically… He pitched it back to me and I just let it fly.
It’s the flea-flicker.
Set to throw, Montez. Downfield is K.D. Nixon!
Nixon: When the ball was in the air, all I could hear is “Ahhhhh” and I knew it was time to go score… It’s game time. I’ve been wanting this all game. I’m not thinking about the corner, I’m thinking about the ball. Once he threw the ball, it was time to make a play. That’s all that’s going through my mind. I’m trying to go score.
Montez: Whenever we throw a deep ball, something just clicks in my head when I just know it’s going to connect and I put my hands up before the ball even gets there, just because I know… Right when the ball left my hand, I knew something good was going to happen for us.
Johnson: I didn’t know. I knew we had a good chance but didn’t know for sure.
Nixon: I’m not worried about what the defender is trying to do, if he’s going to tackle me, I’m not worried about that. This is my ball and nobody is going to take it from me. It was me and No. 5, that’s it. There was nobody else. Nobody else is running after me, it was just me and him.
He makes the grab at the 45!
Fontenot: He caught it and the whole stadium went crazy.
He gets away from the defender!
Fontenot: When he broke the tackle and kept running, it got twice as loud.
Montez: K.D. made a great play veering off and making that corner miss.
Nixon: Once I got him off my back, I just said, “Hey, let’s go.” I’m talking to my self like, “I got the ball in my hands, I got the ball in my hands. Go score. Go score. Go score.”
K! D! At the 15, the 10, the fivvveee…
Touchdown! Touchdown, Colorado!
Nixon: [Long pause] Then I handed the ball to the ref.
Holy cow what a play!
Let me hear you, Buffs fans!
Montez: Folsom was freaking going nuts, all the red in the stadium was just dead silent… It was crazy because I looked up into the crowd and everyone was just jumping up and down and it looked like a bunch of waves. It was a crazy moment.
Nixon: The sideline after a touchdown is always going to be a vibe, but that play did make a big shift in the momentum. Especially in the crowd.
Montez: I’m almost positive we got a sideline warning on that play just because everybody was so amped up.
Nixon: I feel like that’s why we came to Colorado, because we are playmakers… We’re here to be big playmakers.
Montez: It was just such a gutsy play call by Coach Johnson. I give him all the credit in the world. Excuse my language but you’ve just gotta have balls of steel to go out there and call a flea-flicker from your own 4-yard line.
Montez: The momentum felt like it was all on their side and then we ran that play and it just shifted.
The energy Colorado derived from the play was like a forcefield. Not even a quick-strike touchdown from Nebraska could cut in to the offense’s confidence.
After starting the game with six punts and a fumble on offense, the Buffaloes — including the trick play — finished the final 17:24 of regulation with six consecutive scoring drives, including four touchdowns, to force overtime.
In the extra period, Colorado made it seven-straight scoring drives with a field goal to open things up, setting the stage for another incredible moment.
It’s spotted at the 39, a 49-yard field goal by Issac Armstrong. Snap. Put down. Kick is up. It’s on it’s way… And it is no good! The Buffs win! The Red turn blue! And the Black & Gold have knocked off the Huskers for the second year in a row! You’ve gotta be kidding me!
Every fan base has those moments. Moments so iconic, so impactful that they get a name. A name that needs no introduction and no explanation. A name that lives in perpetuity.
For the Colorado Buffaloes, there was The Miracle at Michigan, 62-36 and Hagan to Flannigan.
On September 7, 2019, a new member of the family was born.
“It was definitely one of those plays that just leaves a lasting imprint on the mind,” said Montez. “One of those plays that will just live on.”
Here’s to “The Flea-Flicker.”