Can the Buffs forge together a cohesive starting offensive line?

A year ago, “running downhill” was the mantra. Colorado was fully stocked with young and talented offensive linemen. The Buffs had Rodney “Speedy” Stewart back from a leg injury, Darrell Scott back from a myriad of injuries, Demetrius Sumler to gain the tough yards, and lightening quick Brian Lockridge for the reverses and trick plays. The Colorado rushing offense, ranked 86th in the nation in 2008, was to become just a bad memory. The quarterback and wide receiver positions were unsettled, but a strong rushing game, anchored by two senior tight ends and a bevy of young studs along the line, would hide the Buffs’ shortcomings.

What a difference a year makes.

In 2009, the Colorado rushing game actually went backwards. Darrell Scott disappeared; Rodney Stewart fought off injuries; and Demetrius Sumler and Brian Lockridge failed to pick up the slack. The offensive line started five different combinations, as the Buffs never forged anything remotely close to a successful running game. Instead of “running downhill”, the Buffs sputtered to an 87.9 yards/game average, 113th in the nation.

So what happened?

“Looking back on it a year ago, back then we had no seniors,” second-year offensive line coach Denver Johnson said this week. “We had two juniors, and one of them had never played. And everybody else, they were all freshmen and sophomores with limited playing experience. By any objective measure, we had a very inexperienced offensive line.”

Hmm … I guess Buff fans just got caught up in the hype. It was, after all, the fourth year of the Dan Hawkins’ era, and these were all his recruits.

And now?

“Now, we have a little more playing time, a little more time on the job, some experience under our belt” Johnson said. “We are doing some things very well. We are still developing in other areas. But (experience) just does wonders for us as far as our psyche and our outlook.”

As far as positions, only one player seems assured of a starting spot. Left tackle Nate Solder has started 24 consecutive games for the Buffs, tops amongst the returning players. Solder was named first-team All-Big 12 by the coaches last fall, and will likely be on many All-Big 12 preseason lists for 2010.

The left guard position remains fluid. Junior Ethan Adkins started the first nine games at the position last fall, but is being seriously challenged this spring by newcomer Eric Richter. A junior college transfer from Saddleback College in California, Richter is already well known by his teammates after just three months on campus. “He repped 500 pounds three times on the bench press,” said an impressed Scotty McKnight. “He’s big and strong and physical,” Denver Johnson said. “He’s what we thought he was there. He’s still trying to get all figured out a little bit assignment-wise.” Said Richter, “I’m getting a lot more reps with the twos (instead of the third stringers). A lot of times they’ll ask for ‘Ones, twos, ones, twos, sometimes threes, then ones, twos.’ It’s a lot better being with the twos.” Richter is in the hunt for playing time, along with Adkins, 2008 starter Blake Behrens, and Mike Iltis, who started the last game of 2009 at left guard. “Ethan has improved. Richter is a guy we brought in to compete for that job, and there are a number of other guys competing for it, too,” Johnson said. “Iltis started there the last game of last season, and if we had to play today, he may start there again.”

Speaking of Mike Iltis, the 6’3″ 290-pound junior started the first three games of the 2009 at center, and he may be in the mix to return to that position. Iltis went down with an Achilles tendon before the start of Big 12 conference play, with Keenan Stevens starting the final nine games at center. On the Colorado roster, Stevens, who will be a senior this fall, is the only player whose listed position is center. “Right now, I think (Stevens and Iltis) are pretty interchangeable guys,” offensive line coach Denver Johnson said. “I am going to start working Mike (Iltis) with the ones a little bit. I think we’ve got two centers that are very competent and we could go play with either one of them.”

The right guard position had three players line up as starters in 2009, going from Ryan Miller (the first two games) to Blake Behrens (one game), back to Miller (two games), back to Behrens (one game), to Matt Bahr (three games), and finally back to Miller (for the final three games). Many Buff fans had hoped the musical chairs at right guard would come to an end with the return of Maxwell Tuioti-Mariner, who had started in his second game at the position as a true freshman, before injuries sidelined him for much of the past two seasons. Unfortunately, MTM has not been at full strength, recovering from a series of knee surgeries. Tuioti-Mariner is “terribly behind,” Johnson said. “He has had just so few reps since I’ve been here. I don’t think his knee is back to 100 percent. So it may be the fall before he is really back in the mix.”

The right tackle position is also largely undetermined. Bryce Givens and Ryan Miller split the duty there last fall, and many were hoping that if MTM re-claimed his right guard position, Ryan Miller would be able to make a permanent move back to right tackle. Givens has not been practicing this week (neither has MTM), so Miller might have claimed the job by default if he, too, hadn’t been injured on the first day of spring practice (forearm – he is expected back by August). Translation: neither of the two players who started at right tackle in 2009 were suited up this past week, and the right side of the offensive line remains a mystery.

Confused? You’re not alone. The continuity which might come from having five solid starters in place heading into the fall will likely once again plague the Buffs. For his part, anyway, offensive line coach Denver Johnson is not concerned. “We’re trying to develop other guys and see who, at the end of the spring and really going into the fall, you are just trying to get the best five guys are and get them out there,” Johnson said. “If three of our best five guys are all playing tackle, somebody has to move to guard. If two of our best five guys are playing center, one of those guys has to play guard. If three of our best five guys are playing guard, one of them has to move to tackle. We are just trying to get our five best football players out there.”

Okay, coach Johnson. We get it.

I’m not the one getting paid to do this. It is not my job on the line this fall. But it seems to me that it would behoove the Buffs to stop consider these players as “interchangeable parts”, and get around to picking those best five. With the best five in place, they could settle in to their positions, practice together as a unit, and form a cohesive line which can work together effectively this fall.

But that’s just me …

Defensive line making strides

Just as Denver Johnson and the offensive coaches are in search of the “best five guys”, defensive line coach Romeo Bandison is faced with similar difficulties. “I’ve got some tough decisions to make,” Bandison said. Last spring, the Buffs were looking for any warm body they could find to fill up the defensive line, so you get the feeling that for Bandison, having choices to make this spring is a welcome dilemma.

The Buffs start with a good base of talent. In 2009, the Buffs officially played a 4-3 defense, but started every game with only three down linemen, as pass-happy opponents dominated the schedule. Three players – junior Curtis Cunningham, sophomore Will Pericak, and senior Marquez Herrod – started every game, and all return. Bandison has been pleased with the play of his two tackles, Cunningham and Pericak. Both, Bandison said, have had “solid springs … They look like old veterans. They’re growing up, and starting to get like those last two guys we had (George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas)”.

“Yeah, we’re striving to be the best players we can,” said Cunningham, who is still relatively small (6’1″, 280 pounds) for his position. “We’re going on pretty much another half season (with spring drills) of playing together, trusting each other, and I think those are good things.” Chimed in Pericak, up to 6’4″, 285-pounds, 20 pounds heavier than last spring, “It’s a process … we’re taking little steps and getting the little things right. Eventually, you want to get to be as good as (Hypolite and Nicolas) – even better.” Pericak, who is a converted tight end, still has a tremendous upside. “I feel a ton more comfortable,” Pericak said. “I hadn’t had a spring with the D-line … getting the techniques down and the little things right – the footwork, things like that make a difference in the way you play.”

The third returning starter is defensive end Marques Herrod. A senior this fall, Herrod led the team in sacks in 2009, with six, along with four other tackles-for-loss. Herrod led the team in quarterback pressures, with ten, and was second on the defense in third down stops, with 11.

So, the Buffs have three starters back. All three started all 12 games of 2009.

Story over?

Not quite, and this is why Romeo Bandison is happy to have tough decisions to make. Two other players saw action last fall, and will be competing for playing time in 2010. Junior Eugene Goree, at 310 pounds, tests out as one of the strongest players on the team, but has yet to make his mark on the field, participating in only 91 plays in 2009. “At the end of last season, his work ethic probably quadrupled,” Bandison said. “It was really good to see … I’m excited about that. It’ll translate, there’s no other way it can’t, onto the field … Maybe the lights came on … He walks around with a smile on his face, he comes in and watches film. He’s doing all the things he needs to do to be a good player.”

Another name familiar to Buff fans who has yet to live up to his potential is Conrad Obi. A 6’3″, 290-pound junior, Obi was in for only 23 snaps in 2009. “He’s improving, and as we keep evolving in the defense and tweaking some things, it’s starting to suit him more,” Bandison said of Obi. “He’s still got some things to work on, but he’s gotten to the point where I feel like he’s going to do the right thing all the time, and we can depend on him.”

What should really have Buff fans excited, though, is that, in addition to all of the above returning players, the three highly-rated players from the Class of 2009 are getting ready to have an impact as well. Nick Kasa was the top player in the trio, but saw the least playing time last fall. Kasa tore his MCL during preseason camp on August 17th. After rehab, Kasa made it back to play in four games (47 snaps) before a case of mononucleosis sidelined him for the rest of the season. “I was pretty pissed that I didn’t get my year back, I was hoping for that,” Kasa said. “They said if I had only played in three games I would have gotten it back, but I played in four (he was in for one snap – the last play of the game – against West Virginia), so I guess I was just unlucky.” Kasa is behind senior Marques Herrod at the defensive end position, but is ready to make the impact Colorado fans hoped for when Kasa spurned Florida to stay at home in Colorado. “I am definitely a lot more comfortable with everything right now,” Kasa said. “I have been studying my plays, and know what I need to do so I can just do it as opposed to last year, when I really had to think about it.” Bandison sees Kasa contributing this fall. “He really started to show up right before he got hurt … you could tell he was going to be a good player,” Bandison said. “There are a lot of things you can’t figure out unless you play … but he’s looking good right now. He’ll play a lot and help us.”

The other two freshman from the 2009 recruiting class saw more playing time than Kasa, and also look to contribute this fall. Forrest West saw the most playing time, seeing action in all 12 games, recording 10 tackles in 192 snaps of play. Nate Bonsu was in for fewer plays than West, 184, but was more productive, with 15 tackles. Defensive line coach Romeo Bandison was counting on Bonsu to make great strides this off-season, but the sophomore-to-be underwent off-season knee surgery, and is out until fall. “It’s frustrating, not being out there, because you see how much fun they have,” Bonsu said. “But this is reality. I just need to keep doing everything I can.” For now, Bonsu is optimistic about contributing in 2010. “The rehab, everything, it’s on schedule,” Bonsu said.

Bandison, a year removed from having to explain how he hoped to fill the shoes of George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas with as-yet-to-find-their-way-to-Boulder freshmen, now has a myriad of options. “All my guys have done pretty well. You could tell after last year, with a lot of young guys playing, you can see they’re mature,” Bandison said. “We’ve got good depth and there’s not a lot of drop off in (the backup’s) play. I’ve got some tough decisions to make.”

Compared to the offensive line, which is also searching for the right mix of players, the defensive line seems to be on a better footing. All three starters return, with able backups ready, willing, and apparently able, to challenge for playing time.

This is what spring practice is supposed to be about. Sorting through the roster, finding the right combinations.

It may just be me, but it sounds as if the defensive line is much further down that road than is the offensive line.

We’ll know better come September …

One Reply to “In the Trenches: O-line searching; D-line solid”

  1. Never realized the state of flux on the right side of the o-line, the season pivots on their success.

    Keep up the great work.

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