In the Trenches: Buffs' O-Line Looking For "Five Best Guys"

Stuart WhitehairAnalyst IApril 4, 2010


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 ...

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