It probably happened sometime in late October or early November of last season, but the newness of playing center finally wore off for Gus Handler.
His recognition of defenses and blocking calls for his Colorado linemates became quicker and more intuitive, and by season's end, "He was playing pretty good football for us," offensive line coach Steve Marshall said.
Handler, a 6-3, 295-pound junior, has made improvement a daily goal - one step at a time per the instruction of Marshall and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
"They've always told us to improve on one thing each day . . . and I kind of like took that to heart," Handler said. "I've gotten stronger, I know the playbook better. I take better steps, read the defense better. It kind of gets overwhelming, especially at center because there's so much to do. But if you focus in practice on getting better at one thing, that really helps out a lot."
Getting a year's experience at a position he had played only sparingly helped Handler with his recognition of defenses. Another factor that has increased his comfort level in this camp is CU's offense not being new this time around.
"Whenever you come into a new offense you're going to be hesitant," he said. "Before I came here I never really played center, so it's getting the feel of the position first and then learning the new playbook. Then it's reps, reps, reps . . . the more you get the better you get at it.
"That helped out a lot. Then watching film on yourself - seeing what you can do. 'This is what I think I'm doing, but this is what I'm really doing.''
Marshall said Handler "wasn't bad" last season at making blocking calls at the line of scrimmage "but he's learned and taken the next step just from an experience standpoint because he's been in the offense for a year. The repetitions he's seen have helped him immensely; he didn't have that experience last year.
"Now, he kind of stirs the pot for us; he's our guy. He's got to keep doing it and keep getting better and better. He's one of our leaders on offense."
Handler's late-season improvement in 2011 was recognized earlier this summer when he was included on the Rimington Award preseason watch list. The award is presented annually to college football's top center.
Handler, athletic enough to be a four-year baseball letterman in high school (Barrington, Ill.), believes CU's 2012 offensive line can be more physical and overall more effective than the 2011 edition.
"In the spring we came together and thought we'd be a pretty good group," he said. "We worked well together and got a feel for each other. In the fall we've come together really well.
"Us five, plus 'Danno' (Ryan Dannewitz) when he rotates in, we're really starting to gel. We know that we have a common goal; we all want the same thing."
Early in August camp, Marshall noted that Dannewitz's health - he battled a chronic back problem through 11 starts in 2011 and missed spring drills because of it - would be key in determining the O-line's starters and backups. With four days remaining in camp, that assessment hasn't changed, although it's become clearer that Dannewitz's back issue likely will be with him long term.
With Dannewitz, the O-line's only senior, on what Marshall called a weekly "pitch count" - essentially one day on, one day off - the line's first five has been Handler at center, Daniel Munyer (right) and Alex Lewis (left) at guards and David Bakhtiari (left) and Jack Harris (right) at tackles.
Dannewitz, said Marshall, is "one day on, one day off until we get to game week (the opener against Colorado State is Saturday, Sept. 1). When he's practiced, he's practiced well, done well . . . but he's being held out on purpose to get him to the fall."
As for being more physical this fall and being at the forefront of a running game that wants to improve on last season's 108.7 rushing yards a game, Handler said, "We'll see when game time comes. But coach Marshall wants us to be nasty little pricks and I think we kind of fit that role."
HANDLER ON WEBB: CU will have a new starting quarterback against CSU, and Handler believes Kansas transfer Jordan Webb will only get sharper from now until game day.
"When I saw him in seven-ons in the summer he was throwing good balls," Handler said of Webb. "The only question was could he pick up the offense; our offense is pretty complex.
"But when he came to camp, he played well . . . he got all the reads down, all the plays down. He's come in and fit in pretty well."
And that includes being a presence in the huddle. Handler said Webb, whose 20-plus games at KU included 19 starts, "takes control . . . when he comes in we shut up. I feel like he's got a better feel (for the game) because he's got game experience. That's what kind of separates him from the rest of the guys . . .
"From my experience, I know when you play in a game, practice kind of slows down for you. You see everything better. I think that's what helped him out the most. Sometimes it seems like the rest of the (QBs) tried to do too much; he was just kind of calm, composed and did what he had to do instead of doing too much."
BUFF BITS: Tuesday marked Day 16 of training camp. For coach Jon Embree, it was a day his team "hit the wall a little bit . . . they're tired; every team goes through this in camp so I'm not overly concerned." He termed the Buffs' two-hour morning practice as being "ragged (with) not as much bounce," noting throughout the work either the offense or defense "would win an entire period of a drill instead of a little give and take. But they worked; it's about us learning how to work when we get tired. We'll be better (Wednesday)." Camp officially ends Saturday with a mock game in the morning . . . . Game week brings the beginning of fall semester classes on Monday, with practices shifting to the afternoon (4-6 p.m.).