BOULDER - Their competitive edge is burning hotter than ever and it's not going to be extinguished anytime soon.
"It's going to be there until we leave," sophomore Rodney "Speedy" Stewart said, flashing what has become a trademark grin.
But don't take that to mean Colorado's quartet of eager, young running backs is running in different directions. The paths they traveled to CU might differ, but now that they're here, this is a foursome in focus, all sharing a common goal.
"They really like each other . . . they like being around each other," running backs coach Darian Hagan said of Stewart, Darrell Scott, Brian Lockridge - all sophomores - and junior Demetrius Sumler, the lone "old timer" in Hagan's four-man tailback grouping.
Continued Hagan: "The competition is there, they all want to play, but they all understand there's only one football. They also understand if they do something consistently well, they'll play. Everyone has a role, but you have to do what you're supposed to do all the time.
"But they really do care for each other. That's the thing you think wouldn't be true with competition at that position. They all want to start, and when you get some guys who can't start, sometimes they'll take their football and go elsewhere."
So far, "elsewhere" isn't an option for any of them. They're content to compete, push one another and let Saturday afternoons transpire with no individual regrets. But this is a fairly odd mix to have fostered that kind of compatibility.
Scott and Stewart arrived in the same recruiting class (2008), as different as a diamond and a shard of glass. Scott came in with the headlines, Stewart with the frown lines - a guy determined to prove if he was viewed as undersized, he merely had been overlooked.
Lockridge arrived in 2007, Sumler the year before, redshirting his first season while an injury steered Lockridge on that route in 2008. So Lockridge has no more experience than Scott and Stewart, but he's a "fireball" - Hagan's word - who will be difficult to keep on the sidelines.
Hagan has a "dilemma," albeit one any running backs coach would relish. Who starts isn't as critical as who finishes . . . or who has the "hot hand" and gets the bulk of the carries . . . or who is used primarily on third-and-short or third-and-long.
Each of those duties and roles still are being determined, but Hagan says this much is certain: Stewart and Lockridge, similar in style, can be used in a variety of ways, specifically flanking them to one side or the other or motioning them out of the backfield.
"We can do our whole package that we do with Rodney with all those guys, but 'B-Lock' and Rodney we'll utilize a lot in the pass game - give them some specific roles and get the ball in their hands," Hagan said.
"You can't hide speed, and with the speed they've got, you've got to give them opportunity to get out there and do something - especially in space."
That's not to say Scott is a slug and Sumler incapable of accomplishing whatever Hagan asks of him. Just the opposite; Sumler is the model of consistency in almost every area, while Scott - trim and hungry - appears primed to have the season many expected in 2008.
"I feel like I'm into the system now; I'm confident if any of us go down, we have backups who can do even better," Scott said, conceding he suffered through an "overwhelming" first college camp.
"It was, especially with the weight issue and just being a freshman," he said. "It was a new experience . . . but now we're all ready to roll.
"We have expectations to get to a bowl and get 10 wins. I think the defense is focused, and the offense as well . . . I just need to do my part, whatever that is, contributing to the team, making big plays."
Stewart's comfort level in the offense has increased and he's stronger now than he was as a freshman.
"Last year, I just came in and jumped straight into the system," he said. "I knew a lot of what I was doing, but I didn't know what everybody else was doing. And now I kinda know what everybody else is doing."
Targeted for improvement in 2009 is his patience: "I need to be more patient letting my blocking develop - then I think I can get better runs."
While Lockridge's focus is on "just trying to be a well-rounded running back," he's OK with playing the role of "the hybrid . . . the guy coming out of the slot and the backfield. We'll just play that by ear; it could change weekly."
But what won't change is Hagan's dependence on Lockridge's roommate, Sumler, the son of a basketball coach who learned the value of consistency as a point guard under his father's watchful eye.
"I had to do everything right as a point guard and that kind of transitioned over to football," Sumler said. "I don't want to be a back that can only run the football or block; I want to have all parts of my game (strong) so there's no situation where coach says, 'Man, we can't play him right now.'
"I don't want to have any of those. I think I've achieved that, but now I have to build on it. There's always progress to be made. I've got to become great in all aspects instead of just being good at it, and help this team get some more victories."
Sumler is Hagan's Mr. Dependable: "He's the one I go into battle with, when all the chips are down. He's going to do everything well; he's not going to outrun anybody, but you're going to get what you want out of him.
"He's just a professional kid, but Rodney ain't far behind. But the guy who's going to grade out (highest) 90 percent of the time is Sumler. The thing with Rodney, he's starting to grow up. He's so gifted and talented, he starts to get lackadaisical at times. That can backfire on you on some of the pass plays in protections, stuff like that. But he is growing up."
Sumler continues to mentor the other three, mainly because he was mentored by Hugh Charles and Byron Ellis. Bobby Purify mentored those two upon their arrival at CU.
Said Sumler: "That's just the way it's done here. We take guys under our wing, guide them and lead them; it's just the tradition we have here as running backs. It's what I had to do (in 2008), and this year it's more of the same thing."
But maybe not in such agonizing detail as last summer. Hagan believes the young trio's experience - particularly that gained by Scott and Stewart in 2008 - allows each to play faster and with more confidence.
But, Hagan added, "As a coach, you've got to fight against giving them that respect; you want them to know that every time we come out, we start with the basics - footwork, the other stuff you learned in Pop Warner football.
"My job is to make sure they know an assignment, then back out of the way and let them do their jobs. I can put something on the board, tell them the formation and play, draw it up, explain it and we can move on. I don't have to do a lot of installation; they pretty much know what our run and pass plays are.
"I just start them off and refresh them. And I have them go to the board and draw it. I think that helps them, especially with our script (of plays). Then when they go out on the field, they've seen it already - not just heard it, they've drawn it up and they can go out and just play."
Meanwhile, the heated competition continues - in an amicable manner. Scott, who plans to play at 210 pounds (about five fewer than he currently weighs), said if all the Buffs backs want wins, each wants to play a big part in them, too. It's what defines a competitor.
"'Speedy' knows that," Scott said. "Just go ask him if he makes a big play, is Darrell gonna want to make a big play right after him?"
No need to ask Stewart that question; Scott's hearty laugh supplied the answer.
THE LOWDOWN ON . . .
Coach: Darian Hagan.
Returning starters: Demetrius Sumler.
Returnees: Rodney Stewart, Darrell Scott, Brian Lockridge.
Newcomers: Quentin Hildreth.
Key losses: None.
Stat line: Despite missing the final three games of 2008 with a broken leg, the elusive Stewart finished as the team's leading rusher (622 yards, two touchdowns) and posted a team-best single game total of 166 yards rushing.
Bottom line: Depth at this position is as good as it's been in several seasons. Talent appears to be too, although there's still a wait-and-see attitude surrounding Scott's sophomore season, Lockridge's return from slow-to-heal surgery for a sports hernia that sidelined him in 2008, and Stewart's return from his late-season injury. Meanwhile, count on Sumler, the only junior among three sophomores, to do what he does best - remain consistent.
NEXT: TIGHT ENDS, FULLBACKS