BOULDER - During the course of a 15-minute conversation with Romeo Bandison, there's an oft-repeated phrase that undoubtedly offers a clue as to how his work is going this spring.
"I've got some tough decisions to make."
For Bandison, Colorado's defensive line coach, that's a very good thing; those "tough decisions" are a signpost denoting progress. It shows his numbers are up. He's got bodies now, and the bulk of those bodies can play or are on a fast track of learning how.
In the first two weeks of spring practice, more than one of CU's linebackers or defensive backs has paid tribute to the D-line, noting that its experience and overall improvement has allowed the defense "to play faster" as a unit.
Bandison recognizes that, too, starting with the play of tackles Curtis Cunningham, a junior, and Will Pericak, a sophomore. 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)."
For the bullish Cunningham and the stoic Pericak, that's well-received, well-earned praise. Hypolite and Nicolas, both holdovers from the previous coaching regime, have been the standard-setters among the current regime's down linemen.
But the 280-pound Cunningham, generously listed at 6-foot-1, and the 6-4 Pericak, who at 285 is 20 pounds heavier than last spring, appear ready to make their own marks.
"Yeah, we're striving to be the best players we can, and if that approaches the caliber of those two that's a very good compliment," Cunningham said. "We're going on pretty much another half season (with spring drills) of playing together, trusting each other and I think those are all good things."
Added Pericak: "It's a process . . . it would be a compliment to be as good as George and Brandon. But I think me and Curtis are working our way there; we're taking little steps and getting the little things right. Eventually, you want to get to be as good as them - even better. You just keep working at it."
Just over halfway through spring drills, Cunningham believes his biggest improvement has been in "playing with leverage . . . I'm not the tallest guy out there, but I play with the attributes given me - staying low and playing with leverage."
For Pericak, a converted tight end, improvement has come in reaching a comfort level that simply wasn't there when he made the position switch.
"I feel a ton more comfortable, especially with last year being my first spring (in the defensive line)," he said. "I hadn't had a spring in the D-line; I feel a ton more comfortable, getting the techniques down and the little things right - the footwork, things like that make a difference in the way you play."
That pair will be difficult to displace as starters, but Bandison expects them to be pushed. He was counting on sophomore Nate Bonsu, a powerful 290-pounder who played as a true freshman, to be among the chief pushers until Bonsu suffered a knee injury during winter conditioning work and underwent surgery that will keep him sidelined until August camp.
Then there's the enigmatic Eugene Goree, a 310-pound junior who annually tests out among the Buffs' strongest players. Thus far, Goree's most memorable performances have been in the weight room, but late last season Bandison began seeing a different Goree.
"At the end of last season, his work ethic probably quadrupled," Bandison said. "It was really good to see - and he took that into the off-season and he's done better in school. As long as he's been here, this is the most consistent he's been for a long period of time.
"I'm excited about that. It'll translate, there's no other way it can't, onto the field. I know he's got a motor - he's shown it. Maybe the light's come on. But you've got to show up and compete every day. That's what he's got to do all the time.
"But since October, November, he's come around and I'm excited for him. 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."
The CU staff always has had high expectations for Goree, who was "very close to playing as a true freshman," Bandison said. But with Hypolite and Nicolas manning the two down spots, there was no need. Now, there is a need - specifically for quality depth.
Joining Goree in the "has the light come on?" category is Conrad Obi, a physically impressive (6-3, 280) junior who started as an end but has bulked up enough to play tackle.
"He's improving, and as we keep evolving in the defense and tweaking some things, it's starting to suit him more," Bandison said. "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."
Bandison admits that Bonsu missing spring drills will put the player in a "catch up" mode in August camp: "He needed the 'reps,' but he's a hard worker."
At end, Bandison's overall numbers are just as prevalent, although he hasn't found a consistent quarterback chaser comparable to former end Abe Wright.
Bandison's steadiest end is fifth-year senior Marquez Herrod (6-2, 280). A three-year letterman, Herrod led the Buffs last season with six QB sacks and could be even more productive this fall.
Sophomore Nick Kasa (6-7, 270) played as a true freshman until injury (knee) and sickness (mononucleosis) shelved him.
"He really started to show up right before got hurt . . . you could tell he was going to be a good player," Bandison said. "He missed out on seven or eight games - that's a whole lot of experience.
"There are a lot of things you can't figure out unless you play. You've got to get hit in the side of the head once in a while, O-linemen have got to cheap shot you - the sort of things you don't know until it happens in a game. He missed out on that. But he's looking good right now. He'll play a lot and help us."
In addition to Bonsu and Kasa, end Forrest West (6-1, 255) was a third true freshman who worked his way into Bandison's 2009 D-line rotation. Junior Josh Hartigan (6-1, 240) moved from linebacker to end and has done enough this spring to draw Bandison's interest.
"We run a three-man front with one defensive end and I've got four guys competing in there," Bandison said. "I keep telling them, 'I might redshirt one of you,' but I really don't see how I can.
"All my guys have done pretty well. You could tell after last year, with a lot of young guys playing, you can see now they're mature. They've gone through a season and have had a good off season under their belt. It's showing up.
"We've got good depth and there's not a lot of drop off in their (backup's) play. I've got some tough decisions to make - which is good."
Better than it's been, in fact.
BUFF BITS: Kicker Aric Goodman is scheduled to see a doctor Wednesday for an ailing right hip. Goodman has not practiced since returning from spring break . . . . The Buffs have Wednesday off, then resume practice Thursday. Their second spring scrimmage is scheduled for Friday (4 p.m., Folsom Field, weather permitting).