BOULDER - The offensive line sets the tempo for almost everything a football team accomplishes (or doesn't) on that side of the ball. At Colorado last season, the offensive tempo was a couple of beats this side of imperceptible, an annoying cadence of flat notes and faulty rhythm.
Finishing 3-9, the Buffaloes settled to the bottom of most of the Big 12 Conference's offensive statistics. What does that say about the O-line? Enough to make this statement: If the tackle-to-tackle play isn't improved, the Buffs can't expect a change of residence in the Big 12 in 2010.
But everything that flopped offensively for CU in 2009 can't be laid at the feet (or hands) of the big guys. Some culpability for the outrageous number (44) of quarterback sacks allowed goes to running backs/H-backs for failing to pick up blitzers. Some goes to the QB for either making a wrong read on a pass route (receivers are accountable here, too) or not releasing the ball soon enough. Still, the sacks came in packs. (Disturbing point of reference: Boise State allowed a nation-low five QB sacks in 2009.)
None of those reasons for routinely watching the line of scrimmage retreat are new to senior center Keenan Stevens. But after he patiently listens to them rehashed, he simply offers this: "It's our job to protect the quarterback."
He'll say something similar about making the ground game work - that also falls to the O-line - and he's right on both counts. The Buffs averaged only 87.9 rushing yards a game last season, due in part to inexperience and some underachievement by guys who were experienced.
"Yeah, I feel like there was a little bit of that (underachievement); we were young, but that's not an excuse," Stevens, a former walk-on from Monument, said. "We have to go out and perform. This year, we're older, more experienced. I think we expect ourselves to perform a lot better."
Those expectations are shared by line coach Denver Johnson, who enters his second season overseeing a position that has had less stability than any on Dan Hawkins' staff. Entering his fifth year, Hawkins has had three offensive line coaches - Chris Strausser (one season, returned to Boise State), Jeff Grimes (two seasons, hired by Auburn) and Johnson. In an area where continuity is key, CU's upperclassmen in the O-line have been subjected to a revolving door.
But this season, the coach and his stable of starters return. Left tackle Nate Solder and right guard Ryan Miller are preseason all-Big 12 Conference selections by the media. Plus, the big bodies are there in large numbers - something not present until now in the Hawkins era.
Johnson's quandary - a pleasant one, for once - is who to plug in where. Solder (6-9, 315) is a solid choice at his spot and Miller (6-8, 310) and Stevens (6-2, 290) aren't likely to be unseated. That accounts for three of the five interior spots, and Johnson is hopeful of having his five starters identified at least two weeks before the Sept. 4 opener against Colorado State.
Chemistry up front is vital, as Stevens notes: "Just as long as we have a couple of weeks together before the first game, that's great. You always need chemistry for at least that long."
Thus far through fall camp, the top candidates to start at right tackle and left guard have been David Bakhtiari (6-4, 290) and Ethan Adkins (6-4, 305), respectively. Bakhtiari has edged ahead of 2009 starter Bryce Givens (6-6, 275) and spring O-line co-MVP Jack Harris (6-5, 290), while Adkins thus far has held off challenges by junior college transfer Eric Richter (6-3, 310) and Blake Behrens (6-3, 295).
Mike Iltis (6-3, 290) is listed as Stevens' backup, but also can play left guard - as he did against Nebraska last season. And Johnson hasn't discounted revisiting that possibility, along with a couple of other switches.
Scenarios Johnson has mentioned involve moving Iltis to guard and making Shawn Daniels (6-3, 275) Stevens' backup, and shifting Bakhtiari to guard and reinstalling Givens at the tackle spot he played last season. Harris, who shared his spring award with David Clark (6-3, 300), already has switched tackles (right to left) because he played that position in high school and is more comfortable there, Johnson said.
"You can play a lot of different shell games with those guys in the middle," he added. "We've got a lot of different candidates and it's very competitive. Hopefully, competition brings out the best in everybody.
"As we start getting into scrimmages, then we'll start evaluating and discriminating amongst them a little differently. But to this point, I'm pretty pleased with all of them."
At the first practice following last week's first fall camp scrimmage, the O-line remained status quo. The camp's second full scrimmage is set for Thursday, Aug. 19.
Johnson calls incoming freshmen Kaiwi Crabb (6-3, 280) and Daniel Munyer (6-2, 280) "two young guys who are going to be outstanding football players. Both have got quick feet and hands . . . they're good, hard-working kids that want to be good. I couldn't be more pleased with both of them."
Johnson also said tackle Sione Tau (6-5, 350) has worked hard on conditioning but can't stop in that area: "I'm appreciative of that, but I'd like to see him continue to get his body weight down and get a little lighter on his feet."
Guard Max Tuioti-Mariner (6-3, 310) has been an in-and-out camp participant because of recurring knee problems.
The O-line camp surprise has been Bakhtiari, a former lacrosse player of Persian ancestry who has gained 50 pounds in his first year on campus. His non-secret: knocking back the 1,200-calorie shakes concocted by strength/conditioning coach Jeff Pitman three times a day.
"I'll probably keep on gaining weight until I don't feel quick," Bakhtiari said. "If I get to 310 and still fluid, I'll try and stay there. I've always felt like I had good feet, but I can get better at everything I do."
Four years of lacrosse helped Bakhtiari improve his footwork and endurance, and the sport's contact was a bonus that was football-related and provided "something to do in the off-season."
Because of his footwork and quickness, Bakhtiari believes he was fairly in pass protection to begin with and that his run blocking has improved.
"Last year, I was like fourth string; I didn't see myself where I am at all right now," he said. "I was really just grinding. I put in a lot of hard work in the off-season, lifting and trying to gain weight. It's starting to pay off."
Johnson said Bakhtiari began making his ascent during spring drills and was under consideration for the line's most improved award: "David, without question, was right there."
Whatever interior combo Johnson settles on, his group's challenges are clear. The quarterbacks can't return to last season's rag doll status and the running game needs what every reputable O-line should offer - a push upfront.
Stevens contends the run blocking will be improved because he and his linemates are "more comfortable doing it . . . and having good wide receivers will help so much. Those guys can get the safeties out of the box, which is going to be huge for our offense in running the ball."
Quarterback Tyler Hansen believes what his center is saying. "Our O-line will be a lot better," Hansen said. "If they play up to their potential, we can be really good offensively."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Denver Johnson, second season.
Returning starters: LT Nate Solder, Sr.; LG Ethan Adkins, Jr.; C Keenan Stevens, Sr.; C/G Mike Iltis, Jr.; RG Ryan Miller, Jr.; RT Bryce Givens, Soph.
Returnees: LT Ryan Dannewitz, Soph.; LT Sione Tau, Jr.; LG Blake Behrens, Jr.; LG Max Tuioti-Mariner, Soph.; RG Shawn Daniels, Jr.; RG David Clark, Jr.
Newcomers: LG Eric Richter, Jr.; C Gus Handler, Fr.-RS; RT Jack Harris, Fr.-RS; RT David Bakhtiari, Fr.-RS; T Kaiwi Crabb, Fr.; G Daniel Munyer, Fr.
Key losses: None.
Stat line: Although neither total can be put solely on the O-line, the Buffs allowed a perplexing 44 quarterback sacks and averaged just 4.2 yards on true rushing attempts in 2009.
Bottom line: Offensive improvement begins with the line. With a year's experience across the board and a preseason All-America candidate at left tackle (Solder), the improvement should be evident. One of the top story lines thus far in camp has been the emergence of Bakhtiari at right tackle. His performance opens up a number of personnel possibilities for a unit that's deeper than it's even been in the Dan Hawkins era.
Next: Tight ends/fullbacks
TO TWEET OR NOT TO TWEET: Nowadays, what happens in the locker room doesn't always stay in the locker room. In fact, most times - thanks to tweeting, Facebook and other social mediums - team secrets don't stay secret too long.
Some coaches have considered banning their players from using Twitter or posting on Facebook during the season. At CU, Hawkins and his staff are counseling the players about being responsible.
"We talked to them about all that stuff," Hawkins said, calling tweeting and posting on Facebook "part of the modern society, and I don't want to handcuff them."
Per Facebook, his rule of thumb is: "If your mom couldn't get on it without her being embarrassed or you being embarrassed, then you ought to clean it up."
He said in this era, "It's just different; everybody wants to be connected to everybody."
SEIZING THE REDSHIRT: Although many highly ranked freshmen want to hear it, being promised immediate playing time isn't always the best avenue for them to take.
Oftentimes, sitting out Year 1 proves advantageous in the long run, or as Hawkins put it: "The great things in life take some time . . . (but) everybody wants to play - and play right now."
He said some freshmen can be immediate contributors, "But the vast majority of guys, if you ask them on the back end, they all say, 'I wish I would have redshirted.'"
The reasons cited: they learn so much more and usually get bigger, stronger and faster. Hawkins cited nickel back Parker Orms as a classic example, adding that linebacker Derrick Webb also has taken advantage.
INJURY REPORT: Defensive end Forrest West (knee) and linebacker B.J. Beatty (undisclosed injury), both have returned to practice. Hawkins believes both will "come around." . . . . Several other players spent Saturday morning in spectators' roles, but Hawkins downplayed their ailments as "just nicks and bruises." The good news, he added, was younger players getting more opportunity for work . . . . The knee injury suffered by sophomore safety Vince Ewing in Thursday's scrimmage was a torn ACL. He will be out for the season.
BUT NATE'S NOT EXPENDABLE: The recently released movie, Expendables, launched one ESPN.com reader into a flight of fantasy. In an email to ESPN Big 12 Blogger David Ubben, Big G in Western Nebraska wrote:
"If you had to make a team of elite warriors using Big 12 players, who would you put on it? Not necessarily an All-Star team, but the toughest, baddest dudes in the conference."
Ubben's reply: "First off, no matter what my friends tell me, that movie looks like garbage. But this question is interesting. I'd invite you all to make your own lists, but here's mine:"
(Note: we're only giving you his top pick. You're on your own finding the rest.)
(1) Nate Solder, left tackle, Colorado: First off, at 6-foot-9 and 310 pounds, he's probably the biggest player in the entire league. But he also hang cleans 470 pounds, runs a 4.88 40-yard dash and has a 32-inch vertical leap. He's very high on my list of guys I wouldn't want to face in a jungle death match. And yes, that list exists.