(Seventh in a series of position-by-position previews of the 2014 Buffs to be posted on CUBuffs.com during preseason camp. Today: Offensive line)
BOULDER – Quality usually trumps quantity, but in the University of Colorado’s offensive line there’s something – actually a lot of things – to be said for beefed up numbers. More good news: There’s also quality liberally sprinkled among that higher quantity of larger Buffaloes.
In the very recent past, CU found itself desperate for big guys to work the trenches. Before new coach Mike MacIntyre’s first spring game in 2013, the Buffs struggled to find 10 offensive linemen to divide between the Black and Gold squads.
Times (and the O-line headcount) have changed. CU opened this August camp with 20 offensive linemen on its roster. “It’s pretty nice, but they still work us,” said promising sophomore left tackle Jeromy Irwin. “It definitely helps out the recovery process and guys getting more rest.”
More big, able bodies also deepens the talent pool from which O-line coach Gary Bernardi will identify his top 8, 9 or 10 players to open the 2014 season. “The whole bunch is stronger,” he said. “When you play more physical, you feel better about yourself . . . there are a lot of good things that come with that.”
Bernardi lost 2013 starters Jack Harris (left tackle) and Gus Handler (center), but both of those spots seem in the hands of capable replacements.
Recovered from a July 2013 foot injury that forced him to redshirt that season and another last March that sidelined him for most of spring drills, Irwin is competing with junior Marc Mustoe, among others, at left tackle. Sophomore Alex Kelley appears to have a firm hold on the center job, while experienced seniors Kaiwi Crabb and Daniel Munyer could be the starting guards. Imposing junior Stephane Nembot is the incumbent starter at right tackle but needs to continue his day-to-day progress, said Bernardi.
Versatility is a key word in Bernardi’s vocabulary and verification of that comes almost daily. In one recent practice, Bernardi had junior college transfer Sully Wiefels at center, redshirt freshman Jonathan Huckins at left guard, Crabb at left tackle and freshman John Lisella II at right tackle. Mustoe has also gotten scrutiny on the right side and redshirt freshman Gerrad Kough is receiving looks at guard. And after playing both guards during his first two years at CU, Kelley could fit there if needed.
The mixing and matching from tackle to tackle probably won’t stop with game week. During a typical practice, Bernardi makes so many personnel moves he probably needs to review video to remember them all.
“I’m trying to create versatility and depth in terms of guys who can do a lot of things,” he said. “I want to do that to have some flexibility. Right now I don’t have to do it out of necessity because we have some guys who can play.”
And then there’s touted Auburn transfer Shane Callahan. Since his appeal to play immediately was granted by the NCAA, Callahan has moved up the depth chart and has been operating at right guard with the No. 2 offense but also taking turns with first unit. Callahan’s continued upward mobility depends on how quickly he makes the transition from tackle to guard.
“He was always a tackle,” said Bernardi, “but I think he’s bright enough and football savvy enough to pick it up. But I can see little things each day (he’s good at) and little things each day of ‘uh-oh, he hadn’t done that before.’ That’s constant. But he’s a good football player.”
The options at center seem unlimited; along with Kelley, Bernardi can look to Crabb, Munyer, Huckins and Wiefels. Said Bernardi: “If I get in a pissy mood one day I could say, ‘Hey, you get in at center’ – and it could be any one of five guys. We have flexibility there.”
But unless he’s injured between now and the Aug. 29 opener against Colorado State, the center job appears to be Kelley’s to lose. A powerful 6-2, 305-pounder, Kelley was named by the coaches as the 2013 spring’s most improved offensive lineman. Recruited in 2011, he wound up enrolling the following January, “grayshirting” after breaking his ankle playing football on the beach near his home (Oceanside, Calif.).
He’s been a center for most of his football life, but not in the shotgun (or pistol) formation. After sending quarterbacks Sefo Liufau and Jordan Gehrke scrambling for snaps during early spring work, Kelley committed to “probably taking about 50 (shotgun) snaps a day just to get everything settled down. I played center in high school but we never were in shotgun. So going into (spring), it was kind of foreign to me. I really practiced it a lot and have settled down. They’re getting a lot better, but there’s always room for improvement.”
Kelley likes the responsibility of making the O-line’s blocking calls at the line of scrimmage because, “I like being in charge,” he said, adding that he has “the big picture stuff down (but) there are little things to get better at – my steps one way or another and you can always fire off the ball faster and lower.”
Bernardi, said Kelley, will have the O-line prepared for whatever stunts and twists are presented by CSU’s defensive front: “CSU will come out and throw everything they can at us . . . it’s not feeling comfortable picking up stuff, it’s feeling comfortable with knowing that they’re going to throw something at us that I’ve never seen.
“Coach Bernardi does such a good job with us, if they throw something at us that I’ve never seen and I do mess up, he’ll yell at me. But at the end of the day he’ll tell me what I did wrong and tell me what I have to do to fix it.”
With Bernardi’s array of options at center, Kelley knows his snaps must remain consistent. Wiefels, a 6-3, 300-pounder, could wind up on the game week depth chart behind Kelley. “He came from a good program,” Bernardi said of Wiefels. “But he sees there are certain things he did at the JC (American River College in Idaho) that worked but he can’t do here because of the competition level of the defensive guys. The reaction time is so little you’ve got to go.”
The 6-5, 295-pound Irwin might join Kelley as CU’s other new O-line starter. Irwin, whose brother Sean is a Buffs tight end, “has some nice skills, but he’s got to keep working,” said Bernardi. “He’s come back really well from the foot injury, but he just hasn’t practiced much since we’ve (Mike MacIntyre’s staff) been here.”
Irwin called his injury-forced redshirt season in 2013 “pretty frustrating. I’m just glad to be back and be healthy. It feels great; I didn’t play for almost a year and a half. It’s nice to get the rust off and finally get back out here. I didn’t feel like I lost a lot as much I felt that time was wasted. I guess it wasn’t wasted because obviously I had to rehab. But it was just a lot of time that I didn’t want to spend being injured.”
He said his competition with Mustoe at left tackle “makes both of us better. It’s great for the team and I love it.”
Jeromy and his brother, Sean, played on a primarily running high school team in Cypress, Texas. So it’s no surprise that both Irwin brothers cited run blocking as their strong suits. “I still think run blocking is my strength,” Jeromy said, “but I’m progressing in my pass blocking through this camp.”
That’s a must for a left tackle in an offense that figures to pass as much as the Buffs will. Slowing down speed rushing defensive ends and linebackers in the Pac-12, conceded Irwin, will be “challenging, especially when you don’t have any help. It’s more of a one-on-one spot. But usually the guard will have my inside. It’s pretty tough.”
Through nearly two weeks of August camp, Bernardi said he sees cohesion developing in the O-line, but adds, “We just have to keep the communication going; they’re doing a good job of it right now but it’s an everyday process.”
Irwin sees something else: “Compared to when I got here, we’ve just grown so much closer,” he said. “We enjoy coming out here and practicing. We enjoy looking to the next day of practice and getting better. I think that’s really important when you look at it. Before, there were guys who would come out here and not care. I think the coaching staff has done a great job of putting that (work ethic) in our heads.”
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Gary Bernardi, second season on CU staff
Returning starters: G Daniel Munyer, Sr.; G Kaiwi Crabb, Sr.; RT Stephane Nembot, Jr.
Returnees: T Marc Mustoe, Jr.; G James Carr, Jr.; C/G Brad Cotner, Jr.; T Jeromy Irwin, So.; C Alex Kelley, So.; G Vincent Arvia, So.; G Jonathan Huckins, Fr.-RS; OL Ed Caldwell, So.; OL Connor Darby, Fr.-RS; OL Gerrad Kough, Fr.-RS; OL Sam Kronshage, Fr.-RS; OL John Lisella II, Fr.; OL Colin Sutton, Fr.-RS; C/G Sully Wiefels, Jr. (transfer).
Newcomers: G Shane Callahan, So. (transfer); OL Isaiah Holland, Fr.; OL Josh Kaiser, Fr.
Key losses: C Gus Handler; LT Jack Harris.
Stat line: After allowing 50 quarterback sacks in 2012, the Buffs cut that number to 20 in 2013, ranking them fourth in the Pac-12 in that category.
Bottom line: O-line recruiting has been an obvious point of emphasis in MacIntyre’s two classes. The overall numbers are up and the talent level also appears to have risen. Conversely, most of the talent is young, so there will be growing pains up front. Nembot remains a work in progress at right tackle, but the progress is apparent. The return of Jeromy Irwin adds athleticism to the left tackle spot. Guard is the line’s most experienced position, with Munyer and Crabb the only seniors on the O-line roster. Both can play multiple positions, which fits nicely in Bernardi’s grand scheme of having versatile players.
Next: Wide receivers