BOULDER - As spring practice is underway and fans are beginning look ahead to the 2009 season with anticipation, there are a number of questions that linger in the minds of the Colorado faithful. None, however, is more prevalent than the prospect of who is to start under center for the Buffaloes next season. While there is no clear cut favorite, the job will likely go to one of three candidates.
Incumbent rising junior Cody Hawkins is the veteran of the group, having logged 23 starts during his first two seasons of competition. He is battle-hardened and savvy, with an unmistakable affinity for winning football games. He was 59-0 as a starter from sixth grade through high school, and he led the Buffs to a berth in the Petro Sun Independence Bowl after the 2007 season.
“That’s been our emphasis every spring,” Hawkins said. “We have competition at every position. It makes us better as a team. It helps fix our weaknesses and refine our strengths.”
Hawkins has great knowledge of the playbook, and his ability to lead a team is unquestionable. Hawkins is an accurate passer who can throw downfield and thread the needle when called upon. He has grown accustomed to hearing critics since arriving on campus in the fall of 2006, but he is already in the top 10 in career passing yards, completions, attempts and touchdowns in the CU record book.
“Competition makes everybody better,” Hawkins said. “I think I’m going to start next year, and I’m doing everything I can to make that happen, but Matt (Ballenger) and Tyler (Hansen) are thinking the same thing.”
Hansen, a rising sophomore, returns to the field this season hoping to improve on last year’s successes. With injuries in the offensive line, Hansen’s mobility earned him the opportunity to play mid-way through last season, and he hit the ground running.
“It’s going to be fun to compete,” Hansen said. “We’re all battling, and all three of us want the position badly, but only one of us can play at a time.”
Hansen forfeited his redshirt during the first half in last year’s game against Kansas State, and it proved to be a favorable decision as he established himself as a dual-threat quarterback, showing the ability to scramble and make plays through the air. With a year of experience under his belt, he appears more confident running the offense and with improvements along the offensive line, he has looked more comfortable in the pocket during spring drills.
Ballenger, a redshirt sophomore, does not have the game experience that Hawkins and Hansen possess, but at 6-4, he enjoys a physical advantage over his competition. He combines great size with accuracy and decent mobility in making his bid as the starter in 2009. He is revered by coaches and teammates for possessing strong leadership qualities, which he demonstrates when interacting with those around him.
“It’s heated,” Ballenger said. “All three of us get along, so it’s going to be interesting to see how things work out, but all three of us are working really hard to get it.”
Offensive Coordinator Mark Helfrich has yet to identify a favorite to win the quarterback job, and warns against establishing a preference based on the situations he has observed during Spring ball.
“It’s early,” Helfrich explains. “All three guys have done good things, and all three guys have done bad things. It’s not until we get to 11-on-11, real football, that you get to truly test a guy.”
Hawkins, Hansen, and Ballenger are all good friends, who push one another on and off the field in hopes of bringing out the best in themselves and their teammates. Make no mistake, though, this is a battle. Each hopeful has committed himself to earning the starting role come fall camp.
“We come out and throw together,” Hansen said. “The more throwing you can get in the better you’re going to be on the field. When one person is throwing, the other is watching, so one is getting better technique and the other is getting smarter.”
With the 2009 Spring Game just around the corner, and several scrimmages slated between now and the start of the season, the coaching staff will have plenty of opportunities to observe each quarterback’s performance in game situations.
Rest assured that by September 5 for the season opener against Colorado State, a starter will be in place. However, don’t expect to see any depth chart decisions regarding quarterbacks made too quickly, either.
In the words of Helfrich, “I can sum up the battle in one word: ongoing.”