Like Colorado's other position coaches, Steve Marshall's second spring is being spent in more of a get-better than a get-acquainted mode. Teaching and polishing have supplanted introducing, which was fashionable at this time last spring.
April 2012 finds Marshall and his offensive linemen - all but one of them underclassmen - trying to take the next step(s) forward.
"I'm pretty excited about where this group can go - if we stay healthy and can keep them on the field together," he said Monday before the Buffaloes resumed practice after a week of spring break. "They're going to be a young group, but I like where we are. We're much farther along as far as the knowledge of the offense and the things that we can do well and not do well. We just have to keep growing and playing together and being able to handle the run, the pass and all the multiple things we do."
The "staying healthy" part of the Marshall plan is key. His group didn't open spring drills last month with 100 percent participation, which is always a drawback when replacing two interior starters. Fortunately for Marshall, the replacements for guards Ethan Adkins and Ryan Miller weren't among the players who were limited or did not participate at all during the eight practices prior to spring break.
Currently working with Marshall's first unit at guard are sophomores Alex Lewis (left) and Daniel Munyer (right). Lewis has moved inside from left tackle (he also played some tight end last season as a true freshman), while Munyer is seeing some spot duty at center (he opened the 2011 season there).
Said Marshall: "If we played in a week, (Lewis and Munyer) would be our starting guards."
Health issues have prevented the full participation of redshirt freshman Stephane Nembot (tackle), senior Ryan Dannewitz (tackle) and sophomore Kaiwi Crabb (guard). Nembot, in fact, was scheduled to practice for the first time on Monday, leaving him seven practices - counting the spring game on Saturday, April 14 - to demonstrate any strides made since switching from defense last fall. Nembot has been slowed by a knee injury suffered during winter conditioning.
"He's picking things up in the classroom . . . a little more each day," Marshall said. "For a guy who's never played the position ever before, it's going to be a learning process, as it is with (redshirt freshman) Marc Mustoe. I think (Mustoe) can be a good player here; we've just got to keep getting him bigger and strong and better."
The continued development of junior Gus Handler at center has allowed Marshall to give Munyer a full-time opportunity at right guard. Last fall, that pair was viewed as nearly neck-and-neck at center until Munyer was injured in the Colorado State game. Handler took over at Ohio State (Game 4), wouldn't relinquish the job and started the rest of the season.
"He was a guy early on last spring who was kind of deep down the depth chart," Marshall recalled. "It's a classic case of a guy getting his chance, keeping working and getting better and better. He's a guy we can win with in this league. He's worked physically to get in the 290 range. He's a consistent worker and he's smart. He seized the opportunity and hasn't let go of it.
"He's kind of one of the leaders; he doesn't say much, but he's coming into his junior year and he kind of runs the show up there. He saw his opportunity, took it and I would doubt he's going to give it up at this point . . . I've been nothing but pleased with Gus. He's a classic example for other guys to learn from."
Backing up Handler has been redshirt freshman Brad Cotner, a fall transfer from Ventura Community College who sat out last season. Marshall called Cotner "a good young prospect," and for depth purposes he emphasized the importance of developing Cotner, Mustoe, Nembot and grayshirt Alex Kelley, a January enrollee.
"It's real important as we finish up this spring that we bring these young guys along," Marshall said. "They've got to get a bunch of 'reps' as we go down to these last six or seven practices. Our depth - we've got what we've got. So those guys have to learn multiple positions."
Marshall's current top tackles are juniors David Bakhtiari (left) and Jack Harris, who opened the first two games last fall on the right side before suffering a foot/ankle injury that required surgery and ended his season. Marshall called Bakhtiari and Harris "our two best guys," adding that Bakhtiari "probably was our most productive player (in 2011) game in and game out . . . Jack is an impressive guy, but the key with him is can we keep him on the field? He's got to stay healthy; that's kind of been his MO. So far he's had a good spring. He's back healthy and we'll try to get him through this spring and then he'll have the whole summer to get right."
Harris, said Marshall, practiced at full speed in the eight drills prior to spring break, "But I don't know if he's in game-ready shape yet. He worked extremely hard in the late fall on getting bigger and stronger. I've been pleased with him the first eight practices. He's a guy we have to count on to be a very, very good and productive player for us. Both of those young tackles - they're juniors - they've got to be good guys."
CU's O-line won't be among the Pac-12 Conference's most physically imposing next fall, but Marshall likes its athleticism and overall speed. Players missing portions or all of spring work have made it difficult for him to identify his top seven or eight linemen and have necessitated Handler, Bakhtiari and Harris working some at guard. In all likelihood, incoming freshman Jeromy Irwin, of Cypress, Texas, will be counted on to provide O-line depth when he arrives.
If Dannewitz, who started last season's final 10 games at right tackle in place of Harris, and Crabb can stay healthy, Marshall would come close to pegging seven dependable, capable interior players. "If those guys are healthy, our depth is better," he said. "If not, then these young guys, we have to work to get them up to speed.
"For the most part, the guys who played last year know what to do. Now they just have to do it better, keep getting better at setting the tempo for the offense . . . it's got to translate in the fall to winning football. But I like where our start is."
BUFF BITS: Coach Jon Embree said all players reported back on time for Sunday night's team meeting and that there were "no issues" during spring break. He added that Monday's first post-spring break practice featured "good energy" and was productive overall. Embree said his spring break consisted of three days off, with the rest of the week taken by football . . . . The Buffs have a short scrimmage - likely in the 30-play range - scheduled for Thursday afternoon. Embree said it would resemble the spring's previous work, which usually has been determined by available personnel in both lines . . . . Junior defensive tackle Nate Bonsu (knee) has returned for the final seven practices but still hasn't been cleared for contact . . . . Senior defensive tackle Eric Richter, who moved over last season from the O-line, has been "up and down" this spring, Embree said, adding that the 6-3, 315-pounder needs to finish spring work "with more ups than downs . . . he's got six more opportunities." . . . . Quarterback play has been a spring focal point, and Embree said he has been pleased with the play of sophomore Texas transfer Connor Wood, but he also will "be excited" to get sophomore Nick Hirschman (broken bone in foot) back this summer. Hirschman is wearing a protective boot and spending most of his practices signaling in plays . . . . Tailback D.D. Goodson had several nice runs during Monday's practice. Embree called the 5-7, 165-pound sophomore an instinctive runner, but moreover is a determined football player.