(Note: First in a series previewing the Buffs position-by-position during training camp. Today: Offensive line.)
BOULDER - Steve Marshall remembers how it was back in the day - more precisely those Saturdays when the Colorado football team had a dependable, oft-times prolific, running game and flaunted it.
The 2001 season comes immediately to mind for Marshall, who coached CU's offensive line that year and returned to Boulder two winters ago with the same job description.
To review, the '01 Buffaloes averaged 228.5 rushing yards a game (434.4 in total offense) en route to winning the school's only Big 12 Conference championship. Marshall's O-line included Andre Gurode, Wayne Lucier and Victor Rogers, and running behind them were Chris Brown (78.8 yards a game) and Bobby Purify (76.3). Between them, they accounted for 21 rushing touchdowns, Brown grinding out 16 of the TDs.
Not a bad overall cast of characters, but times have changed . . .
Since '01, CU has averaged over 200 ground yards only once (241.2 in '02) and has been at 150 or below every season since 2007. The last three seasons saw the Buffs average 111.2, including 108.7 last fall. That's clearly a number Marshall and the man who brought him back to Boulder - Jon Embree - aren't comfortable with.
"Our ability to run, our commitment to run, will be better," Marshall contended. "I don't know if we were not committed to running it last year, but in some games when you get behind by three scores you can't play balanced football. We have to have balance, but I think our commitment (to run) continued to grow. It's like anything else: you've got to learn it."
Added guard/tackle Ryan Dannewitz, the only senior among Marshall's group: "With the new offense we were running last year and the new schemes, it was somewhat difficult to get going right away. That's what we really need to do - establish ourselves as a run-first team so we can open up the field for our skill guys."
Having a dependable, productive running game, said Marshall, "doesn't mean we go out and rush for 300 every week, but if we get the games to the fourth quarter then we have to run to win. That never changes regardless of what style of offense you run. There's a lot of speed in the (Pac-12) and a lot of guys who can score a lot of points in a hurry. We also have to be flexible enough to throw it and screen it and do all the things you need to do as coach (Hank) Stram said back in the day to 'matriculate the ball down the field.'"
If they "matriculate" it downfield successfully this season and do what Embree & Co. hope to do on the ground, the Buffs will do it with only one senior among Marshall's first 10 players. The versatile and determined Dannewitz figures as the training camp key in Marshall establishing his starting lineup and depth.
After right tackle Jack Harris went down early last season with a broken leg and David Bakhtiari suffered a knee injury, Dannewitz, a 6-6, 300-pounder, ultimately stepped in and started 11 games. And he did it with a chronic back problem that never let up and even kept him out of spring drills.
Said Marshall: "We'd have been in big trouble if we didn't have that kid last year. He's a tough guy but his back needs constant care. We'll go baby steps with him in camp, see where he is and try to get him through to January."
Dannewitz believes that won't be a problem. He said his back "has been much better throughout the summer and I've done progressively more and more . . . I've had a lot of rehab and am feeling good. We'll see what the first week of camp has in store for me; I'm ready to go."
Harris is healed, cleared and coming off of a productive spring and summer with no complications from his leg. "He's ready to roll," Marshall said. "He just has to stay on the field . . . it's his time."
Still, Dannewitz - back willing - will take snaps at both tackle and guard on both sides. If Dannewitz's health remains a factor, Marshall could start three juniors - Bakhtiari at left tackle, Harris at right tackle, Gus Handler at center - and two sophomores - left guard Alexander Lewis, right guard Daniel Munyer.
But where Dannewitz fits is the puzzle's key component. "Right now, I have a lot to look forward to at both positions," he said.
Marshall's backups at all positions could be either redshirt freshmen or the only incoming true freshman Jeromy Irwin, who will get his first look at left guard behind Lewis. (Freshman Gerrard Kough is scheduled to grayshirt, enrolling in January.)
Dannewitz said he's tried to "take a lot of the young guys under my wing because they're really going to really play important roles in our line." He also believes this group of underclassmen "is actually more ready than other young guys in the past have been at the beginning of camp. I'm really impressed with how the young guys have come along this summer and learned things . . . really, our player-run practices have gone extraordinarily well. I really think we're going to start off this camp really well. We have good things to look forward to."
Marshall called Bakhtiari "our best football player, and he was last year, too . . . just a heckuva player." But the mixing and matching to identify his five best players could include Bakhtiari moving inside to guard and Lewis shifting outside to tackle, where he played last season as a freshman. Munyer can play guard and center and if he continues to develop might make an NFL roster at center, Marshall said.
Lewis opened at left tackle against Colorado State last season, but Marshall now says "he wasn't ready for prime time then - and he'll be the first to admit it. That's where 'Danno' came in. (Lewis) did some good service as a tight end and played some tackle. He's a really good prospect and will be a good player before he's done here. He can reach and run; you're looking to get the five best athletes on the field and he's one of them."
Marshall is hopeful that Lewis won't have to be drafted into the occasional tight end role this season. "We signed three (tight ends) so we'll see how it transpires," Marshall said. "I don't think we can afford to do that this year; (Lewis) will be on the field a lot in some capacity in the offensive line."
Handler, said Marshall, "has just kind of come out of nowhere" at center and along with Bakhtiari and Harris form the O-line leaders. "They've kind of taken over the old-man-of-the-group roles," Marshall said. "They're guys we have to count on to play extremely well and I think they will."
In a word, Marshall's backups will be green. Converted defensive lineman Stephane Nembot is "a long way away, but he's got a great will to be successful," Marshall said. "What he knows he knows well. This camp is huge for him."
Ditto for Marc Mustoe, who has put on 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and is "a smart guy," Marshall said, noting he needs to be able to count on him, as well as Kaiwi Crabb, Brad Cotner and Alex Kelley.
As a whole, the Buffs should benefit from their first year in Embree's system. But Marshall warns against forgetting fundamentals that were taught last season and pushing too far, too fast: "The thing we have to be cognizant of as a coaching staff is, in my opinion, even though it's year two and (players') knowledge is better, we've still got to go back and do basics and play basic football, hold on to the ball, block, tackle and leverage . . . get off on the snap count, do all those things. Just because the kids have gone through a year we still have to do what we do and do it better.
"But the second year, there are some things (that should be understood more). The one thing that I have a very strong feeling of now after a year - a fall and a spring - with these guys is I know what they can do and what they can't do a hell of a lot better. I know if something breaks down I have a better idea of how we can fix it from a personnel standpoint."
One easily forgotten factor in CU's 2001 success, said Marshall, is that his O-line stayed relatively healthy all season. That didn't happen last season for the Buffs, although the 2011 overall talent was nowhere near comparable to the '01 group.
"A lot of guys got hurt last year and we were doing a lot of things trying to find something (that worked)," Marshall said. "This year we've got to line up, decide what to do and how and then go man go. Let the chips fall where they may. That's the difference in a second year, but we've got to do it right."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Steve Marshall, second stint on CU staff, second season under Jon Embree.
Returning starters: LT David Bakhtiari, Jr.; C Gus Handler, Jr.; RT Ryan Dannewitz, Sr.
Returnees: C Daniel Munyer, Soph.; LG Kaiwi Crabb, Soph.; RT Jack Harris, Jr.; LT Alexander Lewis, Soph.; T Stephane Nembot, FR-RS; C Brad Cotner, Soph.; LT Marc Mustoe, FR-RS; G Alex Kelley, Fr.
Newcomers: T/G Jeremy Irwin, Fr. (Freshman T/G Gerrad Kough is scheduled to grayshirt, or enroll in January).
Key losses: LG Ryan Miller, RG Ethan Adkins, LG Blake Behrens, RG Sione Tau, RG David Clark, LG Paulay Asiata (left program).
Stat line: The Buffs didn't run the ball particularly well (108.7 yards a game, No. 106 nationally) in 2011.
Bottom line: Two veteran starters at guard (Miller, Adkins) must be replaced, but returning players should be more familiar this season with run schemes and what position coach Steve Marshall and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy want up front. The health and durability of Dannewitz (back) is the early key to how the line takes shape. Marshall also wants his younger players like Nembot, Mustoe, Cotner, Crabb and Kelley to develop quickly for depth purposes. But this could be a very underrated O-line.
THREE PLAYERS DISCIPLINED: One CU football player has been dismissed from the team and two others suspended for two games each in the wake of an incident last weekend in Boulder. Police were called early Saturday morning after witnesses saw a passenger in one of two cars containing eight CU players brandishing what appeared to be a real pistol. It turned out to be a pellet gun and no charges were filed or arrests made.
Embree said he was informed of the incident by the players involved. After reviewing it with them, their parents and Boulder police, he has suspended junior tight end DaVaughn Thornton and freshman receiver Jeffery Thomas for the first two games and dismissed redshirt freshman linebacker Jermaine Clark from the team. Embree added that Clark had had "some previous issues" as well as "some personal issues back home" in Winston-Salem, N.C.
After practice Tuesday afternoon, Embree told the team he would address the incident at a team meeting that night. "It was three guys making poor decisions; they've all been talked to and their parents have been talked to. They all know what's happening," he told the media later. He said he would reemphasize to his players "how we behave and what needs to be done" and said the Boulder police "were great; they let us know what was going on . . . I know no charges were filed, but at the end of the day we don't behave that way. There's no gray area when you behave like those guys behaved."
Embree said the majority of his players "have tried to be the model citizens we want and can be proud of." He also said he empathized with law enforcement officers who were edgy about emergency calls associated with firearms: "I take this seriously; I understand the job they have is one that takes a special person to do that or want to do that. With all the events and things that have happened in the past, it's bad judgment . . . but we've got it handled."
The other players involved in the incident will be dealt with for violating one of the team's "in trouble after midnight" rules, Embree said, noting their punishment will consist of, among other things, after-practice running and strenuous agility work until Aug. 23.
The other players involved were sophomore defensive backs Jered Bell and Josh Moten, junior linebackers Paul Vigo and Derrick Webb, and sophomore receiver Keenan Canty. Embree said those players were in the two cars after getting rides home.
CREER KEEPS ON PLUGGING: Sophomore tailback Malcolm Creer is back and close to being full speed - an admirable feat after he suffered a knee injury at Arizona State that Embree thought might be "a career-ender." Creer, who had his redshirt pulled late (Oct. 29), saw his freshman season end that night in Tempe, Ariz.
Embree said although Creer has full clearance to participate in camp, the CU staff keeps close watch on him to make sure "he doesn't get in a bad position" if his knee gets fatigued.
"He's still very sharp mentally; he hasn't missed a beat there," Embree said. "He's done well when he's been in there . . . he's helped mentoring some of the younger backs. He could easily try to keep them in a bad situation to protect his position, so to speak, but he's confident enough in his skill and a good enough teammate that he's helped those guys."
Creer, a 5-11, 205-pounder from Los Angeles, said he felt good, but added, "I've just got to keep going . . . I'm not there yet."
BUFF BITS: It's extremely early in camp and full pads haven't been put on yet, but Embree still likes what he's seeing from his defense. "I like what our defense is doing; they're playing with tempo and energy," he said after Day 2 was in the books. "The young guys keep showing up and that's always a positive." . . . . Thomas, the freshman receiver who suffered a slight hamstring pull on Monday, could return to practice on Friday - the first day of work in pads. Embree also said freshman defensive end Samson Kafovalu suffered what appeared to be a sprained ankle in Tuesday's work.