BOULDER - He isn't tinkering for the sake of it, but Denver Johnson has no qualms about mixing and matching his Colorado offensive linemen until the right combination is apparent to him - and the guys in the backfield.
In Johnson's Week 2 lineup, junior Mike Iltis is expected to open at left guard in place of junior Ethan Adkins. Iltis' most recent start at the position was last November against Nebraska, but he played extensively in CU's opening win against Colorado State and graded out well enough to merit a start Saturday at California.
"It's not that we've discounted Ethan in any way, shape or form," Johnson said. "We want to be fair and reward performance and we felt like Mike maybe performed a little better in the Colorado State game."
Iltis, a 6-foot-3, 290-pounder, played 35 snaps to Adkins' 25 and earned a 91 percent grad to Adkins' 80. Johnson's grading system is based on number of finishes/knockdown blocks, touchdown blocks, quarterback sacks/pressures allowed and penalties drawn.
"I think I definitely had a good game, but there's a lot of technique to get better at," Iltis said. "I honestly don't think it was as good as I played against Nebraska, but I think there are things I've gotten better at."
During his CU career, Iltis has moved between center and guard, starting three games in 2009 at center before opening at guard in the finale. A sprained ankle in last year's CSU game hobbled him in early season play. But he finished strong and caught Johnson's eye against the Cornhuskers.
Johnson called Iltis "a quality player" who showed up particularly well on the Buffs' 82-yard scoring drive last weekend against the Rams. The march opened with five consecutive runs by tailback Rodney "Speedy" Stewart and was easily the Buffs' most consistent offensive series of the afternoon.
"From a total offense standpoint, to go 82 yards was impressive - and Mike was a contributor to that," Johnson said.
Iltis said he entered preseason camp knowing the competition at left guard would be keen: "But I felt like if I had the opportunity to get in there and take advantage, I'd have a chance to make it into the starting group.
"I believe we've got a good group of backups we can rotate without skipping a major beat - and that's a good thing because you never know when you're going to need somebody to step up. That's important for me and everybody else. Whether you're starting or not, you've got to be ready to go."
The Buffs accumulated 307 yards in total offense against the Rams, but 115 yards on the ground wasn't as high a number as they anticipated. Overall, Johnson characterized his group as hit and miss. The misses: the O-line allowed one of quarterback Tyler Hansen's two sacks and was flagged for three false starts and a tripping penalty.
"That's disappointing to you; you'd like to eliminate that," Johnson said. "But overall, it was a good start - a lot of good but a lot yet to improve on. We want progress and improvement certainly. I still think we've got a long way to be what we want to be as a unit."
Iltis doesn't believe plugging in a new starter this early will disrupt any continuity. To the contrary, he believes the rotation used in the opener "gives the defense a different look. Every guy has different things they're good at . . . When you're switching it up, it keeps a defense on edge.
"It can give us an advantage when we're rotating, as long as we continue to realize when you're in there you've got to know your assignment 100 percent, block it 100 percent and trust the guy next to you. That's what's important; when you get in you've got to know what to do."
Johnson used eight offensive linemen in the opener, but likely will go with seven or fewer at Cal, which he said will show his O-line a "very athletic, long, lean and quick" defensive front. The Golden Bears usually employ an odd front - a noseguard, a pair of defensive ends and outside linebackers. But the most prominent defender is senior inside linebacker Mike Mohamed, a preseason All-Pac-10 selection and second-team Playboy All-American.
"Overall, their athleticism really stands out," Johnson said.
Iltis concurred: "They're definitely no CSU, and I don't mean that with any disrespect. But they have strong, fast, very technical guys on the D-line. It's obvious they've practiced their pass rush. They're definitely in unison; they're like clockwork.
"And they're bigger, stronger and faster than CSU. We're big enough, strong enough and fast enough to block these guys - it just comes down to the technique. We've got to dial in to the technique and focus, make sure we're doing everything to a 'T.' The slightest mistake can leave you on the ground giving up a big play."
AIR IT OUT: The Buffs' past two days of practice haven't been hampered by sometimes smoky conditions due to the Fourmile Canyon fire.
Coach Dan Hawkins said an air quality test revealed "the air is better here than in a lot of metropolitan areas around the country - even with the smoke . . . . A lot of these guys are used to the air not being too clean."
NO FAVORITES: Hawkins was born and raised in Pac-10 country (Northern California) and visited Cal's Memorial Stadium several springs ago to observe spring drills. He also has watched a couple of games in Berkeley.
In his youth, however, he didn't wear the colors of any Pac-10 team - for a good reason.
"We were so out in the woods that we didn't have a (favorite) team," he said. "My team was the Big Valley Cardinals. Back in the olden days, you'd get one college game (on TV) on Saturday, and typically that would be a UCLA or USC game - or somebody back east."
BUFF BITS: Five Cal players made their first collegiate starts last week in a 52-3 rout of Cal-Davis - Hawkins' alma mater. Four true freshmen also played for the Golden Bears, who also had 17 other players see their first collegiate action . . . . Hawkins said CU's entire linebacking corps played well against CSU: "Everybody did . . . (but) it all starts up front and I thought guys (in the D-line) did a good job neutralizing and getting in the gaps . . . if your front line gets knocked around, then it's tough for your linebackers to do anything." . . . . Eight walk-ons have joined the CU squad since the fall semester started . . . . Freshman receiver Paul Richardson made one catch for 11 yards in the opener. Hawkins said receivers coach Robert Prince is "just trying to get him in there in spots where he can be successful and knows what he's doing, knows all the adjustments and can be confident in what he's doing." . . . . Cal has averaged 8.4 wins a season in its first eight years under coach Jeff Tedford. The Bears' victory against UCD was Tedford's 68th at Cal, putting him in third place (68-35) on the school's all-time win list.