(Note: Third in a series previewing the Buffs position-by-position during training camp. Today: Offensive line.)
BOULDER - At 6-foot-9, 300-plus pounds and oozing enough freakish athleticism to make him a first-round NFL draftee, Nate Solder's imprint on the University of Colorado's offensive line last season was as large as his shadow.
This season, David Bakhtiari finds himself slotted as Solder's replacement at left tackle. And as for trying to emerge from that massive Solder shadow, that's not a problem. Truth be known, Bakhtiari never was in it.
As a redshirt freshman in 2010, he started all 11 games at right tackle, by season's end grading out behind only one player - correct, Solder. (For the record, Solder was at 94.3 percent, Bakhtiari at 89.8.) When CU's new coaching staff was assembled and Steve Marshall returned as offensive line coach, he met with Bakhtiari about switching sides.
It was essentially the first and last time anyone has spoken with Bakhtiari about the shoes he's expected to fill on the vital left side of the line. But Bakhtiari knows something about big shoes - literally: "I'm a size 14, sometimes a 15. Nate wore about a 16," he said with a laugh. "I know what the expectations are."
Former CU defensive line coach Denver Johnson, who now holds the same position at Tulsa, immediately recognized Bakhtiari's potential. By the end of his first spring practice on his second tour in Boulder, Marshall also was a Bakhtiari believer.
A 31-year coaching veteran who directed Dallas All-Pro Andre Gurode at CU in 2000-01, Marshall's resume reads like a Road Atlas (11 Division-I stops, two in the NFL). His credibility is unassailable, and when he says of Bakhtiari, "I think he's a rising star," it carries weight.
"I don't know if he'll stay at tackle the rest of his career," Marshall continued, "but he's an excellent football player. Not to take anything away from some other guys, but as a young kid he's got a chance to be a good player.
"The only thing that maybe David lacks - he's 6-4 (and 295 pounds) and maybe his length is not like a Nate Solder. But if he learns to play with technique he can overcome that. In the run game, I think he can be a force when he learns everything."
Solder occasionally figures in the education process. He and Bakhtiari still stay in touch, and Bakhtiari says the finer points of their position are discussed - such as new techniques Solder picked up at the Senior Bowl.
"He's just a good guy," said Bakhtiari, adding he feels no pressure in being Solder's successor. "It's just like when I was emerging on the right side, I just take it day-by-day and try to stay calm. If anybody asks me, I'm just saying I'm going to play as hard as I can and do the best I can. Wherever the coaches want me, that's where I'll be to help the team."
Right now, that's on the left side of a line that likely will feature senior Ethan Adkins at left guard, senior Ryan Miller at right guard and sophomore Jack Harris at right tackle. Harris could be pushed by Sione Tau, a leaner senior who reported for camp within 5 pounds of his August target weight of 330. He was pushing 380 at one point last winter.
The center spot will be a three-way camp battle involving senior Shawn Daniels, freshman Daniel Munyer and sophomore Gus Handler. Junior college transfer Brad Cotner could enter the fray, depending on how quickly he adjusts, and Marshall stressed that his starting lineup against Hawaii on Sept. 3 could change by the middle of the month.
"I'll know more in the first half of the first game than I did during 27 practices (in camp)," Marshall said. "There's nothing in practice I can do to simulate game speed. I like this group as far as its willingness, and we do have some guys with some ability. But putting it all together is not going to be a process that's going to happen in the first or second game; it's going to be an on-going process. I'm trying to develop a lot of guys early. We play 13 straight weeks; we've got to have a lot of guys ready to go to the dance."
In that context, Miller, an All-Pac-12 candidate, is a "ballroom veteran" and is among the Buffs' acknowledged leaders. Marshall says the 6-8, 310-pound Miller will be "one of the better guys in our league this year. The kid I had last year at Cal, Mitch Schwartz who will be a senior this year, those two guys in my opinion are very similar. Ryan may be a little more athletic in some ways; I think he can be a very good player. He's a well-respected guy who's been through the wars here - good and bad, and he's had injuries."
Harris, a 6-5, 290-pounder who began making strides last season, has "been consistent," Marshall said. "He's a big athletic kid and he's worked extremely hard. He hasn't played much in games, but in his first 15 (spring practices) he's done some nice things. He's got to improve in all aspects, but he's got the capabilities and the right mind set. We'll see how it goes as we approach the game and make another evaluation."
Adkins (6-4, 290) is a quiet veteran who's played in 20 games, starting all 11 last season. "He's played a lot of football here," Marshall said. "He's worked harder and is a little leaner; I wanted him leaner because we do a lot of things at that position . . . He's probably down to the 290 range now. This has been a little bit of a transition for him - learning a new, fast-paced offense. But I'm pleased with him; he doesn't say a lot, he just goes out and works hard. You like those older guys who've been through the battles - that's kind of where he is."
Developing depth is always a camp priority, and the need might be doubled at Marshall's position. O-lines dictate tempo, particularly in running games like CU has targeted. And in a 13-game schedule with no bye weeks, assorted injuries are bound to cut into man-hours.
Depth at all of his positions "is huge," Marshall said. "Without an off week, we need to have guys . . . guys are going to get nicked up, they're going to miss practice time and game time. We have to have guys ready to step up. We've really got to develop that depth and know we can replace some guys."
As for the O-line setting a rugged tempo, Bakhtiari said while it was emphasized last season, this season "it's really been ramped up. It's been emphasized by coach Marshall, coach (Eric) Bieniemy and coach (Jon) Embree - all three have been harping on it with us. We've been told how important it's going to be on that first play in the trenches. It's definitely been ramped up."
The need for cohesion in the O-line can't be overstated, and Bakhtiari believes while it's good now among the Buffs it will get better. "We get along well together and we're learning the plays better. (Cohesion) has developed but it needs to continue through this camp into the season," he said.
In a best-case scenario, said Marshall, "You'd always like to have four or five guys who have played two or three years together in college football. But the reality of it is, that's not going to happen. Getting that cohesion, doing things together is something we work on every day - and that's from a physical standpoint, from a mental standpoint, the whole deal.
"Offensive line is a repetition position. The more reps guys get together, the better, the more comfortable they are. It's a hard position to play. It goes fast. It's a specialist position."
Daniels, who he was sidelined by torn ligaments in his right foot last spring, finally was injury-free at the start of preseason camp. He said CU's new coaches "have done pretty well in creating that camaraderie in the whole team. I feel like the O-line has really come together over the summer. I think we're going to produce good numbers this year because we're more of a family oriented offensive line."
If there is a three-way dead heat at the center position entering the final stages of camp, Marshall's tie-breaker will be seniority - which means Daniels would emerge. But Daniels said he isn't counting on his upperclassman status earning him the job: "Coach has told us that everyone is competing and the guy who earns the job will get it - and that's how I'm going to practice."
He's also approaching the season for what it is - his last at CU. "It's my senior year and I haven't seen too much playing time," he said. "So I'll give it my best shot this year and see what happens."
The O-line could feature three senior starters, with another three in reserve roles. Leadership should start there, but because of his starting status last season Bakhtiari says he feels some leadership responsibility. At the same time, though, he notes he's the youngest of three siblings and knows "where my place is, and I've never really liked to take anyone's fire . . . but if I have a problem I feel like I have accessibility to any senior and tell him 'Hey, you're not being vocal enough' or 'You're not leading the right way and I need you to do this.' I don't want to take anyone's fire from his last season."
Marshall's lines carry a label of being technique and fundamentally sound, and he expects this one to be. He said understanding the philosophy of what Bieniemy, the offensive coordinator, wants is paramount to the O-line's success: "They go hand-in-hand; the better the guys feel about what to do, then they hone in how you do it. But we'll always work hard on technique and fundamentals and evaluate what guys can and can't do . . . if you're more familiar with how to do it, it's a lot easier.
"But we also have to work on fundamentals because at the end of the day, when things are going crazy in a game all you've got to go to is your fundamentals. That's a big, big emphasis; it was in the spring and will be in the fall."
Marshall appears overjoyed to be back in the college game, saying it gives him "immense satisfaction seeing guys that are 18 and being around them until they're 23. But I got satisfaction in pro ball, because those guys, if you're show you're going to help them and be there for them, they'll run through the wall for you.
"The NFL is a huge stage. Everything that happens to an offensive lineman . . . if we give up a quarterback sack it's a big, big deal. In college ball there's a lot of different aspects to my job as far as mentoring kids, just a lot to the job."
And for that reason, he says there is no realistic way to compare coaching in the NFL and college: "The comparison is there is no comparison. They are vastly different jobs . . . the recruiting, the academics, the other things that pull at you (in college). In the NFL, it's all football. The football is a lot the same - you teach some of the same techniques, but the jobs are vastly different."
Marshall, though, has been successful relating to players at both levels, probably because he's been the same person with each group.
"You've got to tell them the truth, you've got to be with them," he said. "There's tough love, there's pats on the back - all that stuff is part is part of it. But if they know you're out there to help them and you're on their side . . . in the offensive line you've got to make it a little bit fun. There's nobody who looks forward to going out there and running through the chutes and trying to stop a 300-pounder every day in practice. So we've got to be able to make it fun for them."
He's been able to achieve that, said Bakhtiari: "He's a great coach, he's well-rounded. He can be serious, he knows how to goof off at times. He knows how to get what needs to be done, done. And he knows how to make it enjoyable in the process. He can be on your ass and really chew you out and he can also give you a good pat on the back when you do a good job. He's a very good coach. We all enjoy him. I haven't heard anyone say they didn't like him."
It's always nice to be popular, but that's not how jobs are kept - and Marshall doesn't need to be reminded of that. He said the group he's working with can be very good: "Absolutely . . . I like their attitude and intensity. They're willing to do it. I think we're a little thin, but I think this group has the ability. We have to set the tempo for the offense . . . I like this group; we just have to keep going and pressing forward."
BUFF BITS: Sophomore defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe went head-over-heels after being cut block Wednesday morning, landing awkwardly on his neck and shoulders. Trainers attended to him immediately, but he eventually was taken from the field in an ambulance. However, that appeared to be a precautionary measure, and Coach Jon Embree told reporters after practice that Uzo-Diribe "is going to be fine . . . I'm sure he's going to be sore. There was a little bit of tingling (in his extremities), so it was just precautionary. You never want to take a risk with something like that." Trainer Miguel Rueda said all tests on Uzo-Diribe were negative and the player was released from a local hospital before 4 p.m. Wednesday . . . . Embree said he feels good about the depth being developed in CU's defensive line: "Inside and outside we've got some guys . . . with our schedule, to play the way we need to play we're going to have get everybody that's traveling, that's up for the game, involved." He said expects both freshmen signees Stephane Nembot and Juda Parker "to be involved somewhere." . . . . After a lackluster Tuesday afternoon practice, Embree said the Buffs regained their intensity level. "It was more of what we need . . . I told (athletic director) Mike Bohn this in the interview process: I'm not a want guy, I'm a need guy. We need to practice at a certain level. We're not good enough to just roll our helmets out there." . . . . Defensive back Parker Orms (strained calf) continued to watch most of practice from a golf cart with his right leg elevated. Embree said he hopes Orms can do some individual work over the next couple of days and return next Monday or Tuesday . . . . Chip Marks, the director of football operations under the former Buffs staff, is scheduled to join Mark Johnson and Larry Zimmer as a spotter in the KOA Radio booth on home game days this season.
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Steve Marshall, second stint on CU staff, first under Jon Embree.
Returning starters: LG Ethan Adkins, Sr.; RG Ryan Miller, Sr.; T David Bakhtiari, Soph.
Returnees: RT Jack Harris, Soph.; RT Sione Tau, Sr.; C Shawn Daniels, Sr.; C Daniel Munyer, Fr.-RS; C Gus Handler, Soph.; LG Kaiwi Crabb, Fr.-RS; LG Blake Behrens, Sr.; RG Ryan Dannewitz, Jr.; RG David Clark, Sr.
Newcomers: LT Alex Lewis, Fr.; T Pauly Asiata, Fr.; T Marc Mustoe, Fr.; C Brad Cotner, Fr.-RS.
Key losses: LT Nate Solder, C Mike Iltis, C Keenan Stevens, G Max Tuioti-Mariner.
Stat line: Among the three returning starters from 2010, Bakhtiari's season-ending grade of 89.8 percent was the highest. Next was Adkins at 89.4, then Miller at 88.9. In 847 plays last season, Miller allowed just two sacks and was whistled for two penalties.
Bottom line: O-lines set the offensive tempo, and often the tempo for the entire team. If the Buffs are going to be as physical as they're expected to be and run with the authority that Jon Embree and Eric Bieniemy want, Miller & Co. had best be up to the task. But all indications are that they can be. A huge factor in camp will be developing quality depth from a handful of younger players.