Colorado football fans searching for signs of progress from the Buffs and coach Dan Hawkins aren't coming up completely empty.

Plenty of questions remain about the capabilities of this season's team, and more concrete answers will be provided as the season moves along, but there have been reasons for hope through the first three games.

Exhibit A is the turnaround on third downs for the offense so far.

The Buffs rank second in the Big 12 Conference and 17th nationally in third-down conversions, just behind Nebraska. The Buffs are converting 51 percent of the time.

That level of efficiency isn't likely to hold up all season, but it is a drastic improvement over the Buffs' performance last year when drives and possessions were on the line. CU converted on third downs 36 percent of the time in 2009.

"Isn't that the best stat ever?" quarterback Tyler Hansen said when asked about the improvement.

Hansen described last season's team as "horrible" on third downs and said coaches and players put a lot of emphasis on that part of the game in the offseason. Hansen said he announces the down and distance in the huddle on third downs so that everyone in the game understands the situation and the importance of the play. It's something coaches began having him do in practices in the spring.

He said doing so gets him thinking about how he can make the first down before the snap. If it is third-and-2, he might remind himself he can probably run for the first down if his receiv- ers aren't open.

"It kind of kills the morale of the defense and just keeps drives going," Hansen said of converting in third-down situations. "If you can convert on third downs, it gives you more confidence for the rest of the drive."

Hansen was particularly effective last week against Hawaii. The Buffs converted 10 of 14 third downs against the Warriors. Hansen threw the ball on third down 10 times in the game and completed nine of those passes for 147 yards and eight first downs. He also threw two touchdown passes on third downs.

"He's still learning," offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau said. "He's still working to manage the game. I think he's doing better. It's in slow, small increments. Every Saturday for him is going to be another building block."

How important are third-down conversions? The answer to that question can depend on the nature of each team.

Those with big-play ability or tough defenses can get by without converting at a high rate and still win games. That hasn't been Colorado in recent years.

The Buffs have relied on the offense moving the ball methodically down the field, with big plays coming every now and then.

"I think what's real important is we're getting in third-and-manageable," Kiesau said. "That's probably the undisclosed factor here. Before, we were always in third-and-eight or nine-plus. We're doing a lot better job of being in third-and-three or third-and-six."

Notable

Hawkins said Paul Vigo suffered a broken fibula against Hawaii and is out at least 4-6 weeks. Vigo is the third nickel back to be lost for significant time to injury this season. Junior Jonathan Hawkins, who has had knee problems in the past, is the fourth player to step into the starting nickel back role this fall. Jonathan Hawkins, no relation to the head coach, made an interception late in the win over Hawaii. ... Dan Hawkins said the team is already working on the Georgia game plan this week.