CU center Mike Iltis is hampered this spring as he recovers from surgery on his left knee.
CU center Mike Iltis is hampered this spring as he recovers from surgery on his left knee. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

If all goes as planned over these next five months, a pair of senior offensive linemen will be locked in a heated battle in August to be the starting center at Colorado in 2011.

The thing is, if anything has been learned from the careers of Mike Iltis and Shawn Daniels to this point, it's that things generally don't seem to go as planned for either of them, particularly when it comes to staying healthy.

Both are out of action this spring recovering from serious injuries that required surgery.

Daniels was pushing for playing time early last fall before a torn ligament in his foot cut short another season and forced him into the operating room. Iltis started the final 10 games of the season at center and was performing well, helping lead the way for running back Rodney Stewart to rack up more than 1,300 yards on the ground and become the third leading rusher in the Big 12 Conference.

But at Nebraska, as the Buffs were trying to pull off an upset and earn bowl eligibility, Iltis suffered the second major knee injury of his career. He knew it was bad when it happened because he had been there before. He blew out his right knee prior to the 2008 season.

When he returned to Boulder from Lincoln, Neb., he learned he needed surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a torn medial collateral ligament and torn meniscus in his left knee.

Instead of building on a nice season this spring, Iltis finds himself waiting for another injury to heal. He is standing and watching and trying to keep up in learning the new offense, despite not being able to actually practice it. Daniels is in the same boat.

"Sometimes you get frustrated," Iltis said. "Sometimes it is kind of like, 'What the heck? Why?' But at the end of the day, there is nothing you can do about what happens except for the way you move forward with it. It is a step back and you have to regain that ground you've already covered before, but it's another challenge and football is all about the love for the challenge, going against somebody, figuring our the defense and trying to beat the other guy."

Offensive line coach Steve Marshall has liked what he has seen from his entire group so far this spring, but he cautions that it is early and there is still a long way to go.

In the absence of Iltis and Daniels, two young centers -- sophomore Gus Handler and freshman Daniel Munyer -- are getting all the work and loads of valuable experience sharing all the practice repetitions.

"Without question it helps them light years," Marshall said. "They're getting every rep. Only time will tell how much it will help them, but hopefully down the road it will pay big dividends."

Marshall said Iltis and Daniels have to do a good job of "practicing without practicing." They have to be engaged and paying attention because falling too far behind might allow one of the youngsters to take over.

That's just what Munyer hopes to do. The 6-foot-2, 295-pound product of Tarzana, Calif., received rave reviews last fall from former offensive line coach Denver Johnson, and he's determined to earn the same praise from Marshall.

"My goal is to be starting here," Munyer said. "So I am doing whatever I can. Just getting in my playbook, watching film, getting in the training room and rehabbing as much as I can just to put all of my performance on the field and show the coaches what I can do."

So far both players have worked with the first team. Handler, who was recruited to CU by linebackers coach Brian Cabral because of his tenacity as a high school player, was listed as the third-team center all of last season. Marshall said both centers have picked up things well to this point.

One trouble spot has been a rash of fumbled exchanges between the centers and the quarterbacks. CU head coach Jon Embree said the problem continued during the first closed practice session of spring ball on Monday.One possible explanation is that all three quarterbacks, Tyler Hansen, Nick Hirschman and Brent Burnette played in spread systems last year and took most of their snaps in the shotgun formation.

"The ball was on the ground way too much today," quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer said.

Like most offenses, the new system being installed at CU will rely heavily on the center to make all the calls and adjustments on the line. Marshall said the responsibility doesn't fall solely on one player, but it definitely starts with the center.

Embree said regardless of who ultimately earns the starting job at center in 2011, having two young players taking most of the snaps at the position this spring will help in the future whether they play guard or center.

"Them moving to the center position forces them to learn everything cause they've got to make calls," Embree said. "It's important those guys up front know what's going on and they're not waiting for the center to make the call for them because there might be situations where you don't get to hear or it might be a situation where it happens late and you need to see the same thing he sees."

Marshall said he hasn't really taken it easy on the amount of information he feeds his players. He said he has "thrown the kitchen sink at them." And more is being added to their plate every day. Munyer said Marshall seems to coach many of the same concepts and techniques as Johnson, but he does it with different terminology.

Meanwhile, Iltis and Daniels wait their turn hoping their bodies will cooperate.

"Going through it before really gave me an edge because I knew what to expect for the most part," Iltis said. "It's a mind game. With injuries and anything that is hard in life, it's your mental take and how you go about it after. You can either go in a positive way or in a negative way."