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A year ago it felt like every Colorado spring practice was held on April 1.

The whole situation was a foolish joke.

Dan Hawkins had the look of someone surprised to still be wearing the whistle on the CU practice fields. The lame duck coach's brief post-practice sessions with the media consisted of tired refrains:

"We just need to clean a few things up," or "I thought Tyler had a really good scrimmage. ... Cody played well."

The vibe has changed dramatically. CU football has a pulse again.

Before Saturday's scrimmage, it was difficult to find a parking space. After the session, some very young men walked off the field wearing smiles.

The Buffs don't have very many players who could start for the Pac-12's best teams, but they do have a coaching staff that will demand that they get most out of their skills.

That means developing players, creating competition in practice, and then making sure the very best players at every position are on the field this fall.

Ryan Thorburn, Camera Sports Writer
Ryan Thorburn, Camera Sports Writer ( PAUL AIKEN )

"The thing that has been impressive is they're willing to work and willing to learn. That's all you can ask for," offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. "Are we where we want to be? No. But the thing I like is every day we're striving for improvement."

The excitement surrounding first-year head coach Jon Embree and his impressive staff is a lot higher than on-field expectations should be if you take an honest look at the talent on the roster and the opponents on the 2011 schedule.

Restoring the pride and glory to the program is going to be a process. CU appearing in the 2012 Rose Bowl would be as improbable as VCU and Butler meeting in the Final Four.

Several recruiting classes need to be assembled before defensive coordinator Greg Brown realistically has the Buffaloes to match up with Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks or Andrew Luck's Stanford Cardinal.

At least Hawkins didn't leave the top shelf of the cupboard completely empty.

Tyler Hansen is capable of having a solid senior season now that the competition's last name is Hirschman (Nick) instead of Hawkins (Cody). On Saturday, Hansen looked comfortable running the new offense, completing 18 of 19 passes for 246 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

If that type of production is repeated in the spring game next Saturday night at Folsom Field, there will not be an absurd, never-ending quarterback battle like there was the previous three seasons.

"I'm not going to play those games," Embree said. "If Tyler continues like he has, and Nick doesn't start picking it up a little bit, then Tyler will probably be No. 1."

Rodney Stewart has the ability to cover up a lot of weaknesses and help keep the CU defense off the field more this fall. "Speedy" scored three touchdowns in the scrimmage.

Josh Ford (12.0 yards per carry) and Tony Jones (60 yards, one touchdown) also shredded a depleted defense.

"They're pushing us hard. Guys are getting a little fatigued. It's fun," Stewart said. "They're giving us a chance to show what we're made of."

The coaching staff has been pleased with the overall work ethic of the team but is still looking for more ferocity between the lines.

"It's a learned behavior. We're going to learn how to be intense at all times," Bieniemy said. "I told the group, 'This is what we love to do, so we're going to come out and enjoy it.'"

Spring after spring, Hawkins struggled with a lack of depth on the offensive line. Due to a rash of injuries, Embree is running out of material to work with on the defensive line this spring.

The difference? The new coach understands there are no excuses.

"I'm disappointed in the defense from the standpoint that we didn't have enough energy and enthusiasm," Embree said. "That's 90 percent of defense is just being excited about being out there and having some energy to run around and hit people. Not going through the motions, feeling sorry for ourselves going, 'Man, I gotta go again.'

"These guys aren't going to get this many reps again. They're going to be wishing they were tired like this."

Spring practice is no joke.

And moving forward with this group of coaches, CU football won't be either.