One of the biggest questions about the Colorado football team going into this season is whether or not the defensive linemen can step up and produce.
Last year, the Buffaloes leaned on a trio of seniors — Jordan Carrell, Samson Kafovalu and Josh Tupou — who often controlled the line of scrimmage, playing key roles on a defense that ranked in the top 20 nationally.
All three are gone, and two of them (Carrell and Tupou) are currently on NFL rosters.
Replacing that trio won't be easy, but the Buffs will give it a shot with a group of players eager for their opportunity.
"It's a whole new year," junior Jase Franke said. "Guys last year, they did really good things, and now it's kind of on us to keep it going."
Defensive line coach Jim Jeffcoat said Friday that through the first six practices of preseason camp, he's encouraged by what he's seen.
"They're a very hard working group and they pay attention to detail," Jeffcoat said. "I like this group. I like how they come to meetings and how they pay attention and how they go about their business."
Leading the group has been senior Leo Jackson III, who started 10 games in 2015 before backing up Kafovalu last year. Jackson is slated to start at left defensive end and is having a great camp.
"No question Leo Jackson has separated himself (from the group)," Jeffcoat said. "He probably has the most game time experience and he's working extremely hard and he's being more consistent. That's going to help him eventually get to where he wants to go."
Outside of the starters last year, Jackson played the most, and the Buffs are counting on him to be a leader up front.
Next to Jackson, at nose tackle, the Buffs have some intriguing options, beginning with junior Javier Edwards .The junior college transfer enrolled in January and gone from 380 pounds to about 345 in that time.
"Javier is just a unique person because of his size and athleticism," Jeffcoat said.
Lyle Tuiloma, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound sophomore, is pushing for the starting job at nose tackle, as well.
"Lyle has made a big jump from when he first got here to this point," Jeffcoat said. "He's starting to do some really good things."
Another player creating buzz this offseason is sophomore Frank Umu, who reshaped his body in the past year and now checks in at 6-foot-4, 305 pounds, as he fights for a starting job at end. Umu and Tuiloma shared the award for CU's most improved defensive linemen in the spring.
"He's just got to continue to understand D-line play," Jeffcoat said of Umu. "He has done a lot of good things and he really wants to be good and he works at it. It's just little things, the little attention to details. He's going to be a really good player and we're really excited about him."
Junior college transfer Chris Mulumba and senior George Frazier, who splits his time at tight end, are also expected to contribute, while Franke gives the Buffs a versatile option.
"Jase can play any position on the defensive front, and that's valuable because he can do anything and he understands everything we do," Jeffcoat said.
Franke has played just 194 snaps in his career (76 last year), but has made the most of them with 26 tackles.
With so many players competing, it's created a healthy atmosphere in practice, Franke said.
"It's pretty good competition right now," he said. "I definitely have my cut out for me."
Regardless of who starts, it's likely that most of the players in competition will see the field. Because the Buffs don't have the individual standouts that they did a year ago, they'll have to get the job done as a unit.
"We have more depth (than last year) and we'll play more guys," Jeffcoat said. "These guys are really working to separate themselves as a group."
CU is hoping that more rotation will produce fresher legs throughout each game and the season.
"That's my job is to make sure I keep them fresh," Jeffcoat said. "They won't play as many plays as the guys last year, but they will have the opportunity to make plays because they'll be fresher."
Ideally, that will help this group become a solid unit that once again contributes to the success of the whole defense.
"We emphasize getting tougher, stronger (up front), because we want to compete, we want to go further this year than we did last year," Franke said.