There aren't many players on the Colorado football roster who can feel comfortable -- in the final week of spring practice -- that they will be in this fall's starting lineup against Colorado State.
Center Gus Handler is one of the few who can rest easy, though coaches would never recommend it.
"He's got some work to do and some things that I'm on him about, but he is consistent as the day is long," offensive line coach Steve Marshall said. "He comes to work every day and you get the same amount of effort out of Gus every day. This whole staff has a certain comfort level with the guy and he's turning into a very, very good Pac-12 center."
Just one year ago, Marshall admits he would have been surprised to hear himself heap praise on Handler in such a way.
Marshall said Handler was one of the players he butted heads with most last spring. He said Handler just kept coming and slowly improved throughout the summer and fall.
The Buffs opened the season with Handler and Daniel Munyer splitting snaps at Hawaii.
Neither player had separated himself enough in Marshall's eyes to warrant being named the No. 1 center. But when Munyer suffered a leg injury against Colorado State in Week 3, Handler began taking almost every snap in practices and games, and he took control of the position.
"You've got to give the kid credit," Marshall said. "I was on him hard last spring and last summer and the kid has just came on. You know I anticipate him being an All-Pac-12 guy by the time he is done."
Handler, a fourth-year junior, wears a mop of long, light brown hair he first began growing three years ago as a senior in high school.
Combined with his beard and mustache, he looks a bit wild at times, especially when the helmet comes off after a long day on the field.
He says the look fits his personality -- he likes to have fun.
After sitting and watching most of the time during his first few seasons in the program, Handler is having a lot more fun these days as he becomes a player coaches are depending on.
"He's not one of the biggest, fastest, strongest guys on our football team, but he may be one of our most valuable guys right now," Marshall said.
Handler said he learned a lot last season being able to play between senior guards Ryan Miller and Ethan Adkins, both of whom will likely end up in NFL training camps this summer.
Miller is expected to be drafted in the middle rounds of the NFL draft later this month.
Handler said the two veterans were a calming influence on him at times because he knew he didn't have to see everything.
"It helped out a lot because they were like the big brother," Handler said. "If they saw something that I didn't see from their game experience, they would help me out a lot. I think we played pretty well together because we all understand the offense and understand what we have to do."
The Buffs were plagued at times last season by illegal procedure penalties.
Coach Jon Embree said Handler often did everything right in barking out calls to his teammates and helping identify blitzes and stunts, but there were a few times when he forgot to snap the ball on the right count.
Handler is able to laugh about it now, but admits in the heat of those moments his head was spinning.
He is expecting much less of that next season when he will be playing along side two guards with far less experience and who will be counting on him. Right now, sophomore Alex Lewis is the starter on the left side and Munyer is the starter on the right.
"I've been impressed with Gus really since starting last spring," Embree said. "He's done a great job of transforming his body. His weight may be different but he's leaned out.
"He's more muscle than just the polite way to say fat. He's filled out and he's a lot stronger. I've been pleased with what Gus has done. He's a guy we can definitely count on and he's been kind of the anchor up there."
Wide receiver Paul Richardson was injured late in Monday's practice and was taken to the training room for evaluation. Embree did not seem concerned.
"I think it's an ankle or something, fatigue," Embree said. "I think he had class. So it's like, 'Let's get him up there and evaluated and off to class.'"
Embree said he had planned to hold Richardson and several other Buffs out of Saturday's spring game to protect them from injury. Watching Richardson laying on the ground at Monday's practice only reaffirmed that decision.
Embree turned the focus of his conversation with reporters about Richardson away from the injury when he mentioned that Richardson is doing much better academically this spring than he did in the fall and could make the honor roll.
"How about that?" Embree said. "How about that? Shoot, he might make it. We'll see."
Large junior day expected
Embree said he is expecting to host approximately 50 recruits for junior day on Saturday, including about 35 who are making the trip to Boulder from other states.
He said he hopes CU fans show up in large numbers Saturday, as well.
"That's why it's important our fans come out because a lot of those kids saw what kind of crowd we had last year," Embree said. "That lets them know football is important to the community and to the university. It's not like that at a lot of schools. You go to the spring game and they get a thousand. So when you get in that 15,000 to 20,000 range, it means a lot."
Embree said the final week of spring ball is focused on evaluating some players and working on situational football, such as the 2-minute drill and red zone plays. ... Place-kicker Will Oliver underwent a second shoulder surgery during spring break and has his left arm in a sling. He is expected to be ready for training camp but is out the rest of spring. ... Embree said "quite a few guys" will be held out of the spring game to avoid injuries or to continue recovering from them. He said the list won't be finalized until later in the week but he said Richardson and defensive linemen Will Pericak and Chidera Uzo-Diribe likely won't play Saturday.