Beefing up the line
CU currently has 15 offensive linemen on scholarship as it heads into spring football next month, and eight of them have started at some point in their career. A quick glance at the linemen (* players with at least one career start):
G/T Shane Callahan, 6-6, 310*
T Jeromy Irwin, 6-5, 300*
C Alex Kelley, 6-2, 315*
G/C Sully Wiefels, 6-3, 315*
G/T Jonathan Huckins, 6-4, 310*
G Gerrad Kough, 6-4, 290*
T Sam Kronshage, 6-6, 280*
G/T Colin Sutton, 6-5, 285
T Connor Center, 6-7, 260
G/T Josh Kaiser, 6-5, 290
T John Lisella II, 6-4, 295*
T Aaron Haigler, 6-7, 270
G/C Tim Lynott, 6-2, 300
T Dillon Middlemiss, 6-5, 290
T Isaac Miller, 6-7, 270
This offseason, the Colorado football team has been trying to find ways to spark its offense.
They now have two offensive coordinators instead of one. They added a gun-slinging quarterback from Texas, a handful of talented receivers, and a running back with a few stars next to his recruiting profile.
The key to CU's success on offense, however, is probably going to be the improvement and health of its line.
"It starts with them," junior running back Phillip Lindsay said. "Those are the top dogs we have. Without them, we don't have no football team, we don't have no touchdowns, I don't get no rushing yards, we don't win games."
CU struggled to score touchdowns and win games last season, in part because its line had a tough year. The line gave up 41 quarterback sacks and 87 hurries - dramatic jumps from the 23 sacks and 62 hurries yielded in 2014. Meanwhile, the run game managed just 3.75 yards per attempt.
Injuries, including a season-ending knee injury to left tackle Jeromy Irwin in Week 2, and inexperience plagued the group all year.
"There were times we played really well," Buffs' offensive line coach Gary Bernardi said, "but I think we have to be more consistent and obviously get stronger in the weight room."
More than anything, Bernardi had a tough time finding continuity with his line. The injuries led to nine different linemen getting at least 119 snaps last season. A year earlier, in 2014, just six players had that many snaps.
"I thought when the whole group was together, they got better," Bernardi said. "But when you had all the different combinations and they were working next to a different guy all the time, that was difficult."
Injuries are impossible to predict, but the Buffs look ahead to this fall with a measure of confidence that the experience gained last season will benefit them.
"I think it's a real plus," Bernardi said. "I look forward to working with them and getting better and doing better."
The Buffs lose just one scholarship lineman to graduation (tackle Stephane Nembot) and return 15. More than half of the returning linemen have had significant playing time.
The leader of that group could be Irwin. Projected, once again, at left tackle, the senior will miss spring football as he continues to recover from his knee injury, but is already bigger and stronger than he was last fall.
"I definitely think he'll ready to play in August," Bernardi said. "He views himself as a guy who should be an all-conference type of player."
In addition to Irwin, the Buffs have seven upperclassmen who have experience, including center Alex Kelley, who was the only linemen to start all 13 games in the same position last year.
"With the guys we have coming back and the work ethic that they're displaying in the mornings, you have to feel confident that we're going to get better and keep getting better," Bernardi said.
CU also has a group of youngsters filled with potential.
Sophomore John Lisella II was thrust into a starting role midway through last season as a freshman. He got better as the season went along and could be a main cog in the line for the next three years. Another sophomore, Josh Kaiser, got a small taste of game action last year, too.
Four players who redshirted as true freshmen last year — Aaron Haigler, Tim Lynott, Dillon Middlemiss and Isaac Miller — are impressing teammates and coaches this offseason and could push for playing time, too.
"There's some good young linemen, I think, that have a chance to be good," Bernardi said. "I think we've got a good young nucleus now."
Bernardi expects those young linemen to push the veterans this spring and into the fall, and he hopes the competition makes the Buffs tougher up front.
"I think there's a lot of guys that can play a lot of spots now because of experience in games," Bernardi said. "I think it's all about competition."
Kelley said the Buffs are excited for that competition. After last season, they know they need to get better in order for the team to win more games. Kelley has no doubt it'll be a better performance up front this fall, regardless of which five players are on the field.
"I go out and grind with these guys every single day," Kelley said. "I know how hard they work and how much this game means to them, and how much it means to them to play at the University of Colorado and in the Pac-12. These guys are going to be ready for anything."
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.