Despite starting every game during the 2014 and 2015 seasons and being a leader on a roster full of veterans, Alex Kelley's job was hardly secure coming into the year.
Seven games into the season, Colorado's senior center is having his best season and solidifying a much improved offensive line for the Buffaloes (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12), who visit Stanford (4-2, 2-2) on Saturday.
"He's done an excellent job with us this year," CU head coach Mike MacIntyre said. "He and the quarterback are the key to us going fast. He is able to get us up there, get the calls out quick, see it and go with it. Alex has played really well for us."
A fifth-year senior from Oceanside, Calif., Kelley started all 25 games the previous two years, but was challenged in the offseason by offensive line coach Klayton Adams to get better.
"This last year and last offseason was pretty rough for me; just a few family things and a few different issues," Kelley said. "But, (Adams) really challenged me and I kind of had to just buckle down. I realized I have one more guaranteed season of football left. My goals and dreams are still out there to go try to play pro, but I was kind of at a pass - I could slip away and not be able to reach those goals or I could continue to persevere and try to reach those."
CU had no shortage of options if Kelley couldn't step up. Senior Sully Wiefels was ready to battle for the starting job. The Buffs love the potential of redshirt freshman Tim Lynott — who has been starting at right guard this season. Even junior guard Jonathan Huckins gave center a shot and impressed Adams with how well he did.
"Going out there and realizing that I have to bring 110 percent every practice, that really helped me become what I am today and helps me become better every day," Kelley said.
With the Buffs going to a more up-tempo offense, they needed the 6-foot-2, 310-pound Kelley to be in better shape.
The Buffs also needed him to be more consistent with his snaps, because there were times last year when Kelley would almost skip his shot-gun snaps back to the CU quarterbacks, who had to lean down to pick up the ball. A couple of times, the quarterback went to a knee to pick it up, causing a negative-yardage play.
"The center's first and foremost job out of anything is to get the ball to the quarterback," said Kelley, whose father, Karry, lettered four times as a CU lineman from 1976-79. "When you can't do that, doubt starts to creep in your mind."
There's no longer any doubt. Kelley is in better shape and he's been consistent with his snaps.
"I've dropped down a few more pounds from last year, and I actually changed up my snapping style," he said. "That kind of came out of necessity. I messed up one of my fingers on my snapping hand during fall camp, and I kind of grew used to it and I got really good at it, and everything has been good. I haven't really had any mishaps."
Seeing Kelley play well is satisfying for MacIntyre, who knows how much Kelley means to the Buffs, and how much the Buffs mean to him.
"He's very well respected by his teammates," MacIntyre said. "Off the field, the type of person he is, the type of charisma he has and he has that infectious love for CU. That's extremely important, especially as we've been trying to build this. As we keep building it, he's a big, important part of that."
Last year, the Buffs had a bit of a revolving door at offensive line, mostly due to injuries, and that was a big factor in the team struggling up front.
This year, the Buffs have used some line rotations to their benefit.
"As many plays and as fast as we play, if they get worn down, we're not going to be effective," MacIntyre said. "When you can play guys that have played a lot and be able to rotate in some and not miss a beat, which we haven't, that's good."
In a 40-16 win against Arizona State on Saturday, the Buffs used Huckins for 24 snaps at guard to give Gerrad Kough and Lynott some rest. Huckins also played 28 snaps in relief during a victory against Oregon State.
"When we can rotate him, that keeps us fresher," MacIntyre said. "Those guards, we pull them a lot, and if we can keep them fresh, they pull better, they stay on the blocks better, they get around quicker."
Aaron Haigler, who has played 215 snaps this year at tackle, will miss his second game in a row with a knee injury. The Buffs hope to have him back for the UCLA game on Nov. 3. ... Stanford has a 6-3 edge in the series with the Buffs, including 3-0 since CU joined the Pac-12 in 2011. ... From 2011-15, the Buffs were 3-17 against the Pac-12 North division, but they are 2-0 against the North this season.