It didn't take Ross Els long to realize what everyone else on the Colorado football staff already knew about linebacker Rick Gamboa.
"He's a very intelligent player," said Els, in his first year coaching linebackers at CU. "You notice that with Rick, not only on the board, but being able to see the big picture. When you play linebacker and you start getting a lot of experience, your vision just increases. As you get older and more experienced, you start being able to see everything.
"Rick's at a whole other level than anybody else in our linebacker group."
Entering his third year as a starter, Gamboa is the only inside linebacker on the team with much experience, and the Buffs will lean on that this season.
Thrown into the fire as a redshirt freshman in 2015 after Addison Gillam injured his knee, Gamboa is now a junior with a streak of 25 consecutive starts and a determination to make sure the Buffs don't lose their edge on defense.
Eight starters and 10 regular contributors are gone from last year's defense, which ranked among the best in the country, and Gamboa has heard the narrative that this group won't be as good.
"We've been hearing it since the end of last season," he said. "It's not like we have a lot of freshmen and sophomores playing. We have a lot of experienced guys, a lot of guys who have been here. They probably haven't played as much football as they wanted to, but they've played football here, so it's nothing to new to them.
"Everyone wants to play, everyone wants to win and we set a standard as a defense last year of what we want to be and we know where we have to be if we want to be a good defense."
Gamboa is one of the veterans trying to keep that standard intact, and his biggest strength — his intelligence — could be huge for the Buffs this season.
To this point in his career, Gamboa has always had Kenneth Olugbode and Gillam with him. Now, junior Drew Lewis is the only other middle linebacker who has seen the field at CU. While the Buffs are excited about what Lewis can do, he played only 46 snaps last season.
Behind Gamboa and Lewis is redshirt freshman Akil Jones and true freshmen Nate Landman, Jonathan Van Diest and Carson Wells.
"It's a weird group, as far as the experiences that they've had," Els said.
That's why Els is thankful to have Gamboa, who has 175 tackles in his career.
"He's a coach on the field, no doubt about it," Els said. "His leadership role increased in the spring, but he's taken it to whole other level this summer, this fall. Guys are coming to him and he's going to guys with things that need to be addressed."
Through the first few practices of fall camp, Els has worked Jones and the true freshmen at both inside linebacker positions so that they are ready for either spot. Having Gamboa there has helped those younger players adjust.
The 6-foot, 240-pound Gamboa has never been known for great sideline-to-sideline speed, and he knows he's not the biggest guy in the room. He's always taken pride in knowing the game, however.
"I've always held it to myself that I want to be the smartest guy on the field," he said. "I'm always going to hold myself to that. Whatever I have to do, I'm never going to use my speed as an excuse. I'm going to get to the ball one way or another."
Gamboa has worked hard this offseason to make sure he's more efficient at getting to the ball, and hopes a great season is in store for himself and the rest of the defense.
"I'm reading my keys faster and getting my reads before the ball faster, knowing what's going on and communicating," he said. "I feel like this year I'm going into it pretty well and I feel very confident."