When the new class of Colorado football recruits arrived in Boulder this past offseason, the veteran players noticed a difference.
"I've noticed that we have some big boys," senior outside linebacker Derek McCartney said. "That looks good. We can work with that."
Ever since he was hired as the head coach at CU in December of 2012, Mike MacIntyre has worked tirelessly to improve the quality of players coming to Boulder, and it's paying off as the Buffaloes look to defend their Pac-12 South title this year.
"We've definitely upgraded the roster, and that's the key," said CU co-offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator Darrin Chiaverini. "Year in and year out, you want to continue to upgrade your roster from the bottom up. If you continue to do that, you're going to see in a couple of years that you have a very, very talented football team."
CU still has a ways to go to build its depth to match that of elite teams in the Pac-12 and around the country, but the Buffs have closed the gap in recent years.
When MacIntyre was first hired, CU wasn't often beating Pac-12 or other Power 5 conference teams for recruits. The Buffs were beating Mountain West and Sun Belt teams. Now, the Buffs are landing recruits who are choosing them over their Pac-12 peers.
Of course, the Buffs were able to develop those lower-tier recruits into high caliber players who won a South title a year ago. Landing a higher level of recruit, however, can reduce the amount of development needed when they get to campus.
"The learning curve is a lot less," Chiaverini said. "When you have guys that compete at a high level on the high school level, in Texas or California or wherever it may be, they're more college ready."
Already this year, we've seen several of those college-ready recruits among the true freshman class.
At times, Jacob Callier, who played at California's St. John Bosco, one of the top high school programs in the country, has been the Buffs' best pass rusher.
Receivers KD Nixon and Laviska Shenault, who were teammates on a state championship De Soto High team in Texas, have displayed ability to make plays and they showed up with veteran-type bodies.
Outside linebacker Dante Sparaco, who played at Cherry Creek High School before competing at IMG Academy in Florida as a senior, could easily be mistaken for an upperclassman.
Along with physical maturity comes a certain level of mental maturity with a higher caliber of recruit.
"KD Nixon, he doesn't act like a true freshman," Chiaverini said. "He acts like a seasoned vet. That comes from playing in good programs and it comes from elite high school talent in Texas and the kind of players they are."
Senior safety Ryan Moeller said there are several reasons the Buffs are starting to draw better recruits. It starts with the efforts of MacIntyre and his staff, but CU's $156 million in facility upgrades last year has been significant.
Moeller likened the new facilities to a "pretty" Christmas tree.
Then, last year, the Buffs won the Pac-12 South and played in the conference title game.
"Those are presents under the tree," Moeller said. "That makes people want to come; that makes people want to be a part of this that are hungry."
McCartney and senior running back Phillip Lindsay both said getting the higher caliber recruits in the building is just the first step.
"Now it's just about, Will they work?" McCartney said. "OK, if they work, perfect; now we can mold them into having the right mentality."
Lindsay, one of the lower-tier recruits who turned into a star, said that while he's certainly noticed a difference in the look of the new recruits, he's more concerned about their hearts.
"Can they play on Fridays and Saturdays?" he said. "That's all that matters. Do they have the heart? You can look like a grown man but be a little boy."
Most of the 2017 class has yet to play for the Buffs, and most probably won't until next year or the year after. The early returns are good, though, and Chiaverini likes the direction of CU's recruiting efforts.
"The top programs in college, if we can get to a level playing field talent wise, it makes the games a lot more competitive and a lot better chance to win," he said. "We're trying to close the level of talent gap between us and the top programs in our conference and across the nation, and we're doing that."