The quarterback position is always at the forefront of everyone's mind and this has been an interesting spring at the position.
Junior Cody Hawkins and sophomore Tyler Hansen are playing equally well, with Hawkins probably still holding a slight lead in the competition based on his experience, mastery of the offense and consistency in moving the team.
Let's be honest, both players looked sharp through the majority of the first scrimmage, but Hansen led the team to four fewer touchdowns than Hawkins and he threw for more than 100 fewer yards. That is what has the scale tipped slightly in Hawkins favor to this point. But there are two scrimmages to go.
Matt Ballenger, the third quarterback when spring practices began late last month, has decided to transfer. Ballenger left with class, but it was clear he didn't believe he was given a fair chance to win the starting job based on how he answered questions about the subject. Water under the bridge now.
The offensive line seems to be slowly getting accustomed to how new line coach Denver Johnson wants things done. There was obviously going to be a learning curve here and the Buffs have shown signs they are beginning to grasp the nuances Johnson teaches differently from their former coach Jeff Grimes. There will probably still be some bumps in the road ahead, but things look pretty positive here, especially when you consider players such as Ryan Miller, Matt Bahr, Blake Behrens and Max Tuioti-Mariner have missed all or part of spring ball with injuries. Another factor is the development of players such as center Mike Iltis and right tackle Bryce Givens are getting their first dose of playing with the first team. The offensive line still seems like it will be a team strength in the fall.
The running game didn't blow anyone away in the first scrimmage, but part of that had to do with the aforementioned issues with the offensive line. The running backs are certainly in place and ready to take advantage once the line finds its way. Darrell Scott has trimmed down and looks like a more confident and determined player, Rodney Stewart never lacked confidence and is back to full strength after a broken leg ended a solid freshman season, and Demetrius Sumler, Brian Lockridge and Cory Nabors figure to be solid contributors in all the various roles they are being asked to learn.
Tight end is another team strength. The Buffs could go into the fall six deep at the position, including four seniors, as long as no one suffers an injury. This will give offensive coaches plenty of ways to attack defenses in the fall.
Senior Riar Geer hasn't gotten the full benefit of spring ball for the second year in a row as he recovers from injury and illness, but he still figures to be the top player at the position in the fall, though that doesn't necessarily mean he will catch the most balls. Patrick Devenny, Devin Shanahan, Luke Walters and Ryan Wallace and Ryan Deehan all have looked solid.
CU coaches are far from having the 10 scholarship wide receivers they would like to have on the roster. They have just three this spring, but a few walk-ons have made plays that have caught attention. Jason Espinoza and Ryan Maxwell are fighting it out for the fourth and fifth wide receiver spots coming out spring, but it will be interesting to see if they are able to hold onto those spots in the fall when recruits are added to the roster.
If junior college transfer Andre Simmons qualifies academically, Espinoza and Maxwell will immediately drop a spot in the pecking order. One member of the coaching staff had this to say about Simmons. "He has Patrick Williams' body with Josh Smith's ability."
Sophomore Markques Simas has been the clear standout at wide receiver this spring. He has soft hands and catches nearly every ball thrown his way. He also has enough speed to make defenders take every route seriously. He could be the most significant addition to the offense next fall. But the depth issues here are a big concern.
Aric Goodman's switch to a two-step approach on his field goals and extra points seems to have helped give him more confidence. He has made the vast majority of his kicks this spring, despite being heckled by coaches and teammates during the attempts. It's not exactly a game-day situation with the game on the line, but he has come through with a high percentage of made kicks. Of course, practice kicks have never been Goodman's problem.
The play of defensive lineman Taj Kaynor might be the biggest surprise of camp. Kaynor has spent a large of portion of the past four years living anonymously in the shadow of former Buffs such as George Hypolite and Brandon Nicloas. He has responded in a big way this spring to his opportunity for playing time.
Eugene Goree, Marquez Herrod and Will Pericak have been steady. Pericak is the surprise of the group, considering he just began playing defensive line early last season when he switched from tight end.
Based on what we saw before practices were closed by Hawkins, the defense appears like it will ask linebackers such as B.J. Beatty and Doug Rippy to help put pressure on the quarterback as rush ends in the same mold as former linebacker Brad Jones, who led the team in sacks last year.
Sophomore Curtis Cunningham will probably be a contributor once again in the fall when he returns from injury, giving coaches a core group of five defensive linemen who have been in the program and can be relied on. It would be nice if players such as Lagrone Shields, Conrad Obi and Eric Lawson can also raise their level of play and become more consistent before the season starts.
It might be the last, best chance for some of them to earn playing time with a strong class of four defense linemen joining the program this summer. All four of those players could compete for immediate playing time, though it's unlikely they would all play. Defensive end Nick Kasa and defensive tackle Edward Nuckols might have the best chances.
The linebackers and secondary are clearly the strength of the defense, and both units aren't even at full strength. The linebacking corps is a strong one, but it will get better by August when Jon Major is another four months removed from his torn ACL and freshman Derrick Webb and Liloa Nobriga join the roster.
As it is, the starters appear to be Marcus Burton in the middle, Jeff Smart or Shaun Mohler at the Will position and Beatty and Rippy on the outside. Other such as Michael Sipili, Bryan Stengel and Tyler Ahles have looked solid this spring, giving coach Brian Cabral and defensive coordinator Ron Collins a lot of depth and the ability to keep fresh bodies on the field.
It appears coaches will rely on the linebackers to help the line get to the quarterback more often this fall. The Buffs are definitely playing with a more aggressive approach that focuses on using their speed to disrupt the offense.
Burton has had a very similar spring to Kaynor on the line. He also is a senior and appears to see the end coming and wants to make the most of his final season in Boulder. He led the team in tackles in the first scrimmage and has been pretty solid. He's deceptively quick for a big linebacker.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith might be the best player on the defense. He is beginning to show signs of becoming a dominant cover man, and he is taking the game more seriously, which should only enhance his development.
He is part of a deep and talented group of defensive backs, when they are all healthy that is.
Six Buff defensive backs have missed significant parts of spring ball this year with illnesses or injuries. They all figure to be back and healthy by the time fall camp starts, meaning the battle for playing time in the back of the defensive will be fierce. That bodes well considering the Buffs play in the Big 12 Conference, where teams are known to throw the ball 40 or more times a game with regularity.
Cornerback Ben Burney has returned from five surgeries and looks like he will be solid once again as one option opposite Smith. Cha'pelle Brown could factor in their too and will likely play inside in the nickle for the fourth consecutive season.
One player who has taken advantage of teammates being out this spring is Travis Sandersfeld. He looks like he will be a solid backup and maybe a more significant contributor if coaches choose to use him as a rover safety.
There doesn't appear to be a big drop off in the level of play at safety this season with sophomores Patrick Mahnke and Anthony Perkins manning the spots formerly owned by departed seniors Ryan Walters and D.J. Dykes. Jalil Brown gives the entire secondary a great degree of flexibility with his ability to fill in at safety and play as a cover man.
If Anthony Wright can come back from a partially torn ACL and contribute and players such as Ray Polk, Vince Ewing, Steven Hicks, Bret Smith and Paul Vigo continue to develop, it will only add to the overall strength of the group.
Unfortunately, injuries have prevented the secondary from getting the full benefit of spring practices.