In retrospect, maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise that the Colorado offense had to morph into a passing team and turn away from the crushing ground game it had fielded the prior two seasons. If experience truly is a big factor in college football success, the Buffs were largely without it in the offensive trenches.
"We had Brian (Daniels) last year right out of high school, we had Sam Wilder move over from defense," explained junior OT Clint O'Neal after practice one day this past week. "It was my first year playing. We had Derek Stemrich playing for the first time. There was a lack of experience there."
"It's totally different," O'Neal said. "We've had a year under our belt to play with each other."
That year means Wilder (12 starts), Stemrich (11), Daniels (9) O'Neal (4) and Gary Moore (1) come into the fall with starting experience. And whether it's due to starts, number of snaps or reps in practice, players on both sides of the ball say the offensive line is ahead of where it was 12 months ago.
Offensive line coach Dave Borbely thinks so, too.
"Our effort's been good," he said Friday. "I love their work ethic. I think we're a lot farther along mentally and physically than we were a year ago this time."
Farther along, but still unsettled at some positions. Borbely pointed to a handful of battles for starting spots that are taking place this preseason. If the team were to play tomorrow, the lineup would probably be Wilder (split tackle), Stemrich (split guard), Mark Fenton (center), Daniels (tight guard) and O'Neal (tight tackle).
But that's not yet set in stone.
"There's a great deal of competition out here," Borbely said. "I think it's better at a couple of spots because we have a couple of guys that came out of spring as backups that are more ready to play at this point in time than we've had in the past.
"Gary Moore (guard) will be ready to play more snaps. Gary's still in a race for a starting spot. Terrance Barreau and Derek Stemrich are still battling it out for the split guard spot. Both those guys are very good players."
Borbely also said that sophomore "Jack Tipton (split tackle) is going to be a guy that's ready to play. "
One thing for sure is the competition bodes well for the line's depth.
"I think we're going to have seven or eight guys that'll be able to step on the field for us," Borbely said.
Borbely also had praise for his two newest pupils, true freshmen Garrett Collins and Daniel Sanders. Though they're most likely headed for redshirt years, Borbely said both were working hard. Sanders came to camp a better looking player than some expected. He earned an offer at the last minute in February after a scholarship became available. Because of Barreau's battle at split guard, Sanders has been taking every snap at the No. 2 center the past few days.
Which leads us to the least experienced starter on the line, Fenton. The 6-4, 290-pounder has no starts and just 70 plays under his belt. His most extensive time came in last year's Iowa State game, when he took over for an injured Hage after the offense's second series.
Fenton first impressed coaches in the team's Alamo Bowl practices in San Antonio at the end of the 2002 season. That following spring, Fenton practiced as the No. 1 center as Stemrich, who was supposed to take over the spot, sat out with an injury.
He says he's ready to go.
"Last year I played behind Marwan, and I learned a lot from Marwan," he said.
Fenton played center and defensive line in high school, and was originally recruited to CU to play defense. But he likes where he's at.
"It's almost like being the quarterback on the line," he said. "You have to organize the line, get the huddle straight, call out the defense for your fellow linemen and call out their blocking assignments most of the time."
And Fenton also sees a difference between the line play last preseason and this preseason.
"There's no comparison," he said. "We have a different feel. The camaraderie's better, we just feel like a cohesive unit."