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March 31, 2009
No one said restoring Colorado to national prominence would be easy.
And as three consecutive losing seasons would indicate, the job hasn't been easy for coach Dan Hawkins. But it got much harder last season when nine players were lost for the season to injury at some point. The silver lining is that several young players who were pressed into duty now are experienced, and that's reason for encouragement.
The Buffs will be more encouraged if newcomers in the defensive line and secondary show they're ready to play at a high level. And if an impending competition at quarterback turns that position into an area of strength, Colorado soon might be nationally relevant again.
Here's a look at the Buffaloes as they ready for spring practice.
Positions of strength
The Buffaloes are deep at running back with Rodney Stewart coming back from injury. Stewart had a shot at a 1,000-yard rushing season as a true freshman until he suffered a fractured right fibula against Texas A&M. He had won the starting job over Demetrius Sumler and freshman Darrell Scott, a five-star recruit. They all return and will compete for the starting job again. The Buffaloes are so good at running back that former four-star prospect Ray Polk is moving to safety. Colorado is solid at linebacker, too. Jeff Smart and Shaun Mohler ranked first and second, respectively, on the team in tackles last season, and both are back for an encore. Junior B.J. Beatty, who impressed in a backup role last season, figures to move into the starting lineup this season.
Help is needed
Last season's strength is this season's concern. Three starting defensive linemen have moved on, including All-Big 12 tackle George Hypolite. Sophomores Curtis Cunningham and Eugene Goree received limited time last season, but they could end up as starters at tackle. The secondary needs three new starters, including both safety spots. Though special teams typically are sound in Boulder, there is some concern there. Aric Goodman was just 5-for-14 on field-goal attempts last season, and Matt DiLallo struggled with his consistency. The Buffs need to improve in both facets.
Keep an eye on
CB Ben Burney: Burney, a starter in 2007, sat out the '08 season because of a shoulder injury. The Buffaloes' secondary was average at best without him. If Burney - a senior - is back at full strength, he upgrades the pass defense immediately.
C Mike Iltis: The offensive line could be good if a capable replacement is found for center Daniel Sanders. Iltis, a sophomore from Florida prep powerhouse Sarasota Riverview, was a possible starter at left guard last season but tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the first fall practice. Sufficiently healed, he could move in at center.
WR Markques Simas: Simas, a sophomore, is a former four-star prospect who was academically ineligible last season. Getting him on the field is imperative. He might be the most talented receiver on the roster, and Colorado ranked just 81st in the country in passing offense last season.
His time is now
At 6 feet 2 and 195 pounds, junior cornerback Jimmy Smith is the Buffaloes' most physically imposing defensive back. He's even shown flashes of talent that some say could lead to all-Big 12 recognition. But he hasn't played consistently enough to win a starting job. This should be the season he does.
Injuries are the main reason for Colorado's subpar showing in 2008, but erratic quarterback play was a reason, too. Though Cody Hawkins is the coach's son and has two years as a starter under his belt, the No. 1 job isn't secure. He'll have to fend off challenges from Tyler Hansen and Matt Ballenger to stay atop the depth chart. Any of the three could end up the starter.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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