Improvement from the Colorado football team in 2014 could depend on the performance of the offensive line, and that group might be relying on a first-time starter calling all the shots when the Buffs begin the season against Colorado State.
Third-year sophomore Alex Kelley is the starting center following 15 spring practices. Kelley, a product of Oceanside, Calif., who was born in Madrid, Spain, still faces competition for the job in the fall.
"He's getting his body in better shape and understanding those nose tackles are quick and powerful and I thought the last half of spring he did really well," coach Mike MacIntyre said. "So right now, he would be our starter."
He played in all 12 games last season as a redshirt freshman but was on the field for a total of 97 snaps and played 20 or more snaps only twice.
"As I continued to progress through the season, I realized, 'I'm a college football player. I can play college football,'" Kelley said. "Everything settled down a little bit and I gained a lot of confidence from that."
The CU offense finished 10th in the Pac-12 Conference and 108th in the nation in rushing in 2013. The Buffs were 12th in the conference and 87th nationally in total offense and 11th in the Pac-12 and 86th in the nation in scoring.
The team lost its biggest offensive threat in wide receiver Paul Richardson and could really use improvement from the offensive line and running game. The next center will obviously be integral to making that happen.
Much of the line could be reshuffled in August if Jeromy Irwin is able to get healthy and junior college transfer Sully Wiefels plays at the level coaches believe he is capable. MacIntyre said he could see a scenario unfolding where Kelley isn't the starter at center if others such as Irwin and Wiefels excel.
Wiefels has played center, guard and tackle at the junior college level for a head coach who is also the offensive line coach at his junior college. Irwin is the Buffs' expected starter at left tackle, which would free up senior Kaiwi Crabb to move inside to either center or guard and compete for a spot.
Whoever starts at center will be trying to replace Gus Handler, who had 27 starts under his belt when his senior season came to an end in November. Handler wasn't the most bruising blocker but there weren't many defensive looks he hadn't seen in his career.
"I've always expected that of myself," Kelley said of possibly being the new starting center. "But I've just got to keep getting better, keep improving and hopefully I'll get that starting job. Right now, I feel like I'm still playing for it."
MacIntyre said Kelley gives the middle of the CU offense some punch with his 6-foot-2, 310-pound frame. He said Kelley made significant improvement from the beginning of spring to the end in shotgun snaps, which is crucial in the CU offense because quarterbacks spend a significant percentage of their time operating out of the shotgun.
Kelley said it's an advantage to be able to play next to senior guard Daniel Munyer, who has played both center and guard in his career. If Crabb is able to move to the other guard spot in the fall, Kelley would find himself sandwiched between two seniors, both of whom have experience at center.
Kelley said the center is still responsible for making the offensive line calls for the Buffs.
"For the most part I'm on top of it," Kelley said. "Every once in awhile, they will line up in a formation and I'll be like, 'Oh, I've never seen that before.' I'll ask Daniel and he usually knows, but for the most part, I've got it down."
Kelley's continued development will one of numerous reasons why a lot of attention will be focused on the offensive line when practices begin again in almost four months.