The home opener for the Colorado Buffaloes football team last fall should have been a glorious occasion.
And, in many ways, it was. Under a bright sky and a perfectly picturesque Boulder setting, the Buffs put together what arguably turned out to be their most complete performance of the 2015 campaign, amassing their best single-game rushing performance in 13 years (390 yards) while dominating the second half in a 48-14 thrashing of UMass.
It was, however, a costly victory.
Middle linebacker Addison Gillam and left tackle Jeromy Irwin both limped off the field that day with knee injuries that kept them sidelined the remainder of the season. Though both players missed spring practice while focusing on rehabilitation, both are back on the field for preseason workouts and ready to reclaim their starting roles.
"It's been an interesting couple of days of just shaking off all the rust," Irwin said. "That's what it's like now, just working on my craft. The hardest part was watching. I hate watching. I want to be out there with the guys I grind with. Sitting down and watching is not that fun. I stayed here since May break just getting ready to go."
Gillam's injury was particularly frustrating, as it marked the second consecutive season he had been limited by physical setbacks following a record-setting freshman season.
In 2013, Gillam set a program record for freshmen by compiling 119 tackles, which helped land him on a number of freshman All-American teams. He was the first freshman to lead CU in tackles since the statistic was first tracked beginning in 1964 and was expected to blossom further in 2014.
But that never quite happened. While Gillam answered the bell for 11 of 12 games, a rash of injuries and illness dropped his season tackle total to 79. Gillam made five tackles in last year's opening loss at Hawaii before tearing his left meniscus early against UMass, a setback that ultimately required a pair of surgeries.
"I'm excited to actually be able to hit and all that," Gillam said. "I definitely missed all this, not being out here. It was very frustrating and it still is. It's been good in the weight room, but I haven't been able to do much running. I'm still worried about getting in shape."
While Gillam could only watch as CU's defense took marked steps forward under then-new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, Irwin's injury began a carousel along the offensive line that left quarterback Sefo Liufau, and eventual injury replacements Jordan Gehrke and Cade Apsay, under near-constant assault.
With Irwin set to resume his role as the line's anchor at left tackle, the silver lining of last year's constant lineup juggling is that four of the five linemen currently sitting atop the Buffs' depth chart boast significant starting experience, as does current No. 2s Jonathan Huckins and Shane Callahan.
"Last year was a learning curve for some of the young guys, because they did get thrown in there early," Irwin said. "I think they've improved a tremendous amount. It always pays off when you get guys in there early to take reps, because the more experience you get with your technique and everything else."