Up in Boulder, the quarterbacking competition is going strong midway through the University of Colorado's spring football practices.
Closer to home, Air Force already has wrapped up its offseason drills, during which the Falcons apparently made the most of some unexpected circumstances.
Regardless, both programs are achieving one necessary goal before heading into the summer and then preseason work. That goal is simple: Looking ahead to what is shaping up as a pivotal 2009 season for both teams, Air Force and Colorado knew over the winter they had to cultivate better depth at quarterback. And they're doing just that.
Colorado actually doesn't know yet whether its No. 1 quarterback will be junior-to-be Cody Hawkins or Tyler Hansen, who developed fast enough as a true freshman last year to share playing time with Hawkins in November. Hawkins, son of head coach Dan Hawkins, had made a big impression during his freshman season of 2007 but didn't make as much progress as hoped last fall, convincing the coaches to promote Hansen from redshirt status.
Hansen helped the Buffaloes to a Big 12 victory against Kansas State, and he also led a late comeback against Texas A&M before throwing an interception that sealed that loss. Meanwhile, Hawkins' numbers went from promising to average, which has meant a wide-open battle between the two this spring.
Both have looked sharp so far in practices, throwing as well as running. You get the feeling that, unless one makes a noticeable leap between now and August, Hawkins likely would get the starting nod for the season opener Sept. 5 at Folsom Field against Colorado State. But that's far from being a given. Obviously, the CU staff's other hope is that they'll continue to push each other, and both will be able to carry the offense at some point.
They couldn't make enough of a difference during the slide to a disappointing 5-7 finish last fall. Of course, it didn't help that injuries and off-field troubles combined to decimate the offensive line, forcing backups and freshmen into roles they weren't ready to assume. That also helped explain why the running game was lacking, and why the Buffs lost four of their last five games to miss out on a bowl.
That line should be much more seasoned this season, giving runners Rodney Stewart and Darrell Scott a better chance to keep defenses honest. But it still comes down to Hawkins and Hansen, or vice versa. If either can have even a decent year, Colorado has a chance to move up to the 8-4 range, perhaps even 9-3.
Air Force's situation is a bit different. Tim Jefferson took over the starting job as a freshman, but despite good speed and big-play capability, he clearly needed to work on instincts and split-second decisions running the AFA offense. Then he missed time in spring while spending more time on academics. Classmate Asher Clark, who played quarterback in high school but wound up as the starting tailback last season, was scheduled for extensive spring work running the show until a knee problem intervened, and minor surgery took him out until August.
Head coach Troy Calhoun has told media he wants to give Clark another look at quarterback if possible in the preseason, in part because junior-to-be tailback Savier Stephens looked so good in spring work. In the meantime, though, rising sophomore Connor Dietz and junior Ben Cochran took full advantage of the chance for many quality snaps in practice with the top offenses, and either could be fine in the No. 2 role. It's evident the coaches have a high opinion of Dietz, who led his high school team to an Ohio state championship.
But it still apparently will come down to whether Jefferson can return in late summer with more accurate passing and better decisions under pressure. As for Clark, he has nothing to prove at tailback, which means he'll have every chance in August to push Jefferson.
All that uncertainty would be more of a problem, except that the Falcons in truth have more talented depth at those vital positions — quarterback and tailback — than at any time in recent memory.
If Calhoun makes the right choices, his third season as head coach could become special. Same with Hawkins in his fourth year.
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