Pac-12: Ethan Adkins

David BakhitiariJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOffensive tackle David Bakhtiari has high expectations for the Buffaloes this season.
Receiver Paul Richardson is Colorado's best player. He's got Pac-12 speed, which the Buffaloes were sorely lacking in 2011. Coach Jon Embree's chief task in recruiting is to get more Paul Richardsons -- speedy guys for both sides of the ball.

But the rebuilding project in Boulder is going to require just as much David Bakhtiari as Paul Richardson. Bakhtiari, the Buffs' left offensive tackle, earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2011 as a sophomore, the only Colorado player to get an All-Conference nod.

He's a want-to guy. A guy who talks about chemistry and a sense of urgency. A guy willing to lead. A guy who seems slightly bothered -- politely so, of course -- when a reporter notes the Buffs' significant holes heading into 2012.

Why should folks believe Colorado can improve on a 3-10 finish despite losing its top passer, top rusher and top-two receivers (Richardson missed four games due to injury)?

"There is definitely a sense of urgency that I can see from last year's team to this year's team," Bakhtiari said. "People are moving around with a purpose. They are buying into our common goal, which is a bowl game. We've decided we are tired of going home in December and watching all these games."

Bakhtiari has been impressed with QB Connor Wood, the Texas transfer who has the inside track to replace Tyler Hansen. He raves about RB Tony Jones, who will step in for Rodney Stewart. Stewart only led the Buffs in rushing four consecutive years and now ranks second on the school's all-time rushing list. And a healthy Richardson is the obvious choice to replace the receptions that departed with Stewart (45) and Toney Clemons (43).

But if the Buffs are going to improve, they are going to need to score more than 19.8 points per game, a total that ranked last in the Pac-12 in 2011. That starts with Bakhtiari and the O-line, which is replacing guards Ethan Adkins and Ryan Miller.

Offensive line coach Steve Marshall, speaking to B.G. Brooks, called Bakhtiari "probably was our most productive player (in 2011) game in and game out." He'll be protecting Wood's blindside as well as leading the charge for a rushing offense that needs to do better than 3.5 yards per carry and 109 yards per game.

Like most Colorado players, Bakhtiari was recruited by Dan Hawkins, a far softer touch than the demanding, straight-talking Embree. (Said Bakhtiari, "Embree is a little more, 'I want production and I'm going to get it.'"). Unquestionably, there was an adjustment to the change in styles in 2011. There was a lot less nurturing and a lot more barking at practices. And Embree isn't afraid to publicly question his players commitment to winning.

But there were hints of accord late last season between coaching staff and locker room. After a 1-9 start, the Buffs won two of their final three games, including a shocking and impressive 17-14 win at Utah, which knocked the Utes out of the Pac-12 title game.

"Guys are now understanding what these coaches want and how they want it to be," Bakhtiari said. "Last year, we were kind of chickens with our heads cut off."

That's a start. It's probably going to take a few more Richardsons and Bakhtiaris to get the Buffs into Pac-12 South Division contention. But that's a start.
No Pac-12 offensive line is going to scare you heading into 2011. Even Arizona State, which welcomes back its entire 2010 depth chart, doesn't look like a dominant unit.

So there is no Washington in 2000, California in 2004, USC in 2005 or Stanford in 2010. Just about every team has at least some concerns up front.

So how to things stack up? Read on.

Great shape

[+] EnlargeArizona State's Garth Gerhart
Jeff Hanisch/US PRESSWIREArizona State center Garth Gerhart anchors the top returning line in the Pac-12.
Arizona State: 11 of 12 from the 2010 two-deep are back, including center Garth Gerhart and tackle Evan Finkenberg. The Sun Devils line was not dominating in 2010, so this unit is not a sure-thing. But it's reasonable to project a solid unit becoming a very good one in 2011.

Good shape

Colorado: Sure, tackle Nate Solder is gone, and center Mike Iltis decided to give up football, but three quality starters are back and several others have experience. Ryan Miller and Ethan Adkins might be the best guard tandem in the Pac-12.

Stanford: The Cardinal lost three starters, but the two coming back are first-team All-Pac-10 guys from 2010 and All-American candidates this fall: tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro. The new guys played well this spring. It's possible this line will again be very good, but three new starters is three new starters.

Utah: The Utes welcome back three starters, including both tackles, from a line that was solid in 2010. Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen will be one of the better tackle combinations in the conference, and Tevita Stevens, who played guard last year, provides experience at center.

California: The Bears were uncharacteristically mediocre last year, but they probably weren't as bad as some think, seeing that they didn't have a passing threat to keep defenses honest after QB Kevin Riley got hurt. Three starters are back -- tackle Mitchell Schwartz was second-team All-Pac-10 last year -- and a number of other players have experience.

Oregon: While the Ducks officially lost three starters, tackle Darrion Weems started enough games in 2010 to count as a returning starter. Tackle Mark Asper and guard Carson York are solid, but there are questions after that. The line struggled this spring -- perhaps the D-line is just good? -- and former walkon Ramsen Golpashin was able to hold onto a starting spot. It's nice when a walk-on does well but it does cast the scholarship players in a questionable light.

Washington: Three starters are back and there's optimism the Huskies struggling line is ready to take a step forward. The run blocking was much better over the second half of the season. Still, none of the three returning starters even earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in 2010.

Oregon State: Four starters are back but that might not be good news considering how mediocre-to-bad the line play was in 2010. Still, the Beavers have, traditionally, found a way to get it done up front. Perhaps 2010 was just a blip.

We'll see

UCLA: If healthy, the Bruins could be solid on the O-line, but that's a big if. The unit struggled during spring practices due to injuries, which exposed a lack of depth. It's uncertain when tackle Jeff Baca will be back from a broken ankle and he may be the Bruins best lineman. Center Kai Maiava and guard/tackle Sean Sheller are expected to be OK in the fall, but will they stay that way?

Washington State: The Cougars welcome back three starters and should be better in 2011 due to young players getting experience last fall. But you have to wait-and-see with a unit that gave up 51 sacks a year ago.

USC: The Trojans lost three starters from a line that mostly underachieved in 2010. They have two good starters back -- tackle Matt Kalil and guard Khaled Holmes -- but things are wide-open after that. And the struggles this spring, due in large part to injuries, revealed a worrisome lack of depth.

Arizona: There was plenty of optimism in Tucson that the Wildcats will be fine on the O-line, that losing five starters from a unit that underachieved isn't that big of a deal. But replacing five starters means a team has no idea what things will look like when the lights come on for real. So we'll see.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12