LARAMIE -- The pads were finally out.
And few Wyoming football players were more excited than the guys who fight it out in the trenches.
"Finally get to hit people, finally get to have some fun," junior offensive tackle Connor Rains said on Wednesday, after Wyoming's first full-padded practice of the spring.
But outside of the simple joy of full contact, Wyoming's first padded practice also provided head coach Dave Christensen and staff its first look at the offensive and defensive line in full pads. Christensen said after last week's start to spring ball that it would be hard to grade the linemen after participating in, effectively, in shorts and shells (or as Christensen affectionately called it, "PE class.").
That didn't stop Christensen from sending a message after Monday's practice. In comments to the media, Christensen said the line play had to be better and reiterated that Monday's effort was "not good enough." But he thought he would be "pleasantly surprised" after watching film of Wednesday's practice.
"It was better [Wednesday]," Christensen said. "When we watch the video, I think we'll be happy with what we're doing from a physical standpoint."
Wyoming practices for the fifth time this spring on Friday and faces the task of replacing three senior starters along the offensive line, including center Nick Carlson, who was a first-ream All-Mountain West selection last year and potential low-round NFL draft pick. Between the three departed seniors -- Carlson and tackles Josh Leonard and Kyle Magnuson -- the Cowboys graduated 84 career starts on the offensive line.
The Cowboys guard duo of senior Tyler Strong (23 career starts) and sophomore Jake Jones (started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman last year) return, but the key hole to fill is at center. Carlson was a rock at the position (45 career starts), and his definitive replacement hasn't emerged early in spring drills.
Wyoming sophomores Carson Kass and Rafe Kiely have taken snaps at center, as well as redshirt freshman guard Chase Roullier. Albert Perez -- a 6-foot-1, 285-pound transfer from East Los Angeles CC -- also figures to be in the mix come fall. The 6-7, 318-pounds Rains and junior Walker Madden, both junior college transfers who took redshirts last year, have been running with the first team offensive line at the tackle positions.
Wyoming junior quarterback Brett Smith, probably the guy with the most invested in how well the line retools, said offensive line coach Jim Harding has been rotating a lot of guys through during the first week, so there was acclimation with blocking schemes. But Smith believes the line will be a strong point this fall.
"Once we get a lot of practices under our belt, they're going to do fine," Smith said. "I've already seen improvements since the first day."
Rains said the returning interior starters have provided experience -- what calls they've made in the past when they want to double or cut a player, for example -- and the new additions have worked around that base. But the early competition has produced the makings of solid first and second lines.
And there's still time to work out the kinds, which is what spring is for.
"We're still in the works," Rains said. "We've still got to work it out."