WESTMINSTER, Colo. — Dalton Risner knows what is at stake. The numbers don't lie. The Broncos have not reached the playoffs in six seasons, have not produced a winning record in five years.
The time is now. Who will be part of the rebound? Will Risner?
"When you have a lot of new, you have to prove yourself in a lot of areas. I have been focusing on proving who Dalton Risner is as a leader, with my energy, my work ethic, on what I bring to the team, what I bring as a left guard," Risner told Denver7 last month. "I earned a lot of that the last three years, but with a new staff — there is barely anyone left in the building from when I got here. I have to prove who I am. There’s a lot of urgency. You’ve got Russell Wilson. We have got to win some games this year."
Risner enters his fourth season with a strong resume. He has started 47 of 49 games, earned All-Rookie honors and shown toughness. However, he is working with his third offensive coordinator — coach Nathaniel Hackett — in four seasons. And this spring, the Broncos featured a new line coach in Butch Barry and a different plan — the outside zone run scheme.
Can Risner find his place?
"I think I fit into perfectly. There’s a lot of talk about whether I could fit in this system or not. I could rarely care less about about all the talk. You know what I am about. I am going to outwork you and prove that I can fit any scheme," Risner said. "I believe I have done that. I think if you talk to any of the coaches, I think they would say I fit this scheme. If you have work ethic and you are willing to be coachable, you can fit in any scheme."
In the final days of mandatory minicamp, Hackett praised Risner. Risner, who turns 27 next week, took most of the snaps at left guard, though Netane Muti rotated in at both guards spots throughout the offseason.
"He’s been another one who’s been an absolute unbelievable surprise. We brought this whole system into this organization, this outside zone world, and it hasn’t been that way (before)," Hackett said. "He has really bought in and he’s doing a fine job running off the ball and (he’s) great in pass protection. He’s done a really good job and I’m really excited about where he’s at.”
Risner remains one of the Broncos' most active players in the community. He is a regular at Special Olympics events, and last month ran a free football camp at Westminster High School through A Precious Child. Risner was in his element, creating an interactive experience. Not only did he run the campers through drills and race them for prizes, but he offered them a microphone to shout out family and friends, while telling their stories.
"Man, I get to meet kids, build relationships and hopefully have a big impact on them. The Denver community always needs help. I just give them motivation and talk to them about how I got to where I was," said Risner, who was married last month. "The kids, I know a lot of them are going through some tough things, get to come out here, get active, get healthy and leave with a smile."
Following his camp, Risner stayed for more than an hour, signing autographs and taking pictures. He was that kid not long ago. Told he would never play Division I football or make it in the NFL. To play for the Broncos is personal. Growing up in Wiggins, Colo., he boarded the school bus to attend training camp. To be part of the team that turns the Broncos around would be special.
And the pieces are in place, many believe, with the arrival of Hackett and nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson. Hackett has spearheaded a seismic cultural change. He has embraced technology, focused on relationships, while setting a standard that is not to be compromised.
"I love the energy coach Hackett has. I love the type of players' coach he is. He is so knowledgeable about the game," Risner said. "You might see the part of him having fun and the energy. But the players have gotten to the see the schematic part, the playbook part. That dude’s a genius, man. And he's not afraid to make guys uncomfortable and hold them accountable. He constantly does it. He’s going to let you know when you do something wrong. He’s going to push you out of your comfort zone. He wants to win games, man."
That's where Wilson's presence cannot be overstated. He has experienced one losing season in 10 years. He boasts a championship ring — he triumphed in Super Bowl 48 against the Broncos — and a burning desire to restore the Broncos' glory.
"It’s a whole new level of accountability. You have a guy who has won a Super Bowl. He's leading the team. He’s the quarterback. He’s been there, done that. You know you have to listen to that dude because he knows what he’s doing," Risner said.
"The way he works — it’s not just to you guys in the media — he’s there early, he's there late. He has a stinking office (in the building). He’s a great person to be around, not only as a great man of God, a great father, a husband, and a great person to look up to aside from the football stuff."