Coming into spring ball, the Buffs only had to replace one linebacker in Brad Jones. Not an easy task considering Jones was the only Buff selected in the 2009 NFL draft but most importantly, Jones was the Buffs only consistent pass rusher from a year ago. Couple that with an inexperienced defensive line, many think getting to the opposition's quarterback will be the main reason the Buffs won't be able to take the next step and win the Big 12 North. Jones was 5th in tackles from a year ago with 78 total (3rd among the linebackers), lead the team in sacks (7), TFL (7) and quarterback pressures (14).
Although Jones the pass rusher will be hard to replace, the initial thought going into camp was the linebacker positions would be one of the deepest on the team with a healthy mix of experience and youth. The experienced portion begins with returning starters; MLB Jeff Smart and OLB Shaun Mohler, who finished first and second, respectively, in total tackles in 2008. Mohler started the year as a sub but quickly worked his way into the starting lineup and was selected Honorable Mention in the Big 12 by the AP. Smart was named Second Team All-Big 12 by the AP in '08, as he led the Buffs with 118 tackles, good for fourth in the Big 12. Most Buff fans would have probably slotted these two players in the starting linebacker spot for 2009 and been perfectly content.
Next comes an interesting trio of veterans in B.J. Beatty, Michael Sipili and Marcus Burton. BJ Beatty may be able to fill "the Brad Jones role" in 2009 as he was often a rush end last year. Beatty's propensity to make plays and stand out makes him a player that will be hard to keep off the field. He was slowed by injury at the beginning of 2008 but with him healthy, he was expected to be a leading candidate for a starting spot this spring. Sipili and Burton were sort of unknowns coming into spring. They are bigger, "Levon Kirkland" style linebackers. Many thought Sipili might be the next great linebacker at Colorado but with off the field problems and injuries, Sipili never hit full stride in '08. With Mohler and Smart both gone in 2010, Sipili, along with Beatty, will be in a position to play a big role in the defense for the next two years if he can show consistency. Same desire to see consistency would also describe senior MLB Marcus Burton. You look at this guy from the sideline and you see a big athlete who passes the eye test. He wasn't really a factor in 2008 and for the most part, thought we would have to wait and see after spring as to what role he will play in '09. Most figured that Beatty would emerge as the Brad Jones replacement and the starting three linebackers would be set with a few of the younger guys challenging for time.
Then comes the youth and the guys that get people excited about the future of Buff linebacking: Jon Major, Doug Rippy and Lynn Katoa. All three redshirted last year with Major and Katoa being highly touted recruits and Rippy having the "most ready college body" of the trio. Major's freshman campaign was cut short by a torn ACL in fall camp while Lynn Katoa ran into trouble off-the-field and in the classroom. We knew going into camp that Major was going to be very limited if not out this spring as he was still recovering from the ACL injury. As for Lynn, rumors were swirling before camp, whether he would ever play a down for the Buffs. He was once again held out of spring practice for academic reasons and at one time, Natalie Meisler of the Denver Post had a story that LB coach Brian Cabral confirmed Katoa wouldn't return to the team. Katoa is still on the roster and for good reason. Other than being a talent, one theory is that the Buffs need Katoa to stay with the program to avoid hurting their APR score, an NCAA metric that tracks a program's academic achievement. The Buffs are flirting with running into NCAA sanctions which could cost them as many as five scholarships in the upcoming year or two. Katoa's potential departure would almost make that sanction a certainty. Who knows what the real story is but the team has even more incentive to get him on. Most of the optimism about the 2008 linebacker class was subdued as only Doug Rippy would be able to fully showcase his talent this spring.
As for the scheme, it was reasonable to think that the Buffs might implement a 3 - 4 this season considering the depth at linebacker and the unknown of the down linemen. In principle, this is the right direction but last year when the Buffs brought in an extra linebacker or defensive back, the defensive staff would rarely bring extra pressure from the back eight. Many remember Todd Reesing running around in the pocket waiting for options to open up down field. Along with the question of who will be the other one or two starters, the aggressiveness of this unit and the scheme Ron Collins implements was another pressing issue.
Post Spring Thoughts:
Answering the second question first, Ron Collins had this statement in the Boulder Daily Camera early in spring with my commentary:
Two things that we like to hear around here regarding the defense is the combination of "3-4" and "aggressive." Kyle Ringo of the BDC notes that defensive coordinator Ron Collins is all about getting his 11 best players on the field and if that means playing the 3-4 exclusively, so be it. Fine with me as long as the word "aggressive" is attached to it.
The defense was aggressive and it was multiple from what I saw in practice. He was not kidding about playing the best 11. The sets ranged from 3 - 4, 4 - 3, 3 - 3 - 5 with varying blitz packages that saw players like S Patrick Mahnke and S Tyler Sandersfield lining up close to line or moving to a rover spot. I did like the look of the 3 - 4, considering who was where and how they were playing it this spring. If Collins sticks to this aggressive, multiple defense, the Buffs might be able to compensate for a defensive line that has yet to prove much at the college level but the learning curve will be steep since the Buffs have not committed entirely to it as of yet. It was clear this spring that Collins recognized the strength of this team is in the back eight with strong enough corner play to drastically change the defense from a base 4 - 3 a year ago to a more "attack the weakness of the offense" type set. Whether the aggressiveness is implemented in the fall or when it is 3rd and 8 against CSU remains to be seen but right now, it looks good.
As for the personnel, it was a shocker this spring. Quite possibly the most impressive defender was senior Marcus Burton. At the first practice, I remember thinking to myself "I was right, the Buffs are going to move him to defensive line, he must have put on 10 - 15 pounds from last year and is too big/slow to play the inside." I was wrong. Burton quickly inserted himself at middle linebacker and on many occasions showed his ability to get sideline to sideline. Quietly, last year's starting middle linebacker and award winner, Jeff Smart, was battling for an outside position. Burton's size (6'0" 260) might be an early indication that the Buffs are closer and in a better personnel spot to implement the 3 - 4, although the depth chart is still showing the standard 4 - 3 look. Burton would be better suited to handle interior offensive lineman with his size.
Burton lead the team in total tackles 2 of the 3 scrimmages and ended spring ball as the Buffs most productive tackler:
Spring stats hardly tell the story nor should they be considered the indicator for future success but Burton's play was very impressive this spring. Michael Sipili also had a strong spring, showing his ability to play behind the line of scrimmage, leading the team in tackles for loss with four. Sip was second in total scrimmage tackles this spring.
Ron Collins was noted saying good things about all the linebackers, including the two vets:
"The linebackers were running around pretty well today," Collins added. "The edge guys, B.J. (Beatty) and Doug (Rippy) came off the edge pretty well. I think Mike (Sipili) and Marcus (Burton) are both playing pretty well right now."
If the Buffs do go 3 - 4, the combination of Burton, Sipili and Smart will be a good trio to hold down the middle. Sipili did a great job this offseason, losing a noticeable amount of weight, helping his quickness. Burton and Sipili are also one year more mature and looks to be making a world of difference.
On the outside, four players were battling it out: Shaun Mohler, Doug Rippy, B.J. Beatty and Jeff Smart. You might throw Jon Major into that list (when healthy) and Smart out of it considering he might be switched back to middle. Both Mohler and Smart, two starters last year are going to have their hands full with Rippy and Beatty on the outside. Rippy, still very young and learning, didn't compile the stats but the amount of playing time he received was enough of an indication that the coaches like his size and athleticism. The growing pains will be there for the redshirt freshman but the talent is evident. Beatty is also still learning. He sat out a lot last year and now as a junior is getting a crash course in playing every down and being a more well rounded linebacker, not just a straight ahead player. He showed he could get in the backfield averaging just under a sack a scrimmage along with a total of three tackles for loss.
If I had to guess who would be the starters in a 4 - 3 day one, it looks like Marcus Burton in the middle, B.J. Beatty at one outside backer and to me, either Shaun Mohler or Doug Rippy. The trendy pick right now is Rippy but he is young and Mohler returns off a solid year last season. Any one of Jeff Smart, Michael Sipili and Jon Major trio would not be a surprise starter at all, especially if the 3 - 4 becomes a reality. The Buffs go seven, maybe eight deep at linebacker.
Fr Lynn Katoa - academics/off the field incidents. Status unknown for 2009 and beyond.
Fr Jon Major - recovering from 2008 ACL tear. Should be full go by fall, giving Buff fans their first real look at the highly recruited 'backer.
Player(s) Who Emerged:
Hands down Marcus Burton and Michael Sipili. Most Buff fans would have been content with Shaun Mohler, Jeff Smart and B.J. Beatty starting in 2009. They would have been solid. With the emergence of Burton and Sipili (you can also throw in Rippy), competition for the starting spots is going to be heated the rest of the way with the potential of three new ones from last season. The way Burton played this spring, it will be hard to keep his big frame away from the middle of the field. The added depth will go along way in possibly making a move to a 3 - 4 and being more aggressive in the passing game. Plus the Buffs now have options.
This unit has all of the makings to be a top three linebacking corp in the Big 12 but I am not quite ready to commit to that due to the unknowns up front. A linebacker's best friend is penetration/clogs from the defensive linemen to keep blockers from getting to the second level. If no one up front can get attention, it could seriously diminish the production of the linebackers.
If they do get some help from the big guys in the trenches, they are top three in terms of talent especially if the Buffs get the same production from Burton & Sipili and Major progresses this fall. Couple that with a strong linebacker mind in coach Brian Cabral...it could be fun.