Mel Tucker, and by proxy Tyson Summers, are bringing a new-look defense to Boulder. While they are continuing the base 3-4 defense that Mike MacIntyre instilled, the bits and pieces are drastically different.
Tucker is installing Kirby Smart’s defense at Colorado, which means that he’s trying to bring the most successful defense in the last ten years of college football. Tyson Summers, who spent the past two years studying the defense under Tucker and Smart at Georgia, is Mel’s chosen acolyte, the caretaker of this sacred scheme. He had a semi-successful stint as defensive coordinator for UCF and CSU before a train wreck stint as head coach of Georgia Southern. He’s loud, he’s fiery, and he’s very Georgian. He’s tasked with installing a more aggressive defense that puts pressure on the offense and defenders alike.
If this team can get their head on straight, it could go just fine. But if new personnel and new scheme don’t mesh well, we could see a lot of shoot-outs in Boulder.
Like all good football teams, let’s start this preview off with the defensive line. Jimmy Brumbaugh is now the coach for this unit after Kwahn Drake. Javier Edwards is gone, Israel Antwine is gone, Jase Franke is gone, Lyle Tuiloma is gone, and replacing them are almost all new players.
The only returning starter, the one stalwart to hang your hopes on, is Mustafa Johnson. All discussion has to start and end with him. At defensive end, the short and lanky monster destroyed most teams he went up against last year. He is insanely quick, strong, and can keep offensive line off of him with his wingspan. He will be double-teamed this year. It’s up to the other linemen to keep him clean or take advantage of his gravity.
Jalen Sami is trying to replace Javier Edwards at nose tackle, but really, who can replace Big Sexy? Sami has plenty of potential, but hasn’t played a football game in two years. He is all of 6’6 and 320 pounds, which is a great starting point, but without seeing him in game action, I can’t predict his effectiveness. He needs to stay healthy this year.
On the other end of the defensive line is Terrance Lang. Full of potential, Terrance disappeared for plays, then would come back and dominate his matchup. He has bulked up and continued to get more consistent, and he will have plenty of opportunities to get in the backfield with Mustafa getting so much attention.
The depth for the defensive line is all brand new. The two junior college transfers, Jeremiah Doss and Janaz Jordan, are backups at the defensive end position and have been injured throughout fall camp. Jordan is all of 320 pounds and has some nice athleticism, while Doss is a more traditional DE frame (6’4, 280). They both can fit the run pretty well, but they shouldn’t be relied on to push the pocket. Backing up the nose tackle is a true freshman, Austin Williams. The mammoth from Georgia is 6’5 and over 300 pounds, but he is new to the DL position and new to college. Na’im Rodman, the freshman from California, will likely be the first off the bench and has a nice technical base to build off of. He is solidly built, but his athleticism may be middling.
We know next to nothing about this unit. All we know is Mustafa Johnson is a damn freak.
The linebacking unit should be the rock of the defense. Returning coach, returning players, and tons of talent. Ross Els stayed in Boulder as the inside linebacker coach that also has a huge hand in special teams, for good reason. He’s cheap, a good recruiter, and his unit produces. There is a legitimate star in the middle of the defense named Nate Landman. The middle linebacker (who’s bringing the NECK ROLL BACK, BABY) led the defense last year as a sophomore and looks to the same as a junior. He knows the defense, knows the calls, and will get everybody in line. He is great at coverage, playing the pass, and more importantly, putting people in the dirt. As long as he avoids targeting calls, he will play every snap this year.
Next to him is a new face after Rick Gamboa completed his 80 year career at CU. While no one can replace his anticipation and intelligence, Jon Van Diest will get first crack at replacing his production. Van Diest is a different kind of player. He’s physical, aggressive, and very athletic. His job will be to keep Nate Landman clean and stick with tight ends. Behind those two are some very good depth pieces. Jashua Allen is another freak athlete who transferred in from junior college. Allen is a headhunter (for better or worse). He is small, but he is quick as a cat and arrives to the ball in a bad mood. Akil Jones has been in Boulder for a while now, and he has never been healthy enough to command snaps. He should be a solid backup in case of injury. Quinn Perry, another junior college transfer, has great size and should play right away in special teams.
Now, let’s move the pass-rushers, edge-setters, and high jumpers on the edge. The listed starters are Carson Wells and Alex Tchangam, though only one will be on the field at the time. That man will most likely be Wells. The junior has really worked on his physique and he is now a solid 6’4 and 260 pounds. Carson has always been a freak athlete, and has a very fun penchant for snatching passes out of the air. He will be counted on to get the quarterback. Tchangam is a specialist in that area. The senior had some light work last year, but in his last year of eligibility he has apparently taken to the new scheme well. Watch for him on third downs. Behind them, like the rest of the defense, the depth is shaky. Nu’umotu Falo is a relatively sure thing, and should be solid against the run. Jacob Callier, a hero, can be pretty versatile, but I wouldn’t trust him to start full-time. This group needs more production to be effective. CU has to get to the quarterback in a hurry.
I’ve been dreading this moment. Now we have to talk about the secondary. This unit, already not good last year, lost a lot of production, and combined with new coaches and shifting priorities, will be scary from the start. Or, optimistically, it can’t be worse and maybe the change in personnel means more production.
Cornerback is dangerously thin. Delrick Abrams is the lone consistent returnee in the two-deep, and he should be solid like last year. He’s long, physical, and will take the top assignment most weeks. Abrams is the definite leader for this group. On the other side, it looks like Mekhi Blackmon has taken the reins on the job. The feisty 5’10 corner is a ballhawk that loves to be around the ball, and despite weighing 160 pounds, hits pretty hard. I’m a big fan of his game and I love the junkyard dog in his game. Chris Miller-Slaughter is the most exciting physical prospect at corner, but injuries have slowed his development and he needs to be eased back into it. If he can become a plus player by the end of the year, that will be huge for the depth on this team.
Safety is an even more dire depth chart situation. So dire, in fact, that last year’s backup quarterback is now this year’s back up safety. After graduating two multi-year starters, Nick Fisher and Evan Worthington, this group has a bunch of fresh new faces. Prohibitively listed as starters are Mikial Onu and Aaron Maddox. Onu was a multiple-year starter at SMU before grad-transferring to Boulder for his last year. He’s a sure tackler, a sound decision-maker, and should provide a bit of a safety blanket in the middle of the field.
Aaron Maddox, on the other hand, is anything but safe. The man hits, often and hard. He bulked up big time after coming in skinny last year, and he has fully recovered from a nasty shoulder injury. Maddox is a traditional strong safety. He shouldn’t be counted on to provide consistent coverage, but he will fly up in run support plenty of time in the box.
Derrion Rakestraw is probably the main backup for either spot. After switching from wide receiver, Rakestraw showed good ball skills, a willingness to tackle, and good instincts. He has great size, at 6’3 (five inches taller than Onu), but he is a bit skinny to truly intimidate opposing teams. Sam Noyer will also make his way onto the field, though special teams is probably his main focus. As a former quarterback, he has size — that’s all I know. Isaiah Lewis, a redshirt sophomore who hasn’t seen much of the field, battled with Onu for the starting job. He has good cover skills, but his athleticism is a bit lacking to be a consistent option back there.
The safety group is where I will stick the new STAR position. If you’re looking for a name that’s been conspicuously absent, it’s because Davion Taylor is the de facto STAR. It’s a mix of safety, nickel back, and inside linebacker, and only a select few athletes can pull that off. Taylor is one of those select few athletes. His senior year should see a massive leap in football acumen from him, and we all know how physically freaky is. Behind him is another specimen, Mark Perry. Perry is a true freshman who came in looking like an upperclassman. If he can catch onto the defense, watch out, because he has so much natural skill.
This defense is gonna be a wild ride.