Football is a game for big men. Mel Tucker said it in his introductory press conference a year ago, and while he’s said a lot of things that don’t hold true (“I’m not taking another job”), this statement holds up. You need big boys to win football games. If they are talented big boys, that’s all the better. The Colorado Buffaloes have had a lot of flaws in the last 15 years, but among the largest is the lack of talented beef in the trenches. The defensive line talent and depth has been concerning. I can count the number of dynamic pass rushers on one hand, two if I have rose-colored glasses. CU has had one true defensive tackle since I started watching religiously, and Josh Tupou really only played one year in that position.
We can keep talking about the 2016 defense until the nostalgia wears off, but it really provided the blueprint for success in this defense. Jordan Carrell, Samson Kafovalu, and Josh Tupou were solid pieces up front that kept the linebacking corps clean and allowed the secondary to pinch the passing game. Defensive Coordinator Tyson Summers and defensive line coach Chris Wilson have kept the three man front this year, and switched to a one gap look to make the job easier on the defensive line. In that three man front, having all three members hold steady on the line of scrimmage is the main need. Getting actual backfield penetration and explosive plays is a great bonus. It looks like Buffs are going to cash that bonus in this year.
Any discussion of the defensive line has to start with Mustafa Johnson. Johnson is one of two bona fide studs on this defense, along with Landman, and he looked poised to go pro after an explosive start to last year. Unfortunately, he was injured at Arizona State (along with Laviska Shenault) and his momentum ran out. Now, Johnson is fully healthy and ready to roll. He’s still a little short, but his long arms and natural strength allow him to shed blocks pretty easily. He’s crazy fast for his ~300 pound frame, and he has a great habit of breaking between the tackle and the guard to get in the backfield. He can rotate inside to defensive tackle on pass-rushing situations, and his versatility allows him to stay on the field as long as possible. Johnson needs to stay on the field.
On the other side of the line resides Colorado’s sack leader in 2019. No, not Johnson. It’s Terrance Lang! Lang has oozed potential since the Buffs stole him from USC’s commit list, and he delivered on that potential last year. Terrance Lang is an NFL-ready body. At 6’6 and around 280 pounds, Terrance has plenty of length and size to stand up to any tackle. His athleticism and natural quickness allows him to sneak past some of the bigger bodies, and he holds the edge against the run better than Johnson. Lang is a huge asset to have on this line. As his second straight year starting, I hope 2020 becomes a Godzilla year for Lang. He has all the tools to be a top defensive lineman in this league. Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner style. Terrance CAN be that, and I hope Chris Wilson unlocks that in him.
Now, we reach the defensive tackle portion of this preview. A 3-4 defensive tackle is potentially the most important position on the team. Anyone who watched Vince Wilfork or Casey Hampton in the NFL can confirm that. They will command two offensive lineman EVERY. PLAY. If they can stand up to that pressure, and if they can actually push back, it does wonders for the ten other players on the defense. Josh Tupou and Javier Edwards were great fixes for this position for the Buffs. When both graduated, it appeared there was a dearth of talent. However, a little known recruit from southern Colorado, fresh off an ACL tear, started to pick up steam. Jalen Sami took OVER the spot. At 6’6 and around 340 pounds, he is a massive human being. A former volleyball player in high school, he moves superbly well for someone his size. Sami also plays violently and with passion, two things that are hard to find from a DT that large. A full year removed from ACL rehab, Sami should be even more explosive this year.
Alright, now that I’ve blown enough smoke about the stellar trio of starting DL, let’s talk about the even more exciting part. The Colorado Buffaloes have a legitimate second line of depth. I can’t even remember the last time that was the case. The true freshmen forced into action in 2019 are now battle-hardened sophomores, ready for the grind of a seven-game season. Players like Austin Williams at DT will continue to get better, and Na’im Rodman and Janaz Jordan will continue to rotate in. Every player listed is 300 pounds or more, and they aren’t just boulders. They can move and disrupt, too. This isn’t even mentioning guys like Jeremiah Doss and Jayden Simon, who played sparingly last year, or Justin Jackson, a highly-recruited JuCo transfer. This also doesn’t mention Antonio Alfano, the publicized Alabama transfer who is currently battling epilepsy. CU really should give him as much time as possible to get right before he sees the field. Alfano has a lot of demons to battle, and if he can emerge on the other side, he will be such an asset.
If you take one thing from this preview, be excited about the defensive line. For my money, this is the best unit on the team and has tons of potential. Chris Wilson worked wonders under Gary Barnett for 5 years, then succeeded at Oklahoma and eventually the Super Bowl Eagles team. He is a great coach, coaching great talent, in the same system. This unit is scary.