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Pre-Season Refresher: Defensive depth chart for Colorado Buffaloes

There are tons of questions for the CU defense.

Oregon State v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Buffs are finally back on the schedule and will take on the UCLA Bruins on Nov. 7th. When they do suit up, the defense will be a mixed bag of star power, potential breakouts, and perhaps too much reliance on young talent. Even if there are growing pains, this defense should be healthier than last year and more acclimated to Tyson Summers’ scheme.

Defensive End

Mustafa Johnson, Sr.

Terrance Lang, Jr.

Antonio Alfano*, rFr.

Justin Jackson, Jr.

Janaz Jordan, Jr.

There’s a chance that Mustafa Johnson and Terrance Lang are Colorado’s best defenders in 2020. Johnson is a proven disruptor who can cause havoc with his first step. Lang, still only a junior, is such a good run-defender on the strong-side, and he’s realizing just how good he can be. If the Buffs defense surprises teams, it will start with the play of these two guys.

Antonio Alfano presents himself as a major question mark. He’s the former five-star recruit who transferred from Alabama to Colorado, was suspended from the team in March, left the program in May, and finally re-joined in August. We still don’t know if he will play — he is still suspended, according to his player biography — much less how much time he’s on the field. If he does suit up, the Buffs have a dynamic talent to rotate in and out.

After those three potential stars, the Buffs still have solid depth. Justin Jackson is a junior college transfer who should immediately step in, even if he is undersized at 6’2, 220-lbs. Then there’s Janaz Jordan, who is a very solid run defender who should see playing time on early downs. Also watch out for Dante Sparaco, who is a good depth piece when he’s not pissing off teammates with his political views.

Nose Tackle

Jalen Sami, So.

Na’im Rodman, So.

Austin Williams, So.

Jalen Sami was completely under-the-radar as a raw recruit from Colorado Springs. But after he took a redshirt year to learn the position, he broke out in 2019. There’s no moving the 6’6, 320-lbs. lineman. He’s an intelligent player who is quickly learning how to free up his teammates. Sami should be even better in 2020.

After him, the Buffs have solid depth from freshmen contributors Na’im Rodman and Austin Williams. It was trial by fire at times in 2019, but both are solid on the interior. Williams looks like Sami’s clone at 6’5, 320-lbs., while Rodman is nimble enough to also play defensive end on rushing downs.

Edge Rusher

Carson Wells, Jr.

Guy Thomas, Jr.

Jason Harris, Fr.

Jamar Montgomery, Jr.

There’s so much talent on the edge. Carson Wells will be starting for the third straight year and he’s poised for a breakout. He’s huge, polished and productive. If the defensive line is as good as we think, Wells will round out a fearsome pass rush. There are durability questions with Wells, but the Buffs have enough depth to keep everyone fresh and fill in for any injuries.

Guy Thomas is a transfer from Nebraska (via Coahoma Community College) who should play lots of meaningful snaps. After him, there’s true freshman Jason Harris, a four-star recruit who had offers from Alabama and Auburn. Harris is still growing into his body but we should see him on passing downs. The last player to watch is Jamar Montgomery, who may not have the pass rushing ability as the others, but he’s more versatile as a traditional outside backer.

Inside Linebacker

Nate Landman, Sr.

Akil Jones, Sr.

Jonathan van Diest, Jr.

Quinn Perry, Jr.

Marvin Ham II, Fr.

The Buffaloes will have senior starters in Nate Landman and Akil Jones. Landman is the star in the middle, always in pursuit and always making plays on the ball. There are no questions with him as a run stopper. Jones was a breakout player in 2019, finally starting after years of scratching and clawing his way up the depth chart. These two are so solid in the middle.

Jonathan van Diest is the best bet to get major playing time off the bench. He was a starter entering last year, but he wasn’t quite ready. He should be a solid reserve at the very least. After van Diest, the Buffs will call on Quinn Perry, a cerebral player and physical tackler, and Marvin Ham II, who has a ton of talent but is still developing.

This is also the place to mention Mister Williams, future cult hero. The true freshman could be the future Rick Gamboa, only he’s 6’0, 245-lbs. at age 18, which is about 20-lbs. more than Gamboa ever was. Also of note, Mister’s brothers are named Sir and Prince, apparently because his father wanted their names to be respected.

Cornerback

Chris Miller, Jr.

Mekhi Blackmon, Sr.

K.J. Trujillo, So.

Tarik Luckett, So.

Christian Gonzalez, Fr.

Technically speaking, the Buffs are returning four starting cornerbacks from last season. Chris Miller has the most talent of the bunch, although he has suffered injuries to his hamstring, a dislocated shoulder, broken thumb and a torn ACL. If he’s healthy, he can be a major player. Mekhi Blackmon was also a starter entering 2019, but he too missed most of the season with a shoulder injury. He doesn’t have the same injury history as Miller, so there’s a higher likelihood he stays on the field. He’s tough as hell and has the competitiveness you want at cornerback.

Colorado’s injury issues meant that true freshmen K.J. Trujillo and Tarik Luckett saw major action. Trujillo was very impressive, particular his attitude and fearlessness. He should be an impact player at some point in his future. Luckett was an emergency cornerback who had been a receiver all his life, but new DB coach Demetrice Martin has praised his natural ability at the position.

The Buffs also have the talented freshman Christian Gonzalez, who was surprisingly listed as a cornerback instead of safety on CU’s official roster. Gonzalez is a long, physical defensive back who has good ball skills from his receiver-playing days. Watch out for Nigel Bethel too, the very athletic sophomore who transferred from Miami. Both players should see the field at different points in the season.

Safety

Mark Perry, So.

Derrion Rakestraw, Sr.

Isaiah Lewis, Jr.

There’s uncertainty with how the safety position will shake out, as it may be the thinnest position in the entire lineup. Mark Perry was a prized recruit and played the STAR position as a true freshman, but it seems that he will move to a traditional safety role in 2020. Derrion Rakestraw is the assumed starter at free safety, an emergency starter last year who impressed with his coverage ability. These two starters should be fine, but could struggle at different points.

The depth at safety is anyone’s guess, really. Trey Udoffia is no longer on the team, so that leaves only Isaiah Lewis as an established depth piece. Lewis is solid, but the Buffs can’t afford to rely on him if injuries occur. My best guess that if CU needs another safety, they will likely use one of their six quality cornerbacks there, probably Gonzalez or Luckett.

Special Teams

PK — James Stefanou, Sr.

P — Josh Watts, Jr.

PK — Evan Price, So.

James Stefanou is still at Colorado, even at 33 years old. The oldest player in college football be should back to his old self after hurting his hip in 2019 (this is not a joke). He’s joined by another Australian in punter Josh Watts, the former professional Aussie Rules footballer who just graduated from ProKick Australia Academy. He has two years to play at Colorado. It’s also worth mentioning Evan Price, the sophomore kicker who was clutch last season and should be reliable in case he’s needed.