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Colorado Football 2021 Preview: Defensive line

Chris Wilson has a nasty group of starters

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Colorado at UCLA Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Karl Dorrell era has many overt references to “recapturing former glory”. Dorrell was a coach for the Colorado Buffaloes win the latter half of the 1990s, and much was made of the fact that he “knows how to win” in Boulder. Rick George purposely looked for connections to the program when it was at its best. Chris Wilson, the defensive line coach and now the defensive coordinator, is another one of those connections. Wilson was the defensive line coach during the Gary Barnett era. In case you have forgotten, nearly 20 years later, those teams had DUDES up front. Justin Bannon, Tyler Brayton and Matt McChesney all made it to the NFL, and all were developed under Chris Wilson’s tutelage. Since that stint, he moved on to do the same thing at Oklahoma, then Mississippi State (as DC), then USC. He then moved to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he happened to win a SUPER BOWL, on the backs of his star pupils Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham.

In short, Chris Wilson knows what the hell he’s doing. He has the bonafides to improve the Buffs up front, and he has a lot to work with. Wilson has a stable of horses up front that easily belongs in the top half of the Pac-12. Even without last year’s star, Mustafa Johnson (well…), the Buffs have top-flight talent. It’s the depth that needs to be tested.

Let’s start with how they will be organized. Wilson is a supporter of four-man front, historically. After almost a decade in the 3-4, a change to a four-man front requires some different skills. In general, this is will simplify the job for the DL. These linemen will likely be responsible for one gap up front, as opposed to two gaps. This allows the DL to be better playmakers, but also requires more discipline from the linebackers and the rest of the front 7. The Buffs will be a hybrid front, so this is not a hard and fast rule, but Wilson will be changing the look of the defensive line.

OK, working from the middle out, the lynchpin of the defense is Jalen Sami. The 6’6 colossus from Colorado Springs is ready to ride again after slimming down a bit from last year. He is just under 320 pounds now and he is every bit as immovable. Sami, as a 3-4 defensive tackle, was where success and failure started for this defense. His role is similar in this new front, but not nearly as essential. Jalen now only has one gap to fill, and he will likely have a running mate that will take over the other inside gap. This allows Sami to try to disrupt in the backfield more often, instead of trying to hold two blockers. Jalen is still coming into his own as a player, but he will be a force in the conference this year. Expect his stats to jump up a bit.

Flanking Jalen Sami is Terrance Lang and likely Na’im Rodman. Lang is now a mainstay along this defensive line. Entering his 3rd year starting, Lang has always had the frame. His productivity increased drastically in 2019, and then dropped in 2020 as he was asked to play a different role and struggled with injuries. Lang is nearing 300 pounds and stands around 6’5, and he’s ready to rock. At his size, he can play DE or shift inside to play DT on passing downs. He’s long and large, with the strength to lock down his edge against the run. As a pass-rusher, he uses that length and strength to keep the OT at a distance as he bull rushes or bends the edge. He is going to end up in the top 3 in sacks on this team, and garner some all-conference talk. I’m VERY high on Lang, and his second year under Wilson should yield some amazing results.

The other side of Sami is more of a revolving door right now. We have some speculation on who might take control of that spot, but this is where the lack of depth starts to show on the defensive line. Based off of everything we’ve heard, Na’im Rodman will likely take the defensive end spot. Rodman has played since he was a freshman in 2020, and he is a nice bulky junior (or sophomore or whatever, who knows with COVID) nowadays. Rodman is shorter, near 6’ flat, but he carries 300 pounds will and is very technically proficient. Rodman will rarely gamble and will rarely lose his gap, but don’t expect much beyond that. He is competing for this starting job with Janaz Jordan. The former QB (that’s right, baby) is a big, bulky man. A JuCo transfer from 2020, Jordan is a bit bigger than Rodman and can move pretty well. He’s another a huge body that is great at holding his gap down. In the new hybrid front that we are expecting, it will be interesting to see if Jordan is asked to crash in the backfield.

Whoo boy, now we get to scary territory. The defensive line depth chart is not where it needs to be. Here is the list of players that are likely not starting:

  • Justin Jackson
  • Blayne Toll
  • Jeremiah Doss - Out for Year
  • Jayden Simon
  • Ryan Williams
  • Tyas Martin
  • Allan Baugh
  • Lloyd Murray Jr

Jackson, as a junior by way of junior college, is the only non-freshman of this group. These are some young Buffs. Because we really haven’t seen these guys play, it’s hard to prognosticate how they will play. The best I can do is guess WHERE they will play. Tyas Martin, Lloyd Murray Jr., and MAYBE Jayden Simon will likely play inside, where their 300+ pounds will be very helpful. Martin and Murray are true nose tackles. Justin Jackson, Blayne Toll, Ryan Williams and Allan Baugh are all big-bodied defensive ends. That appears to be the blueprint moving forward for Chris Wilson’s defense. This year, they are not ready, but will have to play anyway. That is not a great recipe for success.