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Season in Review: The Back 7 - Linebackers and DB's

The second part of our Season In Review series taking a look back at each position group's performance in 2014 and peering forward to make some early projections for the 2015 campaign.

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Even through all of the injuries (seriously, the secondary and the linebacking corps had all of the injuries) the Colorado secondary emerged as a relative strength of the defense this past season. In a league with some of the best quarterbacks, receivers, and offensive schemes in the country, they managed to keep their team in a position to win games nearly every week. Forced to make touchdown-saving tackles more often than not, they stepped up and bought their offense time. However they ultimately weren't good enough, three interceptions all season clearly won't cut it, and like the rest of the squad they have plenty of room for improvement. Who stood out, who has work to do and who will be critical in 2015?

PG: Let's start with the safeties, because every one of them saw time. This answer may be obvious but who, in your eyes, was the most critical piece to this unit? Would this season have played out differently if this group had been anywhere close to full health?

JB: Oh man, this is a tough one. Though it may not be the best unit for the Buffs, the safeties are certainly my favorite unit. Jared Bell, Tedric Thompson, Evan White, Chidobe Awuzie, all of them strike me as heady players with physical tools. If I had to choose just one, it would most likely be Thompson, who played his way into CU fans' hearts this year. He's young, fast, physical, and makes plays. He's one of few NFL prospects on this roster, in my opinion, and every indication is that he will improve on his already great season, if his health proves to be stable. I think this season absolutely this team would have won some more games if any of the 2 deep were available for most of conference play. Utah certainly would have ended differently if there weren't new bodies being broken in on both of the long, game-breaking pass plays. The fact that an already inexperienced defense lost the most experienced safeties led to a lot of broken plays and deep passes that normally wouldn't be thought of were suddenly completed. Jared Bell's injury seems to be forgotten many times in the eyes of the fans because it happened before the season started, but I cannot overstate the value he would have brought to this team. 5th year rangy coverage safety, oh boy the possibilities (and hope for his 6th year). The other 5th year safety in this unit was Terrell Smith, who was forced into action due to injuries. How do you think he fared, as well as the other seniors in the secondary?

PG: Jared Bell would have been crucial this season, that loss certainly became more and more painful as the season went on. I love Terror, I remember watching that last game in Lincoln in 2010 and being blown away by how all over the place he was. He was undersized but he played with the same heart, speed and ferocity every single time he was on the field. Even though he only saw time in 7 games this past year, finishing with 30 tackles, he was an important leader on this team and his impact on the program will continue to be felt. If only his interception had stood up two weeks ago...

Speaking of heart, this year's recipient of the Buffalo Heart Award, Greg Henderson, is another player whose impact will still be felt over the next few years. Hendo was as solid as they come, busting his ass through four of the most tumultuous seasons in Colorado football history. You always knew he'd be in position to make a play and his teammates could consistently count on him, he was often the lone bright spot on a defense that struggled throughout his time here. We'll always have that fumble return in Mile High. As for his proteges, Kenneth Crawley and Chidobe Awuzie each played pivotal roles in 2014 and will continue to be cornerstones in 2015. If not for his injury I think it's a safe bet that Chidobe would have led this team in tackles, he finished with 64 including 10 touchdown saves along with 8 passes broken up. Ken finished with 47 tackles and 13 passes defensed. Next year Mike MacIntrye and Kent Baer are going to need their secondary to start snagging some of those balls instead of knocking them down in order to help this team finally win a turnover battle. That issue is like the sharp incline that stings right before the big, long, real ascent begins. If the secondary can lead out their team and help them hammer over that first hump, success over the larger climb, wins, will follow. How much do you think the returning defensive backs can improve going into next year? Can Crawley become more of a ball-hawker? We can't forget about John Walker and Evan White as well. They both saw a lot of time this past year, can they be effective regular contributors going forward?

JB: Well, the most obvious area of improvement is forcing turnovers. Only one player on the entire roster had an interception, and that player (Tedric Thompson) was injured for the last quarter of the year. Although they did their fair share of negating or limiting plays, they did not make enough to be considered an upper-echelon unit. This ties into your next question, as turnovers, at least in my view, are caused more by individual plays rather than scheme. Scheme can put the player in the right place, but the final push to make a play rather than stop one is all individual effort. We can all agree that Kenneth Crawley made a huge leap forward this season, but other than the one interception that was criminally taken away from him, he really didn't even make an attempt at the ball, preferring the safe play of batting the ball down or playing the receiver's hands. I expect that is the next step for his development as well as the entire personnel unit's. John Walker, after playing questionably during the Cal game, really turned it on at the end of the year, providing physical play from the slot and playing the run very well. He will provide solid depth next year, as he did this year, As for Evan White, he's one of my favorite players on the team. Local talent that has all the gifts to become an all-PAC performer for CU? Yes, please. He was a great gunner on special teams, and he stepped up to the plate after all the injuries to deliver a great performance against Arizona. Right now, run support is his strength, and he is a force in that regard. Next year, I hope he doesn't have to see much time, as CU loses one scholarship player and technically gains three back, but he will be ready if he has to step in. A redshirt would be nice, though I bet he will stay on special teams. Given the current state of affairs at the linebacker position, the Buff faithful have been clamoring for a position switch for White. I'd rather Coach Mac keeps him where he is. He could be a good linebacker, but he could be a freak at safety. However, even the sentiment of the switch is enough to cause concern over the linebacker depth chart. Why is the cupboard so bare and what happened to this unit in 2014?

PG: Linebackers were for the longest time the strength of Colorado defenses, under the tutelage of Brian Cabral it seemed CU had a legitimate playmaker or two in the middle of the field just about every year. But lately, Addison Gillam's freshman season aside, they've really only just been there, no one has stood out or forced offenses to make adjustments. Injuries have played a big role in this as well as the lack of depth that you mentioned. One reason for the thin roster is that no linebackers were signed in the 2012 class. The coaching staff at the time believed they had enough depth, but after Doug Rippy and Derrick Webb graduated, only Woodson Greer and Brady Daigh were left to see time. Greer was largely invisible this season while Daigh did turn in a few solid performances spelling Addison, most notably against UCLA, Washington, and Arizona. The Buffalo ‘backers are also fairly undersized. While you don't necessarily want big, lumbering, B1G mashers facing lightning-quick Pac-12 offenses week in and week out, it does help to have some heft to go along with quickness and agility. That may be asking for a lot but the Buffs will need to eventually find some athletes in the mold of Jordon Dizon. As for the mainstays this past season, Kenneth Olugbode, all 6 foot 210 pounds of him, turned in a workhorse-like campaign playing 792 snaps and leading the team in tackles with 83. It's fair to say that his running mate Addison Gillam experienced a sophomore slump. Beset by nagging injuries and concussions from August onward, Gillam was never able to find his form and was too often missing tackles that he made with regularity a season ago. Those two will be pivotal once again next season, I think it's a safe bet that a healthy Addison will improve and return to his freshman year form and Olugbode will benefit from the vast amount of experience he obtained this year. It will be interesting to see who joins them as contributors, some of the younger guys are certainly going to get chances. Does Deaysean Rippy have the chops to crack the rotation? What were your thoughts on the linebacking play this past season, will Addison and Kenneth improve and who could possibly step up and make an impact?

JB: I sure as hell hope Rippy figures it out soon, because if he does, that takes a lot of pressure of the highly touted incoming freshman (Grant Watanabe) and others that aren't ready. Rippy has all the tools to make a difference in the PAC-12, and for a team that desperately needs difference makers at linebacker, he would be a huge boon for this team. At this point, it would be safer to expect nothing from him and be pleasantly surprised than for him to suddenly turn the light on. Rippy is one of the few players in the linebacking group that possesses everything you want to see in a linebacker: size, speed, quickness, and agility. All of his problems are mental, and until the coach sees fit to tell the fanbase the specifics of those problems, I don't exactly know what is plaguing him. As for the Gillam, it is painfully obvious what plagues the young captain. Concussions, illness, weight loss, it seemed the Murphy's Law that applied to the team's performance as a whole took a special wrath to Addison Gillam. If he plays above 200 pounds and finishes a whole season, that would be an improvement over this year. A "regression" back to his freshman year would be astronomically helpful to this team, but I bet he lands somewhere in between next year. He needs to gain about 30 pounds and make sure his mind is right before he plays in another football game. His body can't handle the game any other way. Gillam's downward slope is contrasted by Olugbode's rapid rise. After some questionable performances in the non conference slate, many fans wrote him off as too short and too weak for conference play. Then, he surprised us all. For me, the coming out party was the UCLA game. Down the stretch, he played like a man and made many open field tackles that other Buff players have missed. Ever since that game, he's shown to be a difference maker, and even won the award for best defensive player, as chosen by coaches. Out of the current group at linebacker and outside of the two stalwarts at the position now, I expect Grant Watanabe to make an impact as a grayshirt freshman. If he is half of the player that he is in his highlights, CU could benefit from him. He is one of few freshmen in the back seven of the defense, and the Buffs are trying to restock at those positions in this recruiting cycle. Who are some of your favorite from the 2014 and 2015 class? Side note: if Tevis Bartlett becomes a Buff, my money is on him starting immediately, he is ready for big time football.

PG: Tevis Bartlett would be a huge contributor, fingers crossed he decides to come to Boulder. Watanabe also stands to become a significant presence, it seems like he has all of the physical tools, I'm anxious to see him in action at this level. I also have some high hopes for Rick Gamboa, he too has the potential to be a solid piece in the defensive puzzle. As for the secondary I'm really interested to see how Nick Fisher develops once he arrives in Boulder and is fully healthy. I don't think he'll play right away but the latest Buff commit, Isaiah Oliver, is a great find and given a year or two he can become a regular contributor. Also, I wonder if we'll see Yuri Wright in 2015. He still needs to put on some serious weight but the talent that impressed everyone in high school has to be in there somewhere. You know who else we forgot to mention? Marques Mosley. Losing him also really hurt this team, he's a solid athlete and his return will provide a nice boost to this unit in the fall. I'd say the overarching key for these position groups next year is to stay healthy. The depth is slowly building, if they can make it through 2015 in good health the secondary stands to improve upon their 2014 showing, and really they should because there's no way this many injuries can happen again, right? Take us home Jack, will this group be the strength of the defense next season?

JB: It's hard to look at this unit at the end of the year and proclaim them as the strength of the defense for the next. They gave up big passing plays to a Utah team not known for their aerial prowess. However, that secondary that took the field against the Utes was a skeleton of the projected two-deep at the beginning of the year. If you told me that this secondary was adding two junior DB's with legitimate NFL prospects, as well as a 6th year senior to call out coverages and a key backup senior, I'd be ecstatic. All of that talent and experience was there this year, but injuries took their toll and the secondary slowly declined as the year went on. Getting all these key parts back will result in a jump in turnovers for this team, as well as more third down stops. Yes, they are losing one of the all-time great Buffs in Henderson, whose steady presence will be missed, but as it is with most improving teams, the parts coming in are better overall than the parts coming out. As for the linebackers, improving on last year's performance is a low bar to clear. Addison Gillam being healthy for the first time in forever should work wonders in the middle of that 4-3, and Olugbode having another offseason to build on his strong finish will pay dividends. The problem with next year's linebacking corps is depth. Who steps up to back up Gillam after Daigh graduates? Who rotates in for Woodson Greer? Is there another playmaker on the depth chart that CU can rely on? All of those questions remain unanswered and a concern for the team going forward. I would hesitate to call the back 7 the strength of the defense for two reasons: the questions at linebacker, as shown above, and the influx of talent at the defensive line. We'll get more in-depth with this later, but the Buffs have a proverbial army of defensive ends and some depth at tackle. If they can get some chemistry, that makes the secondary's job that much easier. I'll say that this group of defenders will be the strength of the defense, or even the team, at least during non-conference play. There's a lot of continuity, experience, and talent, plus Coach Mac is a defensive backs coach by trade, and Kent Baer has coached up some players, though his recruiting leaves some to be desired. Kenneth Crawley should be an All-Pac performer in his senior year, and he's surrounded by a great supporting cast. There's a lot to be excited about next year, and it all starts in the defensive backfield for me. Patrick, you know we can't end on such trivial matters. The real question is, would you rather only be able to whisper or shout? For me, the answer is easy. Shouting makes sure the point gets across, plus that way the C-Unit can still use my talents. The downside is how sore your throat would be constantly.

PG: I think I'd rather be able to shout as well, ultimately people need to hear you and in a lot of situations you aren't able to sidle up and whisper in someone's ear, which would just become insanely awkward. Shouting keeps people on their toes, and obviously is crucial to any sporting event and winning any argument. It's just plain safer to be able to shout in emergencies too, no one wants to be whispering fire. I also think I'd have to stop golfing if I could only whisper, shouting is an essential tool out on the course. Ultimately, whispering the fight song would be extremely sad.