clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Colorado Football: 2016 Defensive Preview

New, 3 comments

Ralphie Report kicks off the season preview with a look at the Buffs' defense.

It's just about that time again. Summer is ramping up, the offseason creeps closer to its inevitable death, and season previews fly all over the internet. Boy, am I excited that football's coming up again soon (99 days!). Along with that excitement comes the expectations for the next seasons, the players expected to have breakout years, and dates circled for big matchups. It's that time again.

What a bizzaro offseason it's been for our football Buffs. Suspensions, two transfer QB sagas (more on that in a later installment), and multiple coaching changes. Somehow, despite being here for only about a year, Jim Leavitt now seems like one of the biggest constants surrounding the team. The 60ish years young defensive coordinator worked near miracles with last year's defense, and now, with an improved depth chart and another year installing HIS defense, the D should take another great step forward. Last year's seniors were a small class, with the team losing about six starters in total (including specialists), and only two on the defensive side. Justin Solis and Kenneth Crawley both made their impact felt in Boulder for four years, with Solis really exploding at nose tackle for his senior season, Crawley may have taken a step back. Both will be missed, but not as much as they could be given some of the roster additions coming in (namely one mammoth in the middle). I'll start by breaking down each position as I see it, and then look at the scheme itself.

Oh, also, each section will start with a Jim Leavitt tweet. They're not related, but he's so awesome that I have to.

Defensive Line

5 yards/carry and 198.7 yards/game given up. Some of that may be attributed to some very suspect linebacker play, allowing backs to break into the secondary, but there were stretches of play where the line was flat overpowered by the opposing team. The CSU game is a good example. Here's to hoping that they improve up front, and I believe that they will.

Here's a look at the depth chart for the defensive line:

First Name Last Name Position Height Weight Year Home State Suspended
Jordan Carrell DE 6 3 295 Sr California Starter
Timothy Coleman DE 6 3 245 Rjr Colorado
Jase Franke DT 6 3 270 Rso California
Tyler Henington DL 6 2 235 Sr Colorado
Leo Jackson DE 6 3 275 Jr Georgia
Samson Kafovalu DT 6 4 275 Rsr California
Eddy Lopez DT 6 3 300 Rso Texas
Michael Mathewes DE 6 4 245 Rso California
Terriek Roberts DE/OT 6 6 255 Fr Colorado
Brett Tonz DE 6 3 285 Rfr Arizona
Lyle Tuiloma DT 6 3 305 Rfr Hawai'i
Josh Tupou DT 6 3 330 Rsr California
Frank Umu DE 6 4 280 Rfr Colorado


Defensive Tackles

With the arrival of Leavitt, the Buffs have switched from a 4-3 front to a 3-4, which emphasizes the importance of having a tree trunk in the middle of your defense. Justin Solis played this role well this last season. However, a 3-4 defense takes the next step when the fireplug in the middle turns from Vince Wilfork on the Texans to Vince Wilfork on the Patriots. When the nose tackle of a 3-4, who is generally responsible for taking two blockers, can shed those blockers and provide interior pressure, it makes everyone else's job easier. So how can the Buffs achieve this effect? Who do they have on the roster that can be this disruptive force? WHO WILL SAVE US? Josh Tupou. Like Gandalf riding into battle after his resurrection (spoilers, sorry), Tupou comes back after serving a year-long suspension to destroy some fools in his fifth year. Tupou has the pedigree, experience, and talent to make a huge difference for the team this year, provided he comes back in shape and ready to bust his ass. From what we've heard as fans, the projected weight of 330 may be a little low, but he has been playing rugby, so that should be a good sign regarding his aerobic fitness. Tupou is playing for his NFL future as well as a bowl game, and if he doesn't play with his hair on fire every play, then I'm sure Leavitt will bring out a blowtorch and make it so. Tupou has the width needed to take on blockers as a NT, and the more often he can bring pressure on the inside, the better. Solis stood his own most times, but Josh should be able to take on the offensive line more times than not. If he's not in exact game shape, he has two weeks (CSU and Idaho State) to be below 100% before he goes HAM.

Backing up Tupou are some exciting young pieces...and not much else. There is a two year eligibility gap between Tupou and the next pure nose tackle in this defense, and that player (Jase Franke) has had limited snaps. This tells me that more often than not, they may shift people that play on the outside to the middle of the line, especially on passing downs, where the only responsibility is to get to the quarterback. But let's talk about these young guns. Franke has displayed well when he has played, especially during the ill-fated Hawaii game (ugh). Jase penetrates very well for his size, but like most young tackles, he has trouble maintaining his responsibilities in both gaps. Along that same vein is Eddy Lopez, but we've seen even less from him. Lopez nursed an injury for most of last year, meaning that he will likely get a redshirt applied to the 2015 season. Eddy has great mobility for his size and was talked up all of last spring. Given that he is now lower in the depth chart, Lopez will have to shine in fall camp to get a lot of snaps. Which isn't a bad thing, as we've seen him do it before. Finally, we arrive at the most mysterious of the group, Lyle Tuiloma. The mystery man from Hawai'i had few offers and even less film, but the Buffs liked what they saw at a satellite camp and offered Tuiloma. No fan quite knew what to expect from Lyle in Boulder other than size, but apparently he exceeded all ambiguous expectations. The Big Island, as I'll call him (you know that's a great nickname) apparently dominated the scout team in his redshirt year. We'll see what he can do now that he's been unleased, but I expect Tuiloma to get spot snaps and clean-up time. He should be the MVP of the Idaho State game.


Defensive Ends

In 2015, the defensive end position was defined by the newcomers. Leo Jackson and Jordan Carrell, fresh out of junior colleges, led the way in snaps for the two defensive end positions, and both filled their roles admirably. They look to repeat their performances and then some in this upcoming year. I think the entire conference is sleeping on Carrell. Jackson is a great space eater on the edge and can curl the pocket and hold the run, but Carrell has the penetrating power that's pretty rare at this level. Ask anyone who watched a lot of Buff football last year and they'll tell you that if Jordan had wrapped up on his tackles, he would've doubled his tackles for loss. Both Jackson and Carrell were unexpected successes last year, and look to keep their starting spot. Samson Kafovalu came on strong last year, but with the current suspension lasting "indefinitely", who knows what his status will be for next year. If he does in fact stay on, that would blow the top off this unit. Kafovalu, when mentally and physically there, is a wrecking ball, and put him next to Carrell and Tupou, he should make some Pac-12 right tackles retire.

Now here's where the position gets shaky, the depth at defensive end is unproven. Timothy Coleman looks to get a lot of playing time, but after battling injuries for the past two years, his impact should be questioned. Coleman definitely has the athleticism to shake and move, and he has been successfully bulking up under Drew Wilson. If Coleman can turn it on, much like Kafovalu, this unit could turn fierce quickly. Michael Mathewes has been a certified Jack Barsch favorite since he has stepped on campus, opportunity has not risen for him to make an impact. With snaps opening up next year, Mathewes can show off his motor and hands more often next year, if he can get on the field. And... that's about all I've got for the backups. A lot of "ifs" in this group. Frank Umu deserves some mention here, he has a D1 body right now, all he needs is some seasoning.

I did not mention Tyler Henington or Brett Tonz. I don't know if they'll have much of an impact next year.

Linebackers

Much like the defensive line, the linebackers' success depends largely on a well-known returnee. Unlike the defensive line, the depth is questionable at best, scary at worst. But, at least we know it can't worse than last year (remember when we started Ryan Severson, while he was injured?). This mystery returner is none other than CU's version of Sunshine, Addison Gillam. He has had a rough couple of years injury wise, and the staff wisely decided to shut him down for all of last season after he got injured again in the Umass game. He has been rehabbing ever since, but he looks completely different from the waist up. Many want Gillam to return to his freshmen All-American form, but three years removed from that fantastic season, no one knows how likely that is. One thing is for sure: Addison has not been this healthy since that fabled year, and if we ever needed a triumphant return, it's this year.

Here's a look at the linebacker roster:

First Name Last Name Position Height Weight Year Home State Suspended
Sam Bennion OLB 6 5 225 Fr Utah Starter
N.J. Falo OLB 6 2 225 So California
Rick Gamboa ILB 6 0 230 Rso California
Jimmie Gilbert OLB 6 5 225 Sr Texas
Addison Gillam ILB 6 3 225 Rjr California
Terran Hasselbach OLB 6 1 230 Rso Colorado
Akil Jones LB 6 0 225 Fr California
Drew Lewis ILB 6 2 225 Rso Washington
Pookie Maka OLB 6 3 210 Fr Utah
Derek McCartney OLB 6 3 240 Rjr (G) Colorado
Kenneth Olugbode ILB 6 1 215 Sr California
Deaysean Rippy OLB 6 2 235 Rsr Pennsylvania
Ryan Severson ILB 5 10 210 Sr California
Christian Shaver LB 6 3 230 Jr Utah
Travis Talianko ILB 6 1 215 Sr California

Inside Linebackers

Now Addison would not be alone in the center of the defense. 3-4, or specifically the 3-4 nickel hybrid that CU trots out on the field most downs, usually has two middle linebackers. Enter another stalwart, and someone who has been largely underappreciated for his career as a Buff. Kenneth Olugbode looks to build another solid season in the middle. He is a little short for a stormtrooper, but he has the mobility to make up for it. And it's not like he is skinny either.

Welcome to the gun show. Olugbode scrapes across the line very well, and can serviceably cover backs out of the flat. Essentially, he should free up the playmaking linebacker next to him (please be Addison) to cover the hole and make the tackle, not that Kenneth is running short of tackles. He has been atop the leaderboard for that stat since he stepped on campus, and I do not expect this year to be an exception. The only thing stopping this veteran pair is injuries, which have decimated previous years of this linebacking corps. Fortunately, there is some added help on the interior, by way of junior college and high school. Rick Gamboa was serviceable as a starter last year when Gillam, and eventually Olugbode went down, but I believe he is best suited as a rotation ILB. He diagnoses plays extremely well, but can be a step slow to making them. Gamboa was also not physically ready for the Pac-12 last year, and slimming down should help his speed on the field. He will be a great depth piece when one of the starting two needs a breather, and should direct the defense without skipping a beat. Also looking to get significant snaps is Coffeyville Community College transfer Drew Lewis. Lewis started out as a Washington Husky, but was a casualty of the regime change in Seattle. He landed at Coffeyville, where he was injured half of the season and dominant the other half. Probably the most athletic inside linebacker on the roster, Drew will arrive in the summer (which helped scare the bigger schools away) as a hard hitter and lightning quick force on the inside. Lewis likes to blow people up, and sometimes he misses a tackle going for the jugular. If Lewis can stay disciplined, I love him roaming the middle in this defense, and I especially love him blitzing the A-gap during passing downs. Akil Jones, an incoming freshman, shares many of the same qualities. After playing OLB and DE for his high school career, Jim Leavitt is moving his relentless motor and long arms inside, where it looks like he'll be filling the same role as Olugbode. Jones' ability to shed blocks and high level athleticism should be useful immediately, especially on passing downs. Just don't ask him to cover. Christian Shaver, formerly a DE, should also look to get spot snaps as a bigger linebacker. Travis Talianko and Ryan Severson are both nursing injuries and both should make a big impact on special teams.


Outside Linebackers

This position seems much more stable than the rest that I've profiled so far. No major injuries, no surprise returners, and only one suspension! The outside linebackers are as steady as they come, but for this defense to blow up, they need to step up their game. As everyone who watched the Broncos could tell you, easiest way to make a 3-4 defense unstoppable is to bring consistent, constant pressure (the Chargers miss you, Wade Phillips). That's what bookends Derek McCartney and Jimmie Gilbert look to do. Despite being on campus for four years each, McCartney just finished his sophomore year (grayshirt and redshirt), while Gilbert is going into his true senior season. Derek was famous before he even got to Boulder thanks to his last name, and while some people called him a legacy signing, he has been worth his scholarship and then some. If I may, I'm going to wax poetic about this young man. He is playing the most time-intensive D1 sport (in my opinion, don't @ me), succeeding at a Pac-12 level, and he just graduated EARLY in one of the most intensive majors with the goal of eventually going to medical school. Derek is a fantastic ambassador for the program and the example of what a true student athlete is. Let's also not forget that he is great on the field. McCartney, who functions as a Von Miller-lite (as an "LB", he'll never drop back in coverage, or shouldn't at least), brings spot pressure and is surprisingly stout against the run. For him, and this defense to take the next step, he needs to bend the pocket more and hurry the quarterback. Hopefully, with improved interior pressure, the quarterback can't just slide up to avoid pressure as they did this year and that will result in more negative plays.

Gilbert has been the Buffs' most consistent pass rusher on the other side of the field. He consistently hurries the QB and beats his man off the snap. The problem is, he rarely converts this into sacks. Jimmie has a prototypical pass-rushing frame, long and lean, but for a lot of his playing career he has been a bit too lean. If the new strength and conditioning coach can work some magic with Gilbert, he should convert a lot of those hurries into sacks.

Given that the Buffs run a 3-4 nickel hybrid most of the time, there is not a lot of opportunity for the back-ups at OLB. Oftentimes, only one is on the field at one time, and the two starters can play a lot of snaps. They will take even more now that top backup N.J. Falo is suspended indefinitely following his arrest. Falo had a lot of promise and showed some good things last year. We'll see if he can make his way back to the University of Colorado. Assuming Falo can't play this year, look for Pookie Maka to take a lot of snaps. The freshman from Utah is delaying his Mormon mission by one year to play as a true frosh, so he should take full advantage of this campaign. Maka flashes on film and should really bulk up in a college program. Deaysean Rippy, he of famed Rippy lineage, has disappointed in his time in Boulder, but maybe Leavitt can help resuscitate his career yet. Terran Hasselbach is a pure pass-rusher, while Sam Bennion just returned from his two year Mormon mission, meaning it could take a while for him to get back into the fold.

Defensive Backs

I am most excited to talk about this group of players. As I should be. Coach MacIntrye made his bacon as a secondary coach, Coach Tumpkin (safeties) is a former defensive coordinator, and Coach Clark has been nothing but solid as a cornerbacks coach. The staff is there for this group to dominate, and the players are starting to live up to expectations. None more than the best player on the team, sure-fire NFL draft pick, and all around hoss Chidobe Awuzie. Here is a little of some #4 magic:

My analysis? He good. Chido is moving from nickel back to boundary cornerback, which may deflate his stats, but he is absolutely a lockdown corner and should have Jim Leavitt drooling with how to use him. Awuzie has the size, speed, strength, awareness, hands, mentality, and coaching to embarrass the Pac-12 this year, and PFF's top rated cornerback in the conference should have another banner year. But it's what's around him that intrigues me so.

Here is the supporting cast:

First Name Last Name Position Height Weight Year Home State Suspended
Chidobe Awuzie DB 6 0 205 Sr California Starter
Ca'Ron Baham DB 6 0 190 Fr Louisiana Injured
Ronnie Blackmon DB 5 10 180 Fr Georgia
Nick Fisher DB 6 0 185 So California
Afolabi Laguda DB 6 1 200 Jr Georgia
Ryan Moeller DB 6 1 210 Rjr Colorado
Isaiah Oliver DB 6 1 185 So Arizona
Jaisen Sanchez DB 6 1 195 Rso Hawai'i
Tedric Thompson DB 6 0 205 Sr California
Trey Udoffia DB 6 1 175 Fr California
Ahkello Witherspoon DB 6 3 190 Sr California

Colorado's passing defense wasn't terrible last year, giving up 218.2 yards a game, though that stat may be misleading. People may have run the ball more because of how bad CU was at stopping the run, bringing down the pass attempts/game. However, the talent is there for the passing defense to improve. The most exciting name in this list is Isaiah Oliver. It blows my mind that Colorado was his only P5 offer, because Isaiah is one of the most naturally athletic players I've seen in a while for the Buffs. Oliver runs the decathalon for the track team, and when he's done with that, he lines up across from receivers and shuts them down. He has great size for his position, fantastically fluid hips, and speed to recover. When Ahkello Witherspoon went down with an injury at the end of last year, Oliver played very well against WSU and Utah, which should be his introduction to the rest of the conference. Oliver and Chidobe are as good of a CB duo that you'll find in the Conference of Champions, and yeah I may be pumping them up too much, but just watch. What about the nickel, you may ask? Well, Afolabi Laguda seems to be well-suited to the position. The hard-hitting safety has the strength to knock receivers off the line, and the short area quickness to cover them within 5 or 10 years. However, if they try longer routes on Laguda, he may not keep up with the quicker wideouts. Laguda will also be a huge plus in the run game, where he can lay the wood and stop any run from popping to the outside edge.

As well as a fantastic corner duo, the safeties for CU are proven and highly effective. Tedric Thompson is ridiculously fun to watch and makes wow plays consistently. Thompson should find more and more reasons to sneak up into the box and make plays at the line of scrimmage, especially now that Ryan Moeller is (hopefully) fully recovered from his head injuries last year. Moeller is great as a deep safety, as he diagnoses plays quickly and has the range to affect the pass. I expect Leavitt to move both of these players around a lot, as they are great chess pieces to have.

Here's where the secondary gets interesting. The depth chart reads more like a signing day press release than a two-deep. For some reason, there is a two year hole where no DB's live. As such, the Buffs are going to have to rely heavily on young guns to get the job done. Nick Fisher, another certified Jack Barsch favorite, has the size and quickness to play nickel back, and he performed well in spot duty and special teams last year. Fisher somehow has the second most experience of the back ups, so he should get a good amount of playing time. Ahkello Witherspoon is a great depth piece who's played a lot of snaps. If, God forbid, one of the boundary corners goes down, Witherspoon should slide right in there. After those two... yeah. Kyle Trego, a junior college signing, should receive backup snaps at safety and nickel back, and Chido could move back there in a pinch. The freshmen are all exciting, but obviously you'd rather redshirt some of them. Ronnie Blackmon has all the athleticism required and should be in the mix to return punts immediately. Ca'ron Baham is pretty much the same deal, though he may be ready for defensive snaps earlier than Blackmon. Trey Udoffia is probably the most polished of the three, and he may factor in at nickel back immediately. Udoffia has great athleticism and instincts. The staff may consider bringing in more JuCo help for the secondary, if only for practice bodies.

Scheme

Here's where mad scientist Jim Leavitt comes into play. He now has had a full year to install his system, and the vanilla looks of last year's defense should look less and less frequent. There already has been lots of talk during spring practices of the exotic packages he's thrown at the offense, and Leavitt is no stranger to some weird looks (remember the Bowman-Willis 49ers?). Now that Jim knows all of the personnel he has, the strengths and weaknesses of each piece, he should be able to put each of them in a much better position on the defense. Expect more A-gap blitzes from Gillam/Lewis, more interior stunts with McCartney and Carrell, more Tedric Thompson laying fools out in the box. Leavitt runs a 3-4 nickel hybrid, which I've mentioned a few times. At any time, there's likely to be four "down" linemen, one of them being a rush linebacker, with two middle backers five yards back and a nickel back to go along with the boundary corners. In this scheme, the nose tackle is very important. That's why it's so impactful that Josh Tupou is coming back next year. With an experienced, athletic mammoth in the middle, everyone's jobs are easier. Carrell and Jackson more frequently face one-on-one blockers, the rush linebacker doesn't have to worry about the middle losing contain, and the suddenly crowded pocket (from the interior pressure) forces the QB to hurry the throw, meaning the defensive backs can capitalize on mistakes and cover for less time. However, this defense is still missing a consistent pass rush. A tackle can only do so much. Expect Leavitt to get creative in this area. He knows the importance of creating pressure and will go to great lengths to make it happen. Now that he's unboxed his toys, I'm excited to see how he plays with them.