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Colorado Buffaloes 2018 Season Preview: Defense

Young talent, including coaches, should help this unit make a jump.

What a difference a year makes. Going into last year, Buff fans were expecting a drop in quality on defense due to Jim Leavitt and eight or so starters leaving Boulder. Well, the quality definitely dropped last year as a new defensive coordinator and brand new players everywhere led to some bad games and a really bad run defense.

We’re now looking at the 2018 season, and expecting anything other than a below average D is a fool’s errand. There are some new important faces (hello, Kwahn Drake and Israel Antwine) and exciting talent to anticipate, but as of now, it’s all pure optimism coming out of fall camp. Now I, being on the sunnier side of projections, assume this optimism is warranted and real. After last year, I don’t blame anyone weary of the defense’s quality in 2018.

Let’s start in the back of the formation with the defensive backs. The most consistent group in Mike MacIntyre’s tenure reloads after losing Isaiah Oliver to the draft and Afolabi Laguda to graduation. Other than that, the group is completely intact. In fact, they even added a coach, with Ashley Ambrose coming from Boise State to coach cornerbacks in Boulder for the 2nd time. With ShaDon Brown and Ambrose in tow, I am comfortable with whoever CU throws back there, even if the options are limited. Which they aren’t.

At safety, there are possibly the two most entrenched starters on the team in Evan Worthington and Nick Fisher. Both players are plus starters in the Pac-12, and both need to stay healthy because there is no proven talent behind them. Worthington will roam the field a bit more this year, a freedom afforded by the extra dose of speed and athleticism on this year’s team. Fisher will assume a more traditional safety role, patrolling the deep middle and reading the quarterback.

Behind them, Kyle Trego is a veteran who has been a reliable special teams contributor and knows the defense. Hasaan Hypolite is perhaps the most surprising freshman to crack the two deep, but he came to Boulder physically ready and ready to smack somebody. If he has picked up the mental side of the game, he could be a very nice depth piece whose snaps this year pay huge dividends for next year and beyond. Aaron Maddox is an athletic JuCo transfer that is comfortable in the box, and Isaiah Lewis is a redshirt freshman that is a complete unknown to me. As I said before, safety is a two man position right now.

Not so for the cornerbacks. With a combined 13 starts back, this is a pretty new unit that shed the last vestiges of the all-time 2016 group. The new look MoneyGang has the talent to continue the trend of solid defensive back units under Mac’s watch, but the lack of experience, and solid experience, gives me pause. Trey Udoffia and Delrick Abrams are the likely starters. Udoffia is probably the most dependable of the bunch, and he impressed when he stepped up to start last year. With Oliver on the opposite side, Udoffia got picked on a lot, and he held his own until his injury cut his year short. Now fully healthy, Trey is big, physical, and comfortable in press coverage, all MacIntyre musts. He may get beat a few times, but who doesn’t? Abrams on the other side is the more intriguing name. Long and lanky, he resembles Ahkello Witherspoon, but he is already more physical than Witherspoon. Delrick doesn’t have the long speed to keep up with the faster receivers, but his length allows for some crazy recovery. He needs to work on playing the ball in the air, turning PBU into INTs, but his transition into Pac-12 football should be smooth. If, for some reason, it isn’t, there is solid depth at this position.

Dante Wigley is good enough to start on a few teams, and the physical CB is a great option to play snaps when the Buffs need to put more DBs on the field. Having a 3rd option like Wigley is a luxury. Chris Miller has the most physical talent of the group, but the redshirt freshman needs consistency to guarantee playing time. Believe me, he will be fantastic and probably a draft pick (hot take), but he needs to grow into the game. Another luxurious backup with big time skills.

Moving into the nickel back position, there is a clear starter there for the first time since Chidobe Awuzie took over his freshman year. Ronnie Blackmon, by all accounts, has stepped up this camp. To the point where he forced himself on the field. He’s by far the shortest CB in the room 5’8, but he seeks the ball better than anyone else on the team. In nickel situations, he will line up on the inside receiver and jam them on the line. He is not afraid of anyone. His athleticism pops, and might be one of the most explosive players on the team. I’m very excited to see what Blackmon can do. Remember, Ashley Ambrose coached Cha’pelle Brown in college, who was a short bulldog at NB. Let’s see if history repeats itself.

I’ll just say it straight – this is the best linebacking corps under MacIntyre, and probably since the 2000’s for CU. There is a near perfect mixture of talent, coaching, and experience in the middle of the defense. On the outside, there’s plenty of potential with no obvious front-runner. But let’s go back to the middle, because Buff fans should be very comfortable there. Rick Gamboa returns for one last go-around as the stalwart in the middle. He should remain solid as ever in 2018. The Buffs now have the luxury of subbing off Gamboa when the situation is obviously built to exploit his speed shortcomings, with fantastic depth up the middle. Akil Jones and even Jon Van Diest can spell Gamboa when necessary, or CU can shift the entire complexion of the linebacking corps.

Nate Landman blew up in a big way during fall camp, enough to move Drew Lewis to the outside just to get Landman on the field. Next to Gamboa, he will be free to seek the ball and then hit like a missile. While he has very little proven production, his ratio of snaps to impact plays is unheard of. The news that he has continued his excellence through camp is music to Buff fans ears. He can, and will, be a true difference maker for the entire year. I’m very high on him. As we said before, Akil Jones and Jon Van Diest are the primary backups here, and Drew Lewis can also easily shift back inside. Jones is in the Gamboa mold physically, with a little more explosion and thump. Van Diest will not see the field much as he continues to come back from back to back to back injuries, but his motor and athleticism is a perfect fit for special teams. Once again, I would feel ok if he saw extended game action, but I would prefer it comes in the 2nd half of blowouts.

The edge of the linebacking corps is a huge jumble of bodies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t make D.J. Eliot’s job any easier. Currently, the starter at OLB is listed as Drew Lewis with backups Jacob Callier OR Carson Wells OR Nu’umotu Falo. That doesn’t include Davion Taylor at Buffbacker. All of those bodies do something a little different, so it will most likely be a situational rotation. That means I have to go through all of those names, so buckle up.

Drew Lewis moving to the outside is probably my favorite move in camp. His explosiveness and penchant for rushing the passer is a natural fit for OLB, and the game should simplify for him. He doesn’t have to read and diagnose the QB every play, he just has to read the offensive line and find the ball. I expect his sack numbers to jump.

The next man up is probably Nu’umotu Falo, who returns to the Buffs after a year to mature away from the team. The redshirt junior has always been physical and he’ll be counted on to be the main run support linebacker. He can rush the passer just fine, but his main strength lies in setting the edge and stringing out running plays.

On passing downs, expect to see a lot of Jacob Callier. Playing out of position as a freshman last year, Callier was CU’s best outside pass rusher. Now, he dropped a lot of weight, which should help with his speed around the edge. The drop in pounds from 240ish to 220ish does mean that he can’t hold up as well against the run as some of the other options for the Buffs. He will still get heavy usage when CU forces 3rd and longs.

We finally get to Carson Wells, who is a utility player. He’s the biggest player of any of the options, at a legitimate 6’4 and 245. That is how a 3-4 OLB is supposed to look. He can rush the passer just fine, and he’s big enough to play the run just fine, but CU has better options for both of those if needed. He might be the best backer in coverage, which is a very nice skill to have in the back pocket, but the Buffbacker is a better fit for coverage from the OLB position. So, the redshirt freshman is good at everything, but not the best at anything on the team. That makes him the perfect backup. He will see time this year, but not as much as some other names.

At this point we get to Davion Taylor, who is a total unknown. He’s a freak athlete, with the size to confidently slide into the Buffbacker position. He’s only played football for three years total, so he’s swimming in the deep end right now. If he wasn’t so damn fast, he might be out of position on most plays. When everything clicks for Taylor, he could be the best pass rusher for CU and a secret weapon covering tight ends and bigger receivers. He could chase down any RB from the weak side of the play and get a TFL. If he has trouble playing at Pac-12 speed learning the game, his playing time may decrease and could relegated to a situational role. In terms of pure speed, there is no one faster at his size in the conference, which makes him a near must-play. His upside is so high that coaches can’t (and shouldn’t) stop themselves from gambling on the talent rather than the experience.

We finally get down to the big uglies on the defensive line. This is the position group that has been through the most change in terms of personnel and coaching. Last year, the Buffs were one of the worst teams in the country in run defense and sacks, which falls squarely on the DL’s shoulders. This prompted a change in coaches, as Jim Jeffcoat left and in came Kwahn Drake. Drake is the exact type of coach I prefer, short on experience but has everything else you want. He’s energetic, technical, and tries as hard as he can to bring those qualities out of the players he coaches. I think he succeeds enough to cause a big jump in performance this year.

Kwahn Drake is not the only change for this unit. Even though the only graduate was Leo Jackson, there are new names and faces up and down the two deep. Javier Edwards remains the stalwart in the middle, and a new, “slim” physique should lead to less fatigue throughout the game. If he can remain stout at NT, everyone’s job gets a little easier.

Next to him is newcomer Mustafa Johnson, from the JUCO ranks. He’s shorter than the rest, but his freaky long arms and “chubby” body, as Edwards puts it, ensures that he doesn’t get pushed around too much. He will rotate heavily with Chris Mulumba, who started last year, but Johnson has been consistent all fall camp and has the talent to hold on to the spot. The one thing I worry about with him is the longer tackles, but he should be fine against everyone else holding the point of attack. At 290 pounds, he is no small task.

Opposite Johnson is everyone’s favorite prospect, Israel Antwine. He was the 2018 recruiting class’s biggest get, with D.J. Eliot stealing him from Oklahoma State at the last second. A ready-made 6’3, 315 pounds, Antwine is not a normal freshman. He was a powerlifter in high school, the anchor of Oklahoma’s best high school defense, and a wrestler early on. Antwine has the most power at the point of attack out of anyone on the Buffs, and he wrangled a starting position during fall camp with pure talent. The kid is going to be special, and I’m so glad that he will play early and often this year.

In the rotation behind them is solid depth. Terrance Lang has a prototypical 3-4 DE frame, and with added strength this year, he should explode. A redshirt freshman, Lang has to get more consistent to earn more time, but his athleticism, size, and quickness will be hard to keep off the field. The best case for the Buffs is that he learns a lot this year while being in the rotation and competes to start next year. Jase Franke has been in Boulder for going on 15 years it seems, and he always been completely consistent in whatever role he is tasked. This year, he reprises as a utility player who will rotate in up and down the line to provide breaks for the more specialized players.

Chris Mulumba is the elder statesmen of the DL at 28 years young. He is solidly built at 280ish, with long arms and a violent disposition. Once he caught up to the speed of the game in 2017, he turned it on, with great performances against USC and Utah. His physicality and experience will be valuable this year, and he will play heavily when the others get tired. Lyle Tuiloma is the back-up NT, resuming his role from last year. Lyle (great first name) played more violent that Edwards at times, and he is another solid player to throw in for 15-20 snaps a game when Javier gets tired. He needs to get a bit bigger and stronger, but the attitude and quickness is there, and that goes far.

Finally, we get to scheme. I’ll keep it short because we kind of know what to expect from Mike MacIntyre and D.J. Eliot at this point, but I want to touch on the versatility that the added team speed affords. With players like Evan Worthington, Davion Taylor, and Drew Lewis, CU has top-shelf athletes that are big enough to take on RBs and TEs and fast enough for most receivers. These pieces can move around a defense to make life hell for offenses. A true 3-4 can quickly become a big nickel package with Taylor and Worthington moving up to take on receivers early, and that is a group built for run support.

Going the other way, a jumbo package with two CBs, Worthington, Lewis, Taylor, and three other LBs can easily run down stretch running plays. Those three aren’t the only upgrades in athleticism. Ronnie Blackmon can sub in on passing downs and lock down a team’s 3rd or 4th receiver, Lang and Antwine can move inside on passing downs to generate interior pass rush, and Carson Wells can keep a big body on the field during 3rd and longs to snuff out screens. The pieces that Eliot gets to move around the chessboard can suddenly move into more spaces that before, and that has to be exciting. With all of that new talent, an improvement over last year is expected and necessary. There are no excuses now.