Michigan State. Ohio State. LSU. Alabama. Georgia. This is a list of schools that don’t exist in the state of Colorado. It’s also a list of schools that Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett did not attend. Mainly, it’s the list of schools that Mel Tucker has worked at before CU, all on the defensive side of the ball. Those are great teams. They are even better defenses. Part of that is because Mel Tucker’s boss at three of schools was Nick Saban. At the other two, OSU and Georgia, his bosses were Jim Tressel and Kirby Smart. That is the class of college football, and those are some mean defenses. The pedigree is there.
Now, as a head coach, Mel Tucker is responsible for the Colorado defense, but also the Colorado offense and Colorado special teams. Not to mention the strength and conditioning and the recruiting and the coaching staff and the ops staff and the practice schedule. It’s a lot. A coach can easily get swallowed up by that sea of responsibility. So far, it looks like Tucker is a natural head man in charge. But his bread is still buttered on defense. It’s what he knows like the back of his hand. It’s why he can afford to hire unproven and unseasoned coaches at DB and OLB. And it’s why that side of the ball is finally showing so much promise for 2020 and beyond.
There are three projected departures on this defense and those losses will cause problems. Delrick Abrams has been a rock on the CB for the last two years, with very little proven depth behind him. Davion Taylor has exploded in the second half of the year and played himself into the NFL. Mikial Onu was an absolute savior for the safety depth chart and was a complete leader for this defense. There are no immediate replacements on this team for any of those players. But that matters a little less when you bring in talent in different ways and with different positions.
There are no definite replacements for Abrams, but KJ Trujillo and Tarik Luckett stepped up this year as true freshmen and are sure to improve as they mature. No one has Davion Taylor’s mixture of explosion and physicality, but Mark Perry can do about 70% of what he does and he is 18 years old. And while Mikial Onu was brought in specifically due to the lack of depth at safety, there are some ridiculously talented players in this recruiting class meant to fix that exact problem. These are calculated risks, and it’s not necessarily a straight line of upward improvement. Upgrading talent upgrades your chances, though. This projected secondary hasn’t even added back Chris Miller and Derrion Rakestraw, two injury replacement starters who should be back and better than before.
Speed, talent, size — everything should be an upgrade in 2020. In a somewhat unexpected boon, it is likely that CU returns one or both of Mustafa Johnson and Nate Landman as senior leaders next year. Those two are legitimate all-conference players and another year in this defense should let them play a bit faster. Around them, reinforcements are arriving. Instant contributors like Alabama transfer Antonio Alfano and Nebraska transfer Guy Thomas up front should make that front seven even more exciting. It’s possible that Terrance Lang, a legitimate plus-starter in the Pac-12, will come off the bench
The injuries and shuffling this year should pay dividends in 2020, even if it hurt in 2019. Those injuries forced young players to step and gain invaluable experience. Yes it would have been great to have first team starters on the field in some of CU’s close losses, but the Buffs will benefit in the long term. Considering the incoming talent, another year with Tucker’s coaching, and those injured players coming back, the defensive side of the ball will be next level as early as 2020.
Let’s do a quick thought exercise. It’s September 5th, and Colorado is travelling up to Fort Collins to finish up the CSU-CU contract. They are going to roll into Canvas Stadium with a potential starting lineup of:
DE: Antonio Alfano (So.)
DT: Jalen Sami (So.)
DE: Mustafa Johnson (Sr.)
OLB: Guy Thomas/Carson Wells (Jr.)
ILB: Nate Landman (Sr.)
ILB: Akil Jones (Sr.)
STAR: Mark Perry (So.)
LCB: KJ Trujillo (So.)
FS: Christian Gonzalez (Fr.)
SS: Derrion Rakestraw (Sr.)
RCB: Chris Miller (Jr.)
That is a mostly experienced, athletic group that has legitimate NFL talent at every level. While that is five new starters on its surface, all of these new starters played extensively in 2019, and held their own despite youth or playing out of position.
THAT’S NOT EVEN THE MOST EXCITING PART. The exciting part is the talent waiting in the wings. Terrance Lang (Jr.) will may be first off the bench despite being a starter-caliber defensive lineman. How many times in recent history have the Colorado Buffaloes recruited over a legitimate starter? Then at linebacker, athletic recruits Marvin Ham (r-Fr.) and Jashua Allen (Sr.) will be ready to explode onto the scene in 2020. Jon Van Diest (Jr.), an opening day starter who has dealt with injuries, will be on the roster next year and will provide needed depth.
Deeper on the depth chart, the Buffs will have experience, even with the underclassmen. Na’im Rodman and Austin Williams, two true freshmen forced into action this year, will be a year older, stronger, and wiser. Tarik Luckett was another true freshman who started multiple games this year. He will likely be the 5th or 6th cornerback. That is a level of depth that did not exist previously, and a level of talented depth. This team is slowly turning more athletic and fast by the year.
In 2019, the defense finished (mostly) strong after a brutal start to the year. The scheme started to click, the team turned into an aggressive unit, and the athleticism of some of the stars showed up in the end. Now, some of those stars are gone. But on the aggregate, this side of the ball is more talented, bigger, faster, and stronger in 2020. And they have another year under Tucker’s new scheme. That should excite every CU fan in the eight long, dark, cold months until the next college football game.