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Colorado Football 2020 Season Preview: Defensive Backs

It’s finally time to talk about the 2020 season

NCAA Football: Stanford at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

DB: Jaylen Striker, Chris Miller, K.J. Trufillo, Christian Gonzalez, Mekhi Blackmon, Nigel Bethel, D.J. Oats, Tarik Luckett, Will Anglen

From 2013 to 2019, Colorado Football’s head coach was a DB coach by trade. Mike MacIntyre made his bones in the NFL as a DB coach, and Mel Tucker worked for Alabama and Georgia as a DB coach. I say this preface because it is completely insane that for most of those years, Colorado’s defensive backs have NOT been up to par. Whether it was talent, inexperience, coaching, or a combo, the cornerbacks and safeties have largely struggled in the 2010’s.

There was, however, some payoff: The 2016 secondary was arguably the best in the country, and still has 4 members playing in the NFL. There were some bright moments in 2017, as well, and there has been increasing talent flooding into the Boulder defensive backfield. However, with a new defensive backs coach and a new head coach in Karl Dorrell, this exciting young talent again has to tend with a coaching shift and a lack of depth.

In 2019, freshmen K.J. Trujillo and Tarik Luckett were thrust into action at cornerback after a long rash of injuries that saw Delrick Abrams and Chris Miller sidelined for multiple weeks. They started a little slow, with a terrible showing against Arizona in Folsom Field, but both Trujillo and Luckett eventually proved up to the challenge, with Trujillo especially showing well against the toughest competition. Tarik Luckett switched to CB halfway through fall camp, and he still did pretty OK! Now, with Chris Miller moving to Star (more on that later) and Abrams on to the NFL, Trujillo and Luckett have a wide open depth chart. There are some other returnees (Mekhi Blackmon is an intriguing piece coming back from injury), but this depth chart is young, pretty rough according to stats, and full of potential.

Starting the cornerbacks, there are a few options, none of them ideal. Going off the latest depth chart, Mekhi Blackmon has control of one of the boundary corner spots, with K.J. Trujillo occupying the other. Nigel Bethel, the University of Miami transfer with blazing speed, is slotted into the nickelback spot, with Tarik Luckett and JuCo transfer Jaylen Striker also cracking the two deep. We have only seen action from three of these players (Trujillo, Luckett, and Blackmon), and none of them have started for a full season.

That leaves a lot of question marks available. Strangely enough, true sophomore Trujillo might be the most steady of the group. He started most of 2019 and showed that he’s tough and doesn’t get beat. He’s super skinny and needs to work on breaking on the ball a little quicker (how many INTs were inches out reach against USC?), but he’s smart and doesn’t back down. Trujillo will continue to grow into one of the Pac-12’s corners, but growing pains always exist and CU football is no exception.

Mekhi Blackmon features a similar profile; he’s undersized and a complete bulldog, but he plays more aggressively than Trujillo. It remains to be seen if he can prevent the big plays, but he is potentially the most senior member of the DB room.

Tarik Luckett is the biggest body in the CB room, standing at 6’2 and closer to 200 pounds. He’s long and aggressive, and similar to the DBs during the MacIntyre era. He’s physical at the line of scrimmage, but he’s obviously raw at the position. Luckett is a great piece to have in the room as he continues to gain reps in the system.

Nigel Bethel is the fastest man in the room, and his disruption is a good addition to the nickelback position. If you remember back to 2019, Colorado spent most of the time with 5 DBs on the field under Tyson Summers, and I expect that to continue. As such, Bethel will see the field a lot, and his 6’ frame is relatively tall to cover slot receivers. We just have no idea how he’ll actually perform in college.

The X-factor I want to highlight here is Chrstian Gonzalez. In fact, I want to highlight him so much I started a new paragraph for him. The true freshman from Texas was a highly-rated recruit, and his smooth athleticism and polish will let him contribute right away. He may have the biggest impact at safety, but he is currently listed at CB. Wherever he lines up, expect Gonzalez to play early and often. At over 6 foot, he is one of the taller options, and he is solidly built. If he can adapt quickly, he might steal some starting minutes from a boundary corner. I cannot emphasize enough how smooth Christian Gonzalez operates. His talent will force him on the field at cornerback or safety.

Speaking of, let’s go over the safety spot while we can. This has been a trouble spot since 2016, when Tedric Thompson and Afolabi Laguda graced the defensive backfield. Depth has been hard to find, and 2020 is no exception. There is some young talent, and some vets that haven’t seen the field very much, but there is almost nothing here that a hat could be hung on.

The only man I feel confident in right now is Derrion Rakestraw. It’s been a long, winding road for the senior, who started as a wide receiver from Georgia before making the winning switch to safety. He proved to be dependable last year, and is adequate against both the run and the pass. Rakestraw has plus measurables and is quick to read the play. As he grows into Tyson Summers’ defense, he should grow into a pretty good starter for CU. Otherwise, it’s a lot of question marks.

Mark Perry came on very strong towards the end of last season, and the sophomore has all the physical gifts in the world. He has shown to be disruptive at the line of scrimmage and in the backfield, and with the move to strong safety full time, will he be as impactful? The starting spot is his if he wants it. Behind Rakestraw and Perry, Isaiah Lewis is a veteran of the team that doesn’t have a lot of game experience, and Toren Pittman is a huge freshman with a lot of potential. If Rakestraw and Perry miss time for whatever reason, it will be hard to rely on the safety position in any meaningful capacity.

I would be remiss if I finished this article without mentioning the new DB coach, Demetrice Martin. Martin has quite the pedigree in Southern California, coaching DBs for UCLA for five years during their Jim Mora days. He has coached and developed quite a bit of talent over time, and was a great get from Karl Dorrell from rival Arizona. He coaches his DBs to be zone-savvy and physical, but doesn’t really preach takeaways like Mel Tucker did. Expect a DB group that plays hard at the line of scrimmage and focuses on preventing big plays.