Note: With the press and the public barred from spring practices this year, it is difficult to form an objective opinion as to how the Colorado football program improved over the course of the first half of spring practices. However, there have been a number of interviews given by coaches and players over the first two weeks of practice. Below is a compilation of what has been learned from those interviews. (Much credit goes to Adam and Sean at BuffStampede.com, who have been the most diligent in posting interviews and updates in what has otherwise been a sparse spring for news).
The few, the proud … the CU defensive line.
Those attending the Colorado spring game on April 14th will be treated to the public’s first look at the 2012 Colorado Buffs.
Just don’t expect to see much of a show.
The Colorado recruiting Class of 2012 will bring nine defensive linemen to Boulder this fall … but they won’t be here until fall.
Until then, the defensive line is so short of bodies, that spring scrimmages – and the Spring Game – will be limited in scope. With junior defensive tackle Nate Bonsu out for the spring with a shoulder injury, the scholarship roster of defensive linemen consists of: seniors Will Pericak and Eric Richter; junior Chidera Uzo-Diribe; and sophomores Juda Parker, Kirk Poston, and Cordary Allen.
That’s it. Even in you throw in a few walk-ons, like sophomore Andre Nichols and red-shirt freshman Casey Walker, the Buffs are still a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
One player who is trying to make his mark this spring – before the reinforcements arrive – is Chidera Uzo-Diribe. In 2011, Uzo-Diribe played in every game, starting six, but had only 18 tackles on the year. The junior was second on the team in sacks, with 5.5, but the season overall was a disapointment. “I feel like I have done a couple good things here but that is not good enough for me,” Uzo-Diribe told Adam in an interview with BuffStampede.com. “I want to take my game to the next level and become a great player for this University. I am hoping to achieve that these next couple years. I feel like if I can get my run technique down, be able to help stop the run, I will be able to make that jump and become a great player.”
Uzo-Diribe has made strides off the field, gaining 25 pounds in the weight room over the past two seasons, putting 255 pounds on his 6’3″ frame. “I got a lot stronger in the weight room in December, January and February so I feel like that will definitely benefit me in the run game,” Uzo-Diribe said. “I have come into this off-season with the mindset that we need to toughen up. During the fall, I kind of got tired a lot. We don’t have good numbers on the defensive line this spring so we are going to get a lot of reps. This is our time to get even better conditioned and also learn how to play tired.”
For his part, Uzo-Diribe gives praise to walk-on Andre Nichols and former tight end Cordary Allen. “Andre is definitely a guy that can help us because he has good speed off the edge,” Uzo-Diribe said. “Cordary is new to the position after playing running back and tight end before. We are going to keep working on his technique, get him better every spring practice, but he looks like we could be able to use him.”
One of the mainstays along the defensive line has been Will Pericak. The senior-to-be has a team-best 36 consecutive starts to his credit, and last season led the defensive line with 64 tackles. This spring? Colorado defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo has had to move Pericak back-and-forth between the tackle and end positions. “Well for now, he has to do both,” Tuiasosopo told BuffStampede.com. “You know, his role is going to be dependent on the development of those young guys and the guys we have coming back. A guy like Nate Bonsu has got to step up. He has to step up. These returning scholarship guys, they all have to step up. The big thing right now, with the guys that are on scholarship that are back here this spring, is that they have to take advantage of these opportunities.”
“Stepping up” is a phrase Tuiasosopo has had to use a great deal this spring. Continuing on concerning Bonsu, Tuiasosopo said, “There are still a lot of question marks with Nate. First of all, he’s got to get healthy. Second of all, is where it’s at…you know Nate does flash, but he doesn’t flash enough. He needs to be that constantly clicking camera that keeps flashing. He flashes, but not enough flashes. He understands that. He and I have had that conversation and so he needs to….somebody’s got to step up. Between the returning scholarship guys, which are Eric Richter, Kirk Poston and Nate Bonsu, and then the guys that we signed, someone’s got to step up.”
Hopefully, some defensive linemen will “step up” before September, or it will be a long season for the Buffs and their fans.
While the defensive line is in flux, the Colorado linebacker corps – with no reinforcements coming in August – is much closer to being set.
Jon Major, who led the team in tackles last season with 85, returns for his senior season. Major started the first seven games of the 2011 campaign at the Sam outside linebacker position, but moved to middle linebacker for the rest of the season after Douglas Rippy suffered a knee injury against Oregon.
Until Rippy’s return this fall, the inside linebacker positions are being manned by junior Derrick Webb and sophomore Brady Daigh. Last season, Webb played in all 13 games last season, with seven starts, accumulating 54 tackles. Daigh, meanwhile, had 18 tackles in nine games.
“I’m feeling bigger, stronger,” Webb said in an interview with BuffaloSportsNews.net. “I put on a little weight, good weight. I’m excited to introduce it to some new running backs in the Pac-12.
“I feel more explosive, definitely,” Webb said. “I’m able to take on blocks more square and hold my ground better. I definitely feel the difference out here with the extra weight, extra muscle. I’ve been really working on my lower body strength. That’s where I want to put most of my weight. I feel like that’s where most of the game is played, especially linebacker. You’ve got to be able to hold your ground with guards and tackles.”
Yes, there is some talent, and some experience, returning at linebacker, but the real question of the spring … and the fall … is whether Douglas Rippy will return to the All-Conference play he demonstrated last fall prior to his knee injury.
“I’m getting there and able to be back to running and doing some position drills,” Rippy told Sean in an interview with BuffStampede.com. “Its coming along good. Right now I’m about 75% and I’m pretty much ahead of my rehab [time table] right now.
“I should be back late April or early May”, said Rippy. “They are just really conscious of what I do right now. [The training staff] is just trying to make sure I’m doing everything right in terms of my rehab and just functional movement stuff. They don’t want me to do anything extra. They just want me to continue doing what they’re telling me to do.”
If healthy, linebackers coach Brian Cabral sees Rippy as a potential All-American candidate. “That means a lot”, Rippy admitted, “but my first goal is to get healthy and I’m track for that. Whatever happens happens. That would be great and [the NFL] is the whole goal, but at the same time I’m trying to help my team win and we’re trying to make a bowl game. Its not about me, its about my teammates. I worry about myself at the end of the day, but its about my teammates right now and sending the seniors out on a good note. Coach Cabral knows what he’s doing. He’s a great coach. Obviously I listen to him and if he says that it has to be true, but that’s not my main focus right now. My main focus is getting healthy and helping my teammates out.”
The question the new CU coaching staff had to face last spring and summer was how to replace the two cornerbacks from 2010, Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown, who were now plying their trade in the NFL.
The question went half answered.
True freshman Greg Henderson not only started in the first game of the season last fall, he was on the field for more plays than any freshman in school history. The old record for a true freshmen was set by linebacker Jordon Dizon in 2004, when Dizon was on the field for 597 plays. Henderson not only broke the record, he destroyed it, taking the field for 823 plays.
So, one cornerback set – who will be the next player to step up?
While many in the Buff Nation expect either Yuri Wright or Kenneth Crawley, both incoming four-star recruits, to be starting at corner come September, there are several current players on the roster who would like to make their pitch for the job.
The pre-spring depth chart shows sophomore Josh Moten as the starting right cornerback, with red-shirt freshman Sherrard Harrington as the No. 1 backup.
“So far, so good,” said Moten in an interview with BuffStampede.com. “I am still trying to get better each and every day, working on technique and fundaments and learning the playbook, but I am getting the hang of things. I am confident when I am out there now.”
Moten remains a project. Signed as an athlete three years ago, Moten was promised by head coach Dan Hawkins a shot at the quarterback position, but that never materialized. Moten then moved to the defensive backfield, but was suspended for five games last fall due to off-the-field issues. Now, Moten is trying to show he belongs in the starting lineup.
“Josh is working hard. His nose is in the book, his nose is to the grindstone,” defensive coordinator Greg Brown said. “He has done a good job of taking care of business. He is a better student of the game and that translates and is carrying over onto the field. He is also a better student in the classroom now.
“Guys all mature at different times. Jimmy Smith came here, redshirted his first year and really didn’t do much of anything as a redshirt freshman. Then after that, his redshirt sophomore year, he was a guy. The same thing can be said about Jalil Brown. It is during that redshirt sophomore time frame where a lot of guys just come on.”
The second name on the pre-spring cornerback roster, red-shirt freshman Sherrard Harrington, also believes he can make a significant impact this fall.
Injured last summer, Harrington was forced to sit out the 2011 season, when the Buffs were forced to use running backs (Brian Lockridge, D.D. Goodson) and wide receivers (Jason Espinoza) as fill-in defensive backs. “Sitting out a year definitely took a toll on me,” Harrington told BuffStampede.com. “At times my school work would go down drastically because I was so depressed [about] not being able to play football. [The staff] had high expectations of me, but I basically used that time to evaluate myself as a football player and as an individual. I think it definitely worked out positively.”
Harrington took his time away from the football field to spend more time in the weight room. “I came in from winter break at a small 169 pounds and I’m working really hard in the weight room with Coach [Malcolm] Blacken and Coach Steve [Englehart] and I’ve brought my weight up to 182 pounds,” said Harrington. “I’m looking to play at 190 pounds this year, so its going to be a fun process.”
While Harrington is listed as a cornerback, he will likely play at nickel back and safety as well. “Actually [the coaches] are just moving me around and showing off my flexibility and my versatility,” said Harrington. “Its basically just [how they used me] in high school, so this is nothing new to me. It’s part of my game and I’m happy about the process. I’m taking reps at both the safety and corner spots. They’re moving me all around at free safety, strong safety and corner.”
This is all part of Colorado defensive backs coach Greg Brown’s master plan – having multiple players available at multiple positions, including Harrington. “Yes, Sherrard is doing both,” Brown told BuffStampede.com. “It is a good thing because the more you can do, the better you are going to be, just liked Greg Henderson. He plays corner for us on first down and then goes in and plays nickel on sub downs. That is a big deal, you have to be able to play multiple positions. There are very few guys that can just say, ‘I am one position only.'”
At safety, Anthony Perkins is gone, with Parker Orms listed as the new starter at strong safety. Unfortunately, Orms is out with a hamstring injury, so his progress this spring as a starter has been curtailed. That makes it all the more important for the returning starter at free safety, senior Ray Polk, to have a strong presence.
Greg Brown is comfortable with Polk as a returning starter. “He knows what he is doing,” Brown said of Polk, a former running back recruit. “He is blessed with tremendous physical attributes. He is as fast as anybody there is on our team and he is also a very tough, aggressive tackler. He knows this defense inside and out and he relishes that role of being the leader now. It is his time and he is excited.”