Spring Grades – Defense

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Spring Grades – Defense

Spring practices are over for 2014. How did the Buffs fare in their second set of spring practices under Mike MacIntyre?

Let’s take a look …

Defensive Line

The easiest out for a grade for the CU defensive line this spring would be “incomplete”.

After all, two projected starters, defensive tackle Justin Solis and defensive end Samson Kafovalu (who between them have played in 36 games, with 14 starts), did not participate at all in spring drills. Not holding their own academically, Solis and Kafovalu were held out of spring practices so that they could concentrate on trying to stay eligible for the fall.

Solis and Kafovalu were not the only defensive linemen who were missing in action this spring. Junior John Paul Tuso suffered a torn ACL early in March, and is out indefinitely; red-shirt freshman Timothy Coleman ruptured his Achilles last September, and missed all of spring while undergoing rehab; and promising sophomore Jimmie Gilbert , who had 11 tackles in his 261 plays on the field last fall as a true freshman, sat out the spring after undergoing off-season surgery to mend a chronic shoulder injury.

Sounds like it was hard enough for the CU coaching staff to find bodies this spring to even practice, much less have scrimmages or a spring game.

So, when it was announced during the first week of spring ball that two of the remaining defensive linemen were shifting positions, red flags went up.

Sophomore Clay Norgard, already on his third position in three years at Colorado, is now a defensive tackle. “We will keep Clay at defensive tackle,” coach MacIntyre said during the first week of spring practices. “He played that in high school, we need to beef him up a little bit (from his current 240 pounds). Against spread football teams when they’re throwing it all the time, they won’t be doubling him all the time so he’s natural in there. When we’re playing teams that will pound you, he won’t be in there as much. But when it’s one-on-one, pass rush, stunting and moving him, he’ll be hard to block and give us an inside pass rush.”

Meanwhile, junior Tyler Henington, who had been playing at defensive tackle, spent time playing on the outside. “We may move Tyler Henington outside to defensive end a little more. He’s running better and quicker”, MacIntyre said of the junior, who is some 20 pounds lighter than his playing weight last fall. “Against some teams we can move him in and out. Against teams with big tight ends, he’s 260 but hopefully can give us some good leverage”.

Henington responded to his change in position this spring with 13 tackles in the three scrimmages, including four sacks, five tackles for loss, and two third down stops. Norgard, meanwhile, had six tackles, including two sacks, a tackle for loss, and a third down stop during the scrimmages. In the spring game, the pair combined for five tackles, with Henington picking up one of the two sacks on the afternoon.

While the Henington/Norgard swap was taking root, several other defensive lineman had good springs. Josh Tupou, the returning starter at defensive tackle, more than held his own. Meanwhile at the defensive end position, Derek McCartney played well. The red-shirt freshman recorded 12 tackles in the three scrimmages, posting four sacks, five tackles for loss, and four third down stops.

Three other red-shirt freshmen – Markeis Reed, Timothy Coleman, and Garrett Gregory – had mixed results. Reed, thought by some (including me) to be the newcomer who would have the greatest impact, had a fairly anonymous spring (three tackles in the scrimmages, one tackle in the spring game). Coleman and Gregory did not make much noise either, though Gilbert did record the fumble recovery which led to the game-winning touchdown for the black team in the spring game.

So, there is hope for the defensive line, but there are also many questions which were left unanswered this spring:

- Will Justin Solis and Samson Kafovalu be academically eligible this fall? (If the answer to this question turns out to be “no”, you might want to hold off on your holiday bowl plans);

- Will other non-participating linemen from this spring, particularly Jimmie Gilbert, be able to make a full recovery and be a force this fall?;

- Will the move of a ridiculously light Clay Norgard to the interior of the line pay off (Josh Tupou, by comparison to Norgard’s 240-pounds, weighs 300)?;

- Will the move of Tyler Henington to the outside prove to be a shrewd maneuver?;

- Will the defensive line have to count on true freshmen Eddy Lopez and/or Jase Franke to contribute this fall? (If the answer to this question turns out to be “yes”, the Buffs again will be in trouble against the offenses of the Pac-12).

Spring Grade … C.

Linebackers

It’s been almost 20 years since Buff fans could call the University of Colorado “Linebacker U” … and not be mocked.

The Buffs have only produced three NFL-draft worthy linebackers – Sean Tufts, Brad Jones and Jordon Dizon – in the past 15 years, after a decade of the 1990′s in which CU not only cranked out numerous NFL-caliber linebackers (11 in all) but Butkus Award winning linebackers (in Alfred Williams and Matt Russell).

The tide, though, may be shifting back CU’s way.

Addison Gillam was a sensation last year. The first-ever freshman to lead the team in tackles (with 119), Gillam also smashed records for number of plays by a freshman (838) and total tackles by a freshman (the old record was 85).

This season, Gillam will be supported by a veteran on one side – senior Woodson Greer – and another young star on the other – sophomore Kenneth Olugbode. Mike MacIntyre was effusive in his praise of Olugbode. “He’s freakin’ good”, said MacIntyre of the sophomore.

There is also much better depth at the linebacker position. Senior Brady Daigh has seen action in 33 games in his career, while fellow senior K.T. Tu’umalo has been on the field in 28 games … and both are now listed as backups. Sophomores Ryan Severson and Deayshawn Rippy are showing promise, but have yet to demonstrate their talents against competition (Severson showed his speed as the Buffs’ primary kickoff returner last fall, while Rippy, a former four-star recruit, sat out a transfer year after coming over from Pittsburgh).

Four linebacker recruits – Terran Hasselbach, Michael Mathewes, Grant Watanabe and Rick Gamboa – are scheduled to hit Boulder this summer. One or more may prove to be a freshman sensation like Gillam was last year.

But, thankfully, they probably won’t have to.

CU, for a change, is already well stocked at the linebacker positions.

Spring Grade … B+.

Defensive Backs

This week, Austin Joyner, a four-star recruit from the Class of 2015 who intends on playing defensive back in college, eliminated Colorado from his list of potential schools.

Sad news, to be sure, but listen to one of his reasons … Joyner told the Idaho Press-Tribune that ”he eliminated Colorado from his list in part because of a crowded roster at defensive back that could have limited his ability to get on the field early in his time there”.

Re-read that sentence. Then let it sink in for a moment.

After what seems to have been eons of selling defensive back recruits on the notion of “come to Colorado, where you can start right away”, the CU defensive secondary is now loaded with sufficient talent to actually be scaring away new talent.

Five of the six players in CU history to see the most plays as true freshmen have played the last three seasons … and four of those five are defensive backs (Addison Gillam and Jordon Dizon are the other two players to see significant time as a true freshman). Starting with Greg Henderson in 2011, continuing on Marques Mosley and Kenneth Crawley in 2012 and Chidobe Awuzie in 2013, Colorado has been running a diaper service out at the corners for years.

But that is about to stop.

Evan White will join the team this fall, and, this just in … it is highly unlikely that White will join the list of true freshmen thrown to the lions before they are ready.

White will actually have to learn his trade in practice, and not in live action, as Colorado is now deep in the secondary. The cornerback/nickel back position is stocked, with Greg Henderson and Kenneth Crawley as starters at the corners, with Chidobe Awuzie the primary nickel back.

And that without taking into consideration the defensive back sensation of the spring, transfer Ankello Witherspoon.

“He is a big, athletic corner who is smart and has very good range and speed,” said MacIntyre shortly after signing the Sacramento City College product. “He’s unique because over the last 16 months or so, he’s really sprouted growing and he still has the same speed and quickness. We had been targeting him for some time because we saw something special in him.”

Witherspoon was already impressive this spring, with eight tackles and a team-leading four passes-broken-up in the three scrimmages. Then, in the spring game, Witherspoon recorded the game’s only interception, posted some big hits, and broke up passes in the final minute to preserve the black team’s victory.

While there is reason to believe that the Buffs are developing a cornerback unit to be competitive in the pass-happy Pac-12, there still are concerns at the safety position. Senior Jered Bell returns at the free safety position, but Parker Orms has yet to be replaced at strong safety. Terrel Smith, who missed all of last season with injuries, was limited this spring, with sophomore Tedric Thompson having a few bright moments – but perhaps not enough – as the “pencil” depth chart starter.

Overall, though, it was a good spring for the CU secondary.

It’s too bad Austin Joyner won’t be joining them in 2015 … guess we should be sorry that he didn’t like having that much talent ahead of him on the roster.

Spring Grade … A-.

Special Teams

No point in dwelling on this area right now … because Mike MacIntyre and his staff didn’t do so this spring.

Colorado has two three-year starters returning in kicker Will Oliver and punter Darragh O’Neill, and both are likely to be the starters this fall. O’Neill, in fact, has no competition at all for his spot as punter on the roster, with Oliver his emergency backup.

Oliver, though, was supposed to get some spring competition at kicker from transfer Diego Gonzalez, who received rave reviews last fall when he practiced with the team while sitting out his transfer year.

Gonzalez, though, did not amaze this spring. His only field goal attempt of record, a 47-yarder in the spring game, was missed. Gonzalez even failed to unseat Oliver as the kickoff specialist on the post-spring “pencil” depth chart.

As for the return game, it remains “to be determined”. As was the case last fall, the Buffs will wait until fall camp to try out kickoff and punt returners, with no announcement expected as to those starters until mid-August.

Spring Grade … Incomplete.

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3 Responses to “Spring Grades – Defense”

  1. Steve

    I’ve been looking for the spring game on pac-12.com but can only find the highlights. Does anyone know where to find the complete game?
    Thanks

    • Stuart

      Steve,
      I know the game has been replayed on the Pac-12 Networks several times already. With four Pac-12 Spring games on tap for this Saturday, though, it may be some time before it is replayed again. Still, there will be plenty of air time in May and June with not much for the network to cover, so I’m sure it will be replayed again at some point (perhaps in the 2-4 a.m. slot – keep your DVR at the ready!).

  2. Buffaloboy

    What I saw in the Spring Game on TV, with teams comprised of 1′s and 2′s, was that the defenses seem to jam the LOS and negate the RB’s. Could that have been because the OL was a weak point? Perhaps. Was that a true indication of their over-all ability? Probably not, but I was encouraged.

    The LB’s, though, seemed solid… and arguably quick. Not too much worries here.

    Special teams. Diego’s FG try was a line drive, or so it seemed. I think he has some work ahead to unseat Oliver. On the return team, based solely on last year, I know Severson has some speed, however he didn’t display much deception and was pretty much a straight-ahead runner. I wouldn’t call 22 yds per return stellar by any means. If he had a 27 yd. average I would have a different opinion. At 22 yds per, why not just let the ball go into the end zone and not risk a fumble? I would think someone like D.D.Goodson could shake ‘n bake and bust a few long ones.

    Fall may hold some surprises tho’ as we have some depth in speed.

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