2010 Spring Practice – First Look: Defense

Defensive Line

Returning Players: DE Marquez Herrod (Sr.), DE Josh Hartigan (Jr.), DE Conrad Obi (Jr.), DT Curtis Cunningham (Jr.), DT Eugene Goree (Jr.), DE Nick Kasa (So.), DE Forrest West (So.), DT Nate Bonsu (So.), and DT Will Pericak (So.).  Walk-ons: DE David Goldberg (Jr.), DE Josh Hartigan (Jr.), DE Tony Poremba (Jr.).

New in 2010: DE Kirk Poston (2010 recruit) and Chidera Uzo-Diribe (2010 recruit).

Flashback one year – to Spring Practice, 2009.

“We’re not going to be the weak link!”, was the rallying cry of defensive line coach Romeo Bandison, talking about his charges during last year’s spring practice. After losing three seniors, the defensive line was an assumed weakness for the upcoming season. “I don’t think it matters how talented you are,” said Bandison. “You are always concerned when you have a lack of experience.”

Spring practice in 2009 was a time of consternation for the defensive line. Sure, there was help coming in the fall, with All-Everything defensive end Nick Kasa having spurned Florida to stay home to play for the Buffs, and with three other highly rated linemen also on the way. That knowledge helped eased the pain of the statistic that none of the returning linemen had more than three tackles in any of the spring scrimmages.

Jump forward a few months …. Fall practice, 2009.

Uncertainty still reigned along the Colorado defensive line. Nick Kasa was injured, with his playing status uncertain, while the second-highest 2009 recruit, Edward Nuckols, failed to qualify. That left the Buffs relying upon the two less heralded recruits, Forrest West and Nate Bonsu, to try and pick up the slack. “They’re competing,” said Bandison of West and Bonsu last August. “Right now, we’re not saying, ‘oh, those guys are going to red-shirt.’ They’re competing. They’re hanging in there.”

The net result in 2009?

Not as bad as feared. Colorado did rank 80th in the nation in rush defense in 2009, but that was actually a few rungs up from 2008. The Buffs, with the three senior defensive linemen, had ranked 86th against the rush in 2008. True freshmen Nate Bonsu and Forrest West played in every game in 2009, with both in for about a quarter of the snaps on defense. The line as a whole was far from spectacular, however. Colorado gave up over four yards per carry last season, registering only 29 sacks (the Buffs gave up 44).

This spring, there will not be the attrition there was last year. Only one senior, Taj Kaynor, is lost from the 2009 two-deep, and Kaynor was in for only 38 snaps all of last season. The line will be led by senior defensive end Marquez Herrod, who led the line last season with 38 tackles and six sacks. Also back are fellow starters Curtis Cunningham and Will Pericak. Cunningham will be a junior in 2010; Pericak a sophomore.

Backing up the trio of Herrod, Cunningham, and Pericak – at least initially – will be sophomores to be Bonsu, West, and Nick Kasa. One of the storylines of the spring will be how well Kasa plays after being in for only 47 snaps over four games in 2009. If Kasa can develop into the force along the defensive line, Colorado could actually begin to look at the defensive line as a position of strength instead of weakness.

Also back – juniors Conrad Obi and Eugene Goree. Coming in the fall – Kirk Poston and Chidera Uzo-Diribe.

Linebackers

Returning Players: Michael Sipili (Sr.), B.J. Beatty (Sr.), Tyler Ahles (Jr.), Jon Major (So.), Douglas Rippy (So.) Vince Ewing (So.) (also listed as a safety), Derrick Webb (R-Fr.), and Liloa Nobriga (R-Fr.). Walk-ons: Brandon Gouin (Jr.), Guy Sergent (So.), and Geoff Sissom (R-Fr.).

New in 2010: Evan Harrington (2010 junior college transfer), Lowell Williams (2010 recruit), and Justin Torres (2010 recruit).

After the tight ends, the linebacking corps took the biggest hit from 2009 graduation. Gone are seniors Jeff Smart, Marcus Burton, and Shaun Mohler, who just happened to rank #1, #2, and #3 in tackles amongst the linebackers in 2009. Throw in the loss of fellow senior Bryan Stengel, and you have a potential area of concern.

Unless, of course, Brian Cabral is your linebackers coach.

The 2009 season was Cabral’s 20th as a full-time assistant coach at Colorado, and he has seen many of his charges go on to NFL careers. Each season, Colorado has had quality starters at linebacker, but has also had quality depth. That should remain the case in 2010. Smart, Burton, and Beatty received the majority of the starts in 2009, but there are several players returning this fall – including senior-to-be Michael Sipili, junior Tyler Ahles, and sophomore Jon Major – who had starts last fall.

Look for stories about Major and fellow sophomore-to-be Douglas Rippy this spring. Major and Rippy, along with junior college transfer Mohler and fellow incoming freshman Lynn Katoa, made up one of the nation’s most celebrated linebacker recruiting tandems in the nation in 2008. Mohler has played his two years, and Katoa, as Buff fans all know, never set foot on the field for Colorado. As a result, it is up to Major and Rippy to fulfill the promise of that recruiting class.

Also back in 2010 … The two recruits from the Class of 2009, Liloa Nobriga and Derrick Webb, red-shirted last fall, and will have their first chance to make names for themselves this spring. New in 2010 … Junior college transfer Evan Harrington will look to make a splash early, but will have to wait until fall to make an impression (he is still taking classes at his junior college this spring), while incoming freshmen Lowell Williams and Justin Torres are likely red-shirt candidates.

Defensive Backs

Returning Players: CB Jimmy Smith (Sr.), CB Jalil Brown (Sr.), CB Jonathan Hawkins (Jr.), CB Arthur Jaffee (Jr.), S Patrick Mahnke (Jr.), S Anthony Perkins (Jr.), S Travis Sandersfeld (Jr.), CB Steven Hicks (So.), S Vince Ewing (So.), and S Ray Polk (So.). Walk-ons: CB Cody McAninch (R-Fr.) and S Matt Meyer (Jr.).

New in 2010:  CB Deji Olatoye (R-Fr. – 2009 recruit), CB Paul Vigo (R-Fr. – 2009 recruit), S Parker Orms (R-Fr. – 2009 recruit), Jered Bell (2010 recruit), and Terrel Smith (2010 recruit).

Okay. So the defensive line is shaky, but will be improving with additional depth and experience. The linebackers lost four from the unit, but has a proven history of bouncing back from the loss of longtime starters.

So, if the line isn’t the strength of the defense, and the linebackers are not the strength of the defense …

… that leaves the defensive backfield.

The Buffs do lose cornerback Cha’pelle Brown and safety Benjamin Burney from the roster, but the rest of the lineup returns intact. Perhaps the best news of the off-season for the program came when junior cornerback Jimmy Smith, likely the only Buff who could have been drafted into the NFL as a junior, opted to stay in Boulder for his senior season. Jimmy Smith will likely be the starter at right cornerback this fall, teaming up opposite Jalil Brown, who started the final ten games of the 2009 season at left cornerback.

This does not mean that the Buffs are set at cornerback, however. Eleven games out of twelve last season, the Buffs opened with a nickel package, with departed corner Cha’pelle Brown getting those eleven starts. As a result, the five man defensive backfield will require the replacement of both Brown at nickel back, as well as Burney at safety. There are a number of options for the Buffs at the cornerback/nickel back position, with juniors Jonathan Hawkins and Arthur Jaffee having the most experience.

Junior Anthony Perkins will likely return at free safety, leaving sophomore Ray Polk and junior Patrick Mahnke to compete for the starting job at strong safety. Polk had the most playing time last fall, earning three starts and playing roughly one third of the downs. Competing with Polk will be junior Patrick Mahnke, who had two starts in 2009 to go with his start in the 2008 season finale against Nebraska. Junior Travis Sandersfeld and sophomore Vince Ewing also return.

Feeling any better?

All of this talent and depth in the defensive backfield – and we haven’t even discussed the incoming Classes of 2009 and 2010. Red-shirt freshmen Deji Olatoye, Paul Vigo, and Parker Orms will all be looking to make an impression after sitting out their red-shirt seasons. Plus, there is that other latecomer from the 2009 class, quarterback/athlete Josh Moten, who finally enrolled this January, and has reportedly been working out with the cornerbacks in seven-on-seven drills. If you are looking for interesting storylines to follow this spring concerning the defensive backfield, look for the names in this paragraph.

Here’s guessing incoming freshmen Jered Bell and Terrel Smith will be red-shirting this fall.

Special Teams

Returning in 2010: K Aric Goodman (Sr.) – um, that’s it for kickers … KR Brian Lockridge (Jr.), PR Scotty McKnight (Sr.), PR Jason Espinoza (Jr.), KR Rodney Stewart (Jr.), PR Arthur Jaffee (Jr.)

New in 2010: K/P Zach Grossnickle (R-Fr. – 2009 recruit), K/P Justin Castor (2010 recruit).

Where have you gone, Mason Crosby? For that matter, where have you gone, John Torp, Mark Mariscal and Jeremy Flores? (All of whom were All-Big 12 performers in the past decade). Colorado has long been a hotbed for kickers and punters, but the Buffs have fallen on hard times of late. While there is some hope for the future, the present remains unsettled.

Gone from 2009 is four-year starter at punter, Matt DiLallo, who saw his net average go down every season. Gone also are two names you may not be familar with – snapper Justin Drescher and walk-on kicker Ryan Aweida. Drescher was a four year starter at long-snapper, and performed very well at his chosen position. Aweida, who would have been a senior, left the team after the conclusion of the 2009 season.

This leaves the punter position open for Zach Grossnickle to lose. Senior kicker Aric Goodman will technically be the backup at punter, and there is a junior walk-on, Marcus Kirkwood, on the roster, but for this spring, it will be Goodman at kicker, Grossnickle at punter. Neither will be challenged until the fall, when true freshman Justin Castor comes to Boulder.

The kick returning position also remains fluid. Darrell Scott set a team record for kick return yardage in the Toledo game last season, but he’s gone. Before him, his uncle, Josh Smith, set a number of kick return yardage records, but he too is long gone. Last season, Colorado was 117th out of 120 teams in punt returns. The Buffs have run a number of players back to return kicks, but have been spectacularly unsuccessful in generating a decent punt return team (the Buffs did fare better at kickoff returns, coming in at 21st nationally, thanks in large part to Darrell Scott’s numbers early in the season, and Brian Lockridge’s numbers late in the year).

If you do not have a stomach for it, I would avoid the kicking statistics this spring. Even if Aric Goodman’s numbers are good (he hit on 13-of-17 kicks last spring, including a 50-yarder in the spring game), you will not buy into it. If the numbers are poor … well, you know the rest.

The more interesting storylines will be how Zach Grossnickle is faring, with a full year as a Buff now under his belt, and who the Buffs run back for punt and kick returns. With running backs in short supply, the Buffs would be well advised to find a replacement for Brian Lockridge as a kick returner. Help, though, may be on the way. Most of the defensive back / wide receiver recruits from the past two recruiting classes have had “kick returner” on their resume. Undoubtedly, the Colorado coaching staff has been scouting players who can salvage something positive for the punt return unit.

Spring practice opens Saturday, March 6th. The defense in 2009 was average (57th in the all-important points allowed category), with “average” actually a step up from previous seasons. For Colorado to continue to improve, both in statistics and in the win column, the Buffs’ defense needs the following: the defensive line must find consistency and depth (welcome back, Nick Kasa!), the linebackers must quickly fill holes (Major and Rippy need to blossom), while the defensive secondary needs to become a feared unit (Jimmy Smith was second team All-Big 12 in 2009; Jalil Brown honorable mention – both need to move up a ranking).

The special teams? Well …

3 Replies to “Spring Outlook: Defense”

  1. Steve,

    I believe that the third-down stat is just another Dave Plati’s creative use of the stats sheet. If anyone can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, it’s Dave.

    Dave points out that the Buffs gave up only 58 conversions on third downs all season (a 34.1% success rate), then goes on to admit that when the Buffs did give up a conversion, opponents gained 913 yards. That’s 15.3 yards/play gained on those 58 conversions. Ouch.

    Guess you don’t have to have a great success rate on third downs – when you’re scoring ever time you do convert …

  2. I noticed on the CU fact sheet that CU’s defense was ranked #11 last year in forcing “three and outs”. At first this really surprised me, but as a thought about it, it kind of made sense. The defense seemed to play well the majority of the time. Unfortunately, though, they gave up a number of really big plays (I think I even remember an ESPN commentator mentioning this.) Stuart do you (or anyone else out there for that matter) know if there was something in their defensive scheme that caused or contributed to this paradox? Did they have an ultra-aggressive game plan? Or was it simply a matter of missed assignments at the inopportune times?

  3. Buffs must get better for special teams, just got back from Vegas for a coaching convention with some top coaches.Alabama, Boise State, North Carolina, they all spend a huge amount of time on specialty teams, this is the way of major college football now, this is how most games are one or lost. Field position, making field goals inside 30 yard line, no returns for touchdowns, no mental breakdowns. This is stuff the buffs look worse than a average high school team. Every coach here, including Saban oversees every aspect of special teams, and all coaches on staff have a part in this.The soft buffs get worse every year, I wish they would make some changes this year.

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