Mid-term papers turned in – time for the grades

Expectations for the Colorado Buffaloes for the 2010 season are, well, minimal. Most preseason magazines, coming out in May and June, will have the Buffs pegged to finish fifth or sixth in the Big 12 North. A 6-6 finish and a minor bowl will be considered the realistic goals for a team coming off a 3-9 season, and four straight losing campaigns.

With that in mind, the below grades for each unit on the team is not with respect to similar athletes on the rosters Colorado’ Big 12 rivals, but rather with respect to what we knew about those units heading into the spring, and how well those players and their coaches did in improving their standing.

Defensive Line – Spring Grade: B+/A-

Looking for a “good news” story out of Colorado’s 2010 spring practice?

Look no further than the Buffs’ defensive line.

Just as Denver Johnson and the offensive coaches are in search of the “best five guys”, defensive line coach Romeo Bandison is faced with similar difficulties. “I’ve got some tough decisions to make,” Bandison said. Last spring, the Buffs were looking for any warm body they could find to fill up the defensive line, so you get the feeling that for Bandison, having choices to make this spring is a welcome dilemma.

The Buffs start with a good base of talent. In 2009, the Buffs officially played a 4-3 defense, but started every game with only three down linemen, as pass-happy opponents dominated the schedule. Three players – junior Curtis Cunningham, sophomore Will Pericak, and senior Marquez Herrod – started every game, and all return. Bandison has been pleased with the play of his two tackles, Cunningham and Pericak. Both, Bandison said, have had “solid springs … They look like old veterans. They’re growing up, and starting to get like those last two guys we had (George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas)”.

“Yeah, we’re striving to be the best players we can,” said Cunningham, who is still relatively small (6’1″, 280 pounds) for his position. “We’re going on pretty much another half season (with spring drills) of playing together, trusting each other, and I think those are good things.” Chimed in Pericak, up to 6’4″, 285-pounds, 20 pounds heavier than last spring, “It’s a process … we’re taking little steps and getting the little things right. Eventually, you want to get to be as good as (Hypolite and Nicolas) – even better.” Pericak, who is a converted tight end, still has a tremendous upside. “I feel a ton more comfortable,” Pericak said. “I hadn’t had a spring with the D-line … getting the techniques down and the little things right – the footwork, things like that make a difference in the way you play.”

The third returning starter is defensive end Marques Herrod. A senior this fall, Herrod led the team in sacks in 2009, with six, along with four other tackles-for-loss. Herrod led the team in quarterback pressures, with ten, and was second on the defense in third down stops, with 11.

So, the Buffs have three starters back. All three started all 12 games.

But wait, there’s more.

The Most Improved Defensive Lineman of spring practice was Nick Kasa. The sophomore-to-be was in for only 47 plays during the 2009 season, and is anxious to get out there and demonstrate why he was one of the most highly sought after defensive line recruits in 2009. “I am definitely a lot more comfortable with everything right now,” Kasa said. “I have been studying my plays, and know what I need to do so I can just do it as opposed to last year, when I really had to think about it.” Bandison sees Kasa contributing this fall. “He really started to show up right before he got hurt … you could tell he was going to be a good player,” Bandison said. “There are a lot of things you can’t figure out unless you play … but he’s looking good right now. He’ll play a lot and help us.”

Then there are the two other defensive line recruits from the 2009 class, Nate Bonsu and Forrest West, who received more playing time than Kasa in their freshman campaigns. Both are expected to contribute even more in 2010, although Bonsu missed all of spring practice after off-season knee surgery (“The rehab, everything, it’s on schedule,” Bonsu said).

Throw in junior Eugene Goree – “At the end of last season, his work ethic probably quadrupled,” Bandison said. “It was really good to see … I’m excited about that. It’ll translate, there’s no other way it can’t, onto the field”, and junior Conrad Obi – “He’s improving, and as we keep evolving in the defense and tweaking some things, it’s starting to suit him more”, according to Bandison, and you have the makings of a solid – if not yet dominant – defensive line.

Linebackers – Spring Grade: B-/B

It is usually a given that the linebackers will be the strongest unit of the defense, if not the team.

There were questions, though, for linebackers coach Brian Cabral heading into spring ball, 2010. Four seniors were gone, taking with them their 201 tackles from last fall. As a red-shirt freshmen, Jon Major and Doug Rippy were slowed by injuries, but showed signs that they may be the next great tandem at linebacker. In the meantime, seniors Michael Sipili and B.J. Beatty will have to assume the reigns as leaders of the defense. In the pre-spring depth chart, there were only Beatty, Tyler Ahles, and red-shirt freshman Liloa Nobriga listed at outside linebacker, with Douglas Rippy moving to the inside to compete with Major, Sipili, and red-shirt freshman Derrick Webb.

B.J. Beatty has answered some of the leadership questions already. He was selected as one of the captains for the Gold team for the spring game, and led his teammates in a Haka dance, a Polynesian dance made familiar by players at Hawaii, before the spring game. Michael Sipili, meanwhile, led the Black team with eight tackles, including three tackles for loss and a forced fumble, in the spring game.

Perhaps the best story coming out of spring practice with regard to the linebackers is that of Derrick Webb. The red-shirt freshman has made an impression. “That guy is making plays,” Tyler Hansen said of Webb. “He is running around, he has energy, he is always motivated. He is always getting in guy’s faces. He is definitely going to be a player for us this year. He has probably made the most strides I have seen in awhile.” For his part, Webb was second on the Black team in tackles in the spring game, collecting six tackles (five unassisted).

The linebackers may not be as strong a unit as they have been in seasons past, but, with the improved play of the defensive line and secondary, they may not have to be.

Defensive Backs – Spring Grade: B/B+

Frankly, if Colorado is to have a chance at a winning season, it will be upon the backs of the defense. If the defense is to be successful, the secondary must be dominant.

New defensive backs coach Ashley Ambrose likes what he has to work with this fall.

The starting cornerbacks, Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown, appear set. The two seniors received All-Big 12 accolades last season, and look to make several pre-season All-Big 12 teams this fall. “I thank God I’ve got a chance to work with guys like that,” Ambrose said of Smith and Brown. “With their athletic ability, they can make some plays, and when they put that with their knowledge, they can make way more plays.”

Junior Anthony Perkins is a likely starter at one of the safety positions. Perkins, who was given the Eddie Crowder Award for outstanding leadership, is taking over as field general in the Colorado defensive backfield. “He’s the leader, he knows the defense in and out … he can tell you what the corners are doing, what the other safety is doing – everything,” Ambrose said. “He gets those guys in order back there.”

Working with the “ones” most of the spring at the other safety position was sophomore Ray Polk. The converted running back is using his athletic ability to make up for his lack of experience. “He’s got all the tools – height, size, speed … everything you want in a safety,” Ambrose said. “Now, it’s a matter of him getting it down like ‘Perk’ … He’s getting steadily better, but there’s still a lot of growing to do. He’ll make a lot of plays.” Polk has played so well that junior Patrick Mahnke, a safety his first two seasons, has moved to linebacker/nickel back.

One position of concern in the secondary heading into spring practice was that of nickel back. Last season, senior Cha’pelle Brown held down the position admirably.

This season, the job is being handled, at least so far, by Parker Orms. Just a red-shirt freshman, Orms was tabbed as the Most Improved Defensive Back for his work this spring. Orms is listed at 5’11”, 180-pounds, of which Dan Hawkins contends “15 pounds” of that is heart. “He’s a bigger, faster Cha’pelle … right now, he’s the best nickel guy we have,” Ambrose said. Orms went on to lead all defenders in tackles in the spring game, recording ten tackles (seven unassisted).

There is also plenty of depth in the secondary:

Josh Moten (a 2009 quarterback recruit who enrolled this past January): “The kid is really a natural at what he’s doing”, Ambrose said. “He never played defensive back; he was always a quarterback … I can see some good things for him. He has the feet, the hips … he’s going to make some mistakes, but he hasn’t been grading out bad for me.”;

Travis Sandersfeld and Arthur Jaffee: two juniors who finished 1-2 last season in special teams points;

Deji Olatoye and Paul Vigo: two red-shirt freshmen who have been impressive. Olatoye is being groomed as a cover corner to take the place of Smith and Brown next season, while Vigo is a “tweener” – either a corner or a safety who is still trying to find his position; and

Jonathan Hawkins and Vince Ewing: a junior and a sophomore who provide experience and talent.

Greg Brown may have left Boulder for greener pastures at the University of Arizona, but he did not leave the cupboard bare.

Special Teams – Spring Grade: D-/D

Colorado fans the past two seasons longed to see another kicker out there besides Aric Goodman, who struggled his first two seasons as the Colorado placekicker.

Be careful what you ask for …

Goodman participated in the first week of practice, but after spring break did not take the field. As his teammates lined up for the spring game, Goodman was undergoing hip surgery, which will keep the senior out until August, at the earliest.

In his place, the Buff kickers have struggled.

“The kicking game is definitely not where we need it to be,” said special teams coach Kent Riddle after his kickers went one-for-six in field goal attempts in second scrimmage (Zach Grossnickle one-for-four; Marcus Kirkwood zero-for-two). “We’ll for sure add (2010 recruit) Justin Castor, and we’ll add a couple of other guys and really have a competition.”

The situation did not improve greatly after the spring game, when junior walk-on Marcus Kirkwood did make a 45-yarder, but red-shirt freshman Zach Grossnickle missed from 39 yards out. 

“We might have six guys here in the fall,” Riddle said, “But we are going to find a guy who can put it through the uprights.”

As for the punting game, Zach Grossnickle has all been given the job vacated by departed Matt DiLallo. Grossnickle has been fair, at best this spring. In the spring game, the red-shirt freshman kicked for both teams, punting three times for a 38.7 yard average.

The return game also remains unsettled.

Asked if Brian Lockridge and Arthur Jaffee were the front-runners for the kick returning jobs this fall, Riddle responded: “Yep, and neither one of them was available for (the second scrimmage). Rodney Stewart, Toney Clemons, Parker Orms, Quentin Hildreth, we’re rolling a bunch of guys through there, and they all have a chance. And, for the most part, those are the same guys on punt returns.”

There were no punt returns allowed during the spring game (the ball was placed where it was caught or downed). There were also also no kick returns, as the ball was placed at either the 20- or 35-yard line after scores.

Guess the Buffs didn’t need any practice at returning kicks …

Overall, the defense this spring graded out very well … Sorry about finishing with the special teams.

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