Mid-term papers turned in – It’s time for the grades

Expectations for the Colorado Buffaloes for the 2011 season are, well, mixed. There are great hopes for the future of the program under the new head coach, Jon Embree, but a daunting schedule and a perceived dearth of talent on the roster mute the chances for an immediate breakout.

With that in mind, the below grades for each unit on the team is not with respect to similar athletes on the rosters of Colorado’s Pac-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: Incomplete

Spring Game stats: Eric Richter – six tackles; Will Pericak – six tackles; David Goldberg – four tackles (three tackles for loss); Conrad Obi – four tackles; Andre Nichols – three tackles

The fact that the 2011 Colorado Spring game was a scrimmage instead of a game tells you all you need to know about the state of the Colorado defensive line.

Senior Josh Hartigan, senior Curtis Cunningham,  junior Nick Kasa, sophomore Nate Bonsu, sophomore Chidera Uzo-Diribe … all were out for the Spring game, leaving the coaching staff short of bodies when trying to fill out two rosters. The good news is that none of the injuries to these players should prevent them from being available for fall practice.

Short-handed, several players did have the opportunity for more playing time. The one who made the most of his chances this spring was senior defensive tackle Conrad Obi. “I’d never seen this dude,” said defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo. “But it’s one of those things where (Obi’s good play during the spring) is on tape. I mean, we had a guy who was an all-conference player (Will Pericak was an honorable mention Big 12 player in 2010) here that got displaced because of the way (Obi) is playing. Then Curtis (Cunningham) gets hurt. But it’s all on tape. We ain’t playing any games; the best players play.”

It’s not as if Obi had made a major move before this spring, however. In 2009, Obi was in for all of 23 plays spread out over seven games, never registering a tackle. Last season, Obi played in ten games, but for only 64 total plays, contributing all of four tackles. Now, however, the senior is ready to play. “Now, there’s some technical things he can work on, and I have to coach him up there,” said Tuiasosopo. “But man, I’ll tell you what, he’s making a lot of plays because he’s playing hard. And I take my hat off to that.”

With Obi’s improved play, the interior of the Colorado defensive line, with returning starters in Will Pericak and Curtis Cunningham supplemented by Obi, appears set.

The defensive ends, however, remain in flux.

Senior Josh Hartigan and sophomore Chidera Uzo-Diribe are listed atop the post-spring depth chart at defensive end, but both, along with Forrest West and Nick Kasa, saw little or no playing time this spring. “With a new group coming in, the staff, (spring practice) is really the only time you have to evaluate all the guys here before you bring in new guys in, so it is unfortunate those guys got bruised in the first week, because it is hard for us to evaluate them,” said defensive end coach Kanavis McGhee. “Those guys are doing what they need to do treatment-wise to try and get back out here.” Note: On April 12th, three days after the end of spring practices, it was announced that Forrest West would not be invited back to be a member of the team in the fall.

One player McGhee is looking forward to working with more is senior Josh Hartigan. “He is kind of a hybrid because of his size (6’1″, 215-pounds),” said McGhee. “But the thing about it is that Josh is a fifth-year senior, and the motivation and the intensity he plays with has been very welcoming to me … The fact that he can go in and mix it up with those big guys and then also have an opportunity to maybe drop back makes him really special. He is one of those guys we are really looking for at that position to be a leader because he has been here the longest. And I tell you what, he hasn’t let me down since I have been here, so that is pretty impressive.”

Potential is there, but has yet to be demonstrated. It will be difficult to rate this group until August … or September.

Linebackers – Spring Grade: C/C+

Spring Game stats: David Blaha – nine tackles (including two sacks); Alec Parker – six tackles; Jon Major – four tackles; Douglas Rippy – two tackles; Tony Poremba – two tackles

The most cohesive unit of the Colorado defense, the linebackers, was led in tackles during the Spring game … by a walk-on red-shirt freshman.

Good thing the Buffs still have four months before the first game.

Colorado only has one coach on staff remaining from the Dan Hawkins’ era, long-time linebackers coach Brian Cabral. It’s a good thing that there is at least some sense of stability for this unit, as two of the three starters from last season – B.J. Beatty and Michael Sipili – have moved on.

The third linebacker position last season was held down by Jon Major, at least until Major suffered a sprained/torn MCL against Texas Tech in game seven. Major’s injuries did not require surgery, and the junior will be expected to be a leader this fall.

Perhaps joining Major in the leadership role is fellow junior Doug Rippy, who, according to Brian Cabral, had a “breakthrough spring”. Rippy was third on the team in special team points last season, but was on the field as a linebacker for only 27 plays, recording four tackles. “I ate healthier then worked my butt off in the off-season,” said Rippy. “I am much faster and stronger now.”

“When he came back from (Christmas) break, there seemed to be a sense of maturity I hadn’t seen from him,” said Cabral. “I don’t know what it was, but to his credit, there’s been a different commitment and maturity from then on … Rippy has taken advantage (of the injuries to other players giving him more playing time), but he’s done most of it on his own. Most players have those (breakthrough) moments, just at different times. You just never know when that’s going to be. I’m looking for a starting middle linebacker next year, so it’s kind of nice to know I’ve got a candidate.”

Another player hoping to be a candidate to start this fall is sophomore Derrick Webb. Webb earned the first start of his career against Oklahoma, the week after Jon Major was injured. Webb, though, was not up to the task, and did not start again the remainder of the season. Webb finished 2010 with 17 tackles in 124 plays, being credited for half a sack. Webb suffered a hip injury one-third of the way through spring practices, but should be fully recovered for the fall. “I feel like I am 85-90 percent healthy now,” said Webb before the Spring game, which he missed for precautionary reasons.

Webb is also ready to step up this fall. “Doug has stepped up, and he has been playing great, so I am excited for him, and excited for what both of us can do out there on defense,” said Webb. “I learned a lot playing under Sipili last year. He was pretty much like a big brother mentor with me being a redshirt freshman ‘ backer and him being a senior … It has been a lot more fun than last year. We got our swagger back.”

Another linebacker in the mix – just not this spring – is Liloa Nobriga. The sophomore took over the starting role alongside Sipili and Beatty for the final four games of the 2010 season. Nobriga was in for 298 plays overall last year, finishing with 46 tackles. Nobriga, though, was another spring injury casualty, though he too should be available for the fall.

With two former starters gone and potential starters injured, it came as no great surprise that a red-shirt freshman walk-on, Zac Blaha, led the team in tackles during the Spring game (with nine).

If Blaha leads the team in tackles in any game this fall, however, it will be a sign that things have gotten ugly for the Buff Nation …

Defensive Backs – Spring Grade: D/D+

Spring Game stats: Ray Polk – eight tackles; Terrel Smith – five tackles; Arthur Jaffee – five tackles; Jered Bell – three tackles; Travis Sandersfeld – three tackles; Jonathan Hawkins – three tacklesl; Deji Olatoye – three tackles; Jordan Marquez – one tackle (one interception, returned 33 yards for a touchdown)

The question for Colorado fans heading into spring practice was not, for a change, who would be the likely starting quarterback come September. Rather, the question every Buff fan wanted answered was: Who will replace Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown as the starting cornerbacks?

And the answers are …

Drumroll please …

Cue Judge Smails (Ted Knight) from Caddyshack … “Well? We’re waiting …”.

… and the wait continues.

If you are to look at the Colorado depth chart for the spring game, the starting cornerbacks for Colorado in September against pass-happy Hawai’i will be senior Arthur Jaffee, a senior who has played in 25 games as a Buff, but has never started, and sophomore Parker Orms, who did earn a start against Colorado State last fall, but who was injured three plays into the season, did not play the remainder of 2010, and did not play a down in spring practice.

“(Smith and Brown) are going to be tough to replace,” said defensive coordinator and secondary coach Greg Brown. “There is nobody on the horizon that looks like they are going to be able to step into those shoes immediately. We’ve got young guys who need to develop. It’s going to take some time to do that.”

With no cornerbacks who can be left “out on an island” without help, and without “the automatic four guys who can rush the passer without help”, said Brown. “Then you have to be creative and bring some extra guys and pick and choose your poison. Because the more guys you bring, the more exposed you are out there. And, as I just stated, we’ve got a lot of young guys back there feeling their way.”

Or, as Brown put it, “Somebody’s band is going to play, either their band or our band.”

Head coach Jon Embree believes that the best days for the young secondary still lie ahead. “To be a good football player, you  have to know what you can and can’t do physically, and then make sure you protect yourself,” said Embree. “So if I can’t run and I’m a corner, then I need to make sure I’m playing with good technique, using my hands and staying on top. If I can run, I can be a little more aggressive. But when you’re just kind of out there, waiting to see what’s happening and try to react, you don’t do anything.”

With so little experience at the cornerback position, the Buffs will be relying upon their safeties to help pick up the slack. One starting safety, however, senior Anthony Perkins, sat out all of spring practice after suffering a torn ACL against Missouri last fall. Perkins was leading the team in tackles at the time of his injury with 38, and the Buffs were giving up an average of 24.2 points per game. With Perkins out, the Buffs gave up an average of 35.4 points per game over the final seven games of the season.

“I am at the point right now where I am trying to do as much as I can while I’m waiting for it to fully heel,” said Perkins of his knee. “I am getting to where I can move around pretty well, but they are trying to limit how much lateral movement, side-to-side and cutting, I do.” While Perkins should be available for the fall, he spent his spring trying to help the new players from the sidelines. “I am trying to be an extra set of eyes,” said Perkins during spring practices. “If I see something, I am going to make sure I tell them what I see … We have a bunch of young corner that are competing for two starting spots, so I am trying to help them as much as I can, just so whoever ends up being those two corners, they are in the best position in the fall.”

The other safety position falls to former running back recruit Ray Polk. The junior started every game at free safety in 2010, finishing with 72 tackles. While Polk’s tackle total was second-highest on the team, Polk did not register a sack or tackle for loss, had only four third down stops, and only one pass broken up. This fall, Polk is looking to take on more responsibility in the secondary. “He’s become more of a leader back there,” said Anthony Perkins. “He’s taking care of his job and trying to bring the corners along, too. He’s grown up a lot.”

“We’re definitely working harder,” said Polk. “There’s a sense of urgency coupled with a sense of competition among players that we haven’t had since I’ve been here. It’s great to have. It’s making the game so much faster and so much more physical. We’re all getting better as players.”

Still, the issue of whether the secondary can play better as a unit remains suspect.

Last fall, the Buffs were 110th in pass defense … and that was with Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown on the team.

Last fall, Hawai’i was 1st in the nation in passing offense, throwing for over 394 yards per game. Quarterback Bryant Moniz, who threw for 330 yards against Colorado last fall, returns for his senior season.

Let the games begin …

Special Teams – Spring Grade: D/D+

Spring Game stats: Justin Castor – 1-1, PAT; 6-10 on field goal attempts (shortest miss: 41 yards; longest make: 51 yards); Zach Grossnickle – one punt, 32 yards

The temptation here is to give another grade of incomplete, as the Colorado Spring game had only one punt, no kickoffs, and no kickoff or punt returns.

Part of the reason was due to the fact that there was a dearth of healthy bodies along the defensive front, altering the format from a game to a scrimmage.

The other, more important reason for the lack of work on returns is that head coach Jon Embree is waiting for some of his speedy true freshmen to hit campus before sorting out who will return kicks and punts.

While the Buffs were decent in kickoff returns in 2010 (23 yards per; 27th in the nation), and not awful in punt returns (7.28 yards per; 69th in the nation), the fact remains that the Colorado special teams have been in shambles since Mason Crosby left for the NFL after the 2006 season.

Aric Goodman ended the 2010 season with a 10-15 mark in field goals, a decent percentage. Yet the Buffs – and their fans – had to hold their breaths every time Goodman walked onto the field. In the fifth game of the season, against Missouri, Goodman missed a 40 yard attempt, leaving him one-for-four for the season to that point. Freshman Justin Castor was then given the opportunity the next time Colorado had a field goal attempt. The snap on the 40-yard effort was poor, and Castor’s effort was low and blocked at the line of scrimmage.

Still, Castor was to be forgiven for missing his first effort. He was nervous, and the snap was poor. Buff fans were willing to give Castor the benefit of the doubt. But apparently head coach Dan Hawkins was not. Castor did not receive another opportunity for a field goal attempt, burning his red-shirt for that one kick against Missouri (plus a handful of kickoffs later in the season).

“It was pretty defeating,” said Castor. “All the way up through recruiting, they tell you a lot of different things, and you get promised a lot of different stuff, and more than one shot was one of them. I didn’t get that. It was confusing, but with the new staff it’s kind of been a block that I’ve been able to get over now. It was definitely a struggle there for awhile.”

Castor and special teams coach J.D. Brookhart agreed to start slowly this spring, partly to preserve Castor’s leg, partly due to new snappers and holders, and partly just to reconstruct Castor’s confidence.

During the Spring game, Castor was inconsistent. The sophomore went 6-10 overall, but included in those numbers were four straight misses … followed by four straight makes.

Inconsistency is also the watchword for punter Zach Grossnickle. As a freshman, Grossnickle averaged just under 40 yards per kick, with only 11 of his 60 punts being downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Grossnickle, like Castor, felt he was over-worked by the former staff. “When the new staff came in, we told them we got over-kicked a little bit, and they definitely heard that, and have been helping us out with our legs.”

Still, despite the new attitude amongst the kickers, the results remain inconsistent. “From a punting standpoint, I have been disappointed,” said Brookhart. “It’s been windy every day, and we have to be able to have some consistency with the wind and we have not shown that. We’ve got a long way to go in the punting department.”

Two Augusts ago, Buff fans were hoping that prep star Zach Grossnickle would be the answer to Colorado’s kicking woes. Last August, Justin Castor appeared to be new savior. This August, the Buff faithful will pin their hopes on incoming freshman Will Oliver being the answer.

For special teams, then, the first spring practices of the Jon Embree era brought no answers.

Just more questions.

Overall, in looking back at the spring with regard to the Colorado defense and special teams, it would appear that Colorado’s best chance for victories this fall will be to have a successful rushing offense, one which keeps it’s suspect defense off the field.

As defensive coordinator Greg Brown put it, “somebody’s band is going to play, either their band or our band”.

Here’s hoping Buff fans do not get too much of an introduction to the fight songs of their new rivals in the Pac-12.

3 Replies to “Spring Grades – Defense”

  1. What about Polk @ CB and Orms FS? Polk seems faster than Orms but what do I know. Just thinking Polk a solid leader, should be capable at CB shoring up half the game there. Orms played well last year and FS might be a better fit to continue?

  2. Pretty dismal report on the D, and it’s the D that’s always been the forte of CU football. Again, this coaching staff we have to believe will bring a scheme plus continuity to this unit. Special teams……, hmmmmm….., one can only hope. “DEARTH”

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