Spring Grades – Defense

Someday, perhaps as early as the Class of 2014, there will be balance in the CU recruiting cycle … but that day is not yet here.

Colorado recruited nine defensive linemen and nine defensive backs in the Class of 2012. All 18 are not due until this summer.

Which means that spring practices, 2012, were played with only a handful of defensive players … and it showed.

Defensive Line

Spring Game statistics … Sophomore defensive end Juda Parker, four tackles; senior defensive tackle Eric Richter, one tackle; sophomore defensive end Kirk Poston, one tackle; freshman defensive end Thor Eaton, one tackle.

The numbers are disheartening.

Colorado went through spring practices with all of four healthy defensive tackles.

Colorado went through spring practices with all of six defensive ends, four of them being walk-ons.

Defensive end coach Kanavis McGhee’s spring roster has consisted of six players – junior Chidera Uzo-Diribe, sophomore Juda Parker and four walk-ons. (Sophomore Cordary Allen, a defensive end who switched from offense, has been out with a shoulder injury.) The four walk-ons, McGhee told cubuffs.com, “give what they can and you can most definitely see the progress from day one to where we are now, which lets me know they’ve got the temperament we’re looking for. But it ain’t easy.”

The only two proven returning players along the entire defensive front are senior Will Pericak and Uzo-Diribe. Defensive tackle coach Mike Tuiasosopo calls Pericak “a guy we can win with,” while defensive coordinator Greg Brown said earlier this spring that Uzo-Diribe consistently had proven to be the one player who was the most difficult to block.

Other than Pericak and Uzo-Diribe, McGhee and Tuiasosopo have had to make do with what was available.

Former linebacker Juda Parker, in making the move to defensive end, had a productive spring. McGhee told cubuffs.com: “It’s amazing how six months makes a difference . . . you can kind of see that he was someone who understands what his role is; believe it or not, those two (Uzo-Diribe, Parker) are the veterans (at end). It’s hard to say that about somebody in the spring of his freshman year, but it’s a reality. The other guys who will be playing at that position won’t have his experience. What I really like about him is that he’s embraced that role and understands that it’s a ‘right now’ kind of approach to the spring. He’s shown it.”

Although his 2011 experience was somewhat limited (109 plays in nine games), Parker says even that has given him “an insight into the speed of the game” and will help him help the incoming freshmen. “That’s what the coaches want – helping those guys out and getting them up to speed. We (he and Uzo-Diribe) will be young veterans.”

The veterans along Tuiasosopo’s interior will be Pericak and, well . . . Pericak. Tuiasosopo was hoping for a spring breakthrough from some returning players, but that didn’t happen. Former offensive lineman Eric Richter will enter August camp battling to find playing time as his senior season approaches. Sophomore Kirk Poston’s size (6-1, 255) makes him “physically not where we need him to be,” Tuiasosopo said. And of injured junior Nate Bonsu, he added, “He’s a guy who has to step up. He’s on scholarship and he’s gonna need to step up.”

Not much to be excited about, is there?

Still, the incoming infusion of talent, Tuiasosopo said, “gives us so much hope. They were kids we were on early and we got just about everyone we were after . . . (but) it takes a special freshman to play and even more of a special freshman, in my mind, to play in the interior of the D-line.

“Think about it: when you were a freshman in high school going against a senior, you know what I’m saying? A kid has to have the temperament, the toughness, the skills . . . but I think it’s all a part of the reason we got in on those kids. We could say if you want a job, come and get your job. There’s going to be jobs here.”

Defensive line spring Grade: D+/C- … An old football axiom is that you lose one game for every freshman you start. Another golden rule of college football is that you want your incoming freshmen linemen to red-shirt, so that they have an extra year to bulk up, adjust to the speed of the college game, and learn how to deal with 300-pound offensive linemen who are just as quick as they are. 

The defensive line entered the spring as the weakest link in the Colorado lineup, and spring practices did not do anything to assuage those fears.


Spring game statistics … Sophomore Brady Daigh, two tackles, including a third down stop; sophomore Woodson Greer, two tackles, including a third down stop; sophomore Jermane Clark, two tackles; red-shirt freshman Clay Jones, two tackles; senior Jon Major, one tackle, which was a third down stop; junior Derrick Webb, one tackle; sophomore K.T. Tu’umalo, one tackle.

Whereas the Colorado defensive line remains in flux, the CU linebacker corps remains the one unit on the defense with some continuity.

Senior outside linebacker Jon Major, who led the team in tackles in 2011, returns, as will fellow starter Derrick Webb. Doug Rippy, who was leading the team in tackles before going down to a knee injury midway through the season, did not participate in spring drills, but will be a “full go” come August, and will likely be the third starter.

With Major and Rippy established talents, it has been up to Derrick Webb to make a name for himself this spring … and apparently he has.

Webb, said Embree, is “starting to play like a man. He had a couple of huge hits (during one scrimmage this spring) – one on the goal line to keep the offense from scoring on fourth down. He’s playing fast; he’s always been able to run, but he hasn’t always been able to play fast. His mind hasn’t been freed up. He’s always thinking . . . he seems to be using his speed a lot better than he has in the past because I don’t think he’s thinking as much. I’ve seen a lot of good stuff out of him.”

Webb’s speed and physical play – he’s 6-0, 220 pounds – has allowed him to operate almost across the board at linebacker, although he’s currently settled at the WILL (or weak side) linebacker. With an increase in experience, Webb said he’s trying to play more under control: “That’s one thing I’ve been trying to work on – when to turn it on, when to burst, having my eyes in the right place and being able to go make a play when I have to. I’ve tried to bring that to my game.”

He’s also figuring it’s time to begin working his way into a leadership role on the defense. “I’ve been kind of trying to wait to get older before I start telling people what to do,” he said. “But I’m a junior now; I don’t have a lot of time left. I got two years to play and I want to make the best of these two years. And I’ve got something to say about it.”

In addition to the three established starters, the Buffs have been developing some depth at linebacker. Sophomore Brady Daigh has been playing with the first team in Rippy’s absence, while sophomores Woodson Greer III and Kyle Washington have been earning additional playing time. Greer, in fact, was one of the few defensive players to stand out in the Spring Game. 

“You could hear him playing, which is always a good sign for a defensive player,” Embree said of the 6-3, 225-pound Greer. “He was physical and hitting.”

Asked if being heard was a good thing, Greer said, “When I make good plays, I tend to talk a lot just to get everybody fired up, get the defense on a roll . . . I hope he heard my hits, too. I like to hit hard. So yeah, I think that’s a good thing.”

Linebackers spring Grade: B+/A- … The unit was without Doug Rippy, who may become a force this fall if fully healed. The other two returning starters, Jon Major and Derrick Webb, did nothing to disappoint this spring. Spring practices are often a time for backups to show that they are ready to contribute, and the Buffs, with Brady Daigh and Woodson Greer, appear to have some quality depth in the roster.

Defensive backs

Spring game statistics … Red-shirt freshman Brandon Brisco, four tackles; sophomore Harrison Hunter, four tackles; sophomore Josh Moten, three tackles; sophomore Shaw Gifford, two tackles; junior Terrel Smith, two tackles; junior Paul Vigo, one tackle; red-shirt freshman Sherrard Harrington, one tackle.

Considering that three of the four projected starters for the fall did not participate in the Spring game, it should not come as a surprise that the top two leading tacklers for the secondary were walk-ons. Out were senior free safety Ray Polk (wrist), junior strong safety Parker Orms (hamstring), and sophomore cornerback Greg Henderson (attending a funeral in California).

Polk at safety (with ten starts in 2011) and Henderson at cornerback (with 11) are known quantities, leaving the strong safety and right cornerback positions up for grabs this spring. Despite suffering a hamstring injury in the first week of the spring (which kept him out for the remaining practices), Orms is listed in the post-spring depth chart as the starter at strong safety. With only freshman Will Harlos on the depth chart behind Orms, the junior will have to find a way to keep from being injured this fall for the Buffs to be successful (Note: The NCAA has granted Will Harlos a medical redshirt year, so, even though he did play last season, Harlos will still play as a freshman in 2012).

The listing of sophomore Josh Moten as the No. 1 right cornerback was something of a surprise. Sherrard Harrington, who suffered an injury last summer and sat out his true freshman year, was projected by many to be the most likely new starter at the corner (at least until some talented true freshmen come to campus this fall).

One player who may not be listed as a starter this fall, but who should have plenty of playing time, is Terrel Smith. The junior had the only interception of a CU quarterback all spring, that coming in an early scrimmage. Smith, according to head coach Jon Embree, is playing more under control than he did last fall. “You mean not running and just hitting anything?”, Embree joked when asked about Smith. “Yeah, he’s doing a lot better hitting the guy with the ball. You can tell he’s a little more comfortable. But a lot of the guys are . . . as coaches it’s like a foreign language to the kids. It’s good to have them understand what we’re saying. They’re playing faster; there’s just a whole different comfort level.”

Smith agrees that he is now managing his fervor and not engaging in a bash-fest on every snap. “(Coach Embree) knows I love to hit, and other people know I love to hit and make plays,” Smith said, laughing. “But I’m not hitting anybody who’s moving anymore.” That’s because his spring comfort level with the defense in general and his assignments “is like a tremendous change for me,” he said. “I know my calls and I’m not thinking so much out there. Last year I was. Now I’m just out there playing instead of thinking so much.”

It will be necessary for Smith to be prepared to have an impact this fall. While the Buffs are re-loading with defensive backs – nine signees from the Class of 2012 – the secondary seems to be more prepared at cornerback than at safety. Greg Henderson demonstrated that he could play at a BCS conference level as a true freshman, and the Buffs have two four-star cornerbacks (Yuri Wright and Kenneth Crawley) amongst the new group of signees. At safety, though, the Buffs remain somewhat thin, with Polk and injury-prone Orms currently backed only by Smith, Harlos, and junior Paul Vigo.

Still, 2012 promises to be easier on the CU coaching staff than 2011, when wide receivers (Jason Espinoza) and running backs (Brian Lockridge) were forced into playing in the defensive backfield against some of the most potent quarterbacks in the nation.

Defensive backs spring Grade: B/B+ … While the defensive secondary had only one interception all spring, the unit did develop both depth and cohesiveness. It is not difficult to imagine improvement in 2012 from the unit which ranked 97th in the nation in pass defense … and that’s even before the influx of nine defensive backs this summer.

Special Teams

Spring Game statistics … Junior Justin Castor, four-of-six in field goal attempts, connecting from 37, 42, 34 and 50 yards, while missing from 48 and 52; sophomore punter Darragh O’Neill, two punts, 43.5 yard average; junior Zach Grossnickle, two punts, 46.0 yard average.

One thing about a Spring game which is only a Spring scrimmage – there are not a lot of special team statistics. There were no kickoffs, so no kickoff returns. The four punts were uncontested, and there were no returns of those punts.

So, what do we know about the CU special teams?

Not a great deal.

Sophomore kicker Will Oliver, who set a school freshman record for scoring in 2011 with 62 points, is out for the spring with a shoulder injury. Oliver connected on 11-of-16 field goal attempts last season, including five-of-six from over 40 yards, and is expected to retain his position as the starting field goal kicker. Justin Castor, who is listed second on the depth chart, may focus on kickoffs in the new era where teams will kickoff at the 35-yard line once again, with touchbacks moving out to the 25.

Also likely to retain his job is punter Darragh O’Neill. The sophomore averaged 42.59 yards per punt in 2011, and is listed ahead of Grossnickle and sophomore D.J. Wilhelm in the post-Spring depth chart.

As for kick and punt returners, the Buff Nation will have to wait until August to find out who will man those positions come September. When asked about who were likely candidates, head coach Jon Embree replied that his returners for 2012 “may still be in high school”.

Clever, but not reassuring.

While it is true that Colorado is bringing in some quick recruits as part of the large Class of 2012. It is also true that last spring, in Jon Embree’s first season, he promised to find kick and punt returners out of the Class of 2011.

And what happened?

The leading kick returner for Colorado in 2011? The indispensible Rodney Stewart.

The leading punt returner for Colorado in 2011? The indispensible Rodney Stewart.

Even though CU could ill-afford to risk an injury to its starting tailback, no one could be found who could do a better job than Stewart.

Here’s hoping that the search for starting kick and punt returners is more fruitful this fall.

Special teams spring Grade: D-/D … It was a very quiet spring for the special teams. The starting kicker was out, and no effort was made to establish a replacement for the punt and kick returner positions. New rules changes governing how kickoffs are to be played should have, in and of itself, commanded special attention be played to kickoffs and kick returns. Now it will be left to fall practices for special teams to become accustomed to the new rules. With a team already loaded with questions – and few answers – leaving special team unit formation until fall does not seem to be a wise move.



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