Spring Grades – Defense / Special Teams

Spring practices are completed for the University of Colorado. The players now have a few weeks to get ready for finals week, the coaches are off to evaluate high school talent, and the Buff Nation can take a few moments to catch its breath.

How did the Buffs fare in their first spring practices under Mike MacIntyre?

Let’s take a look …

Note … Grades are not reflective of the overall talent in a given unit, but reflect whether the pre-camp expectations for the unit were met over the 15 practices of spring football.

Defensive line … C+

When the first thing the new coaching staff says about a unit is that its players need to lose weight, it’s probably not a good sign.

For the Buffs to be effective against the high octane offenses of the Pac-12, defensive coordinator Kent Baer and defensive line coach Jim Jeffcoat want several of the defensive linemen to lose 20 pounds or more before September. The most likely candidates for weekly weigh-ins this summer are senior defensive tackle Nate Bonsu (who checked in this spring at 295-pounds), sophomore defensive tackle Justin Solis (320-pounds), and sophomore defensive tackle Josh Tupou (330 pounds).

That being said, the defensive line did not have a bad spring. The line is inexperienced, and the depth chart doesn’t run very deep (where have we heard that before?), so keeping the front line players healthy will be at a premium this fall if the Buffs are to be successful in upgrading its numbers from last fall

[Not to beat a dead horse, but there is nowhere to go but up. Last season, CU surrendered 488.5 yards per game (117th in the nation – 24 yards per game worse than the previous low in school history, 464.4 yards per game in 1980) and 46.0 points per game (120th, dead last in the nation, and five full points worse than the previous record, also set in the 1-10 misery which was the 1980 campaign)].

There are some upperclassmen who return to the defensive line, but none who were full-time starters last fall. Senior Nate Bonsu is listed as the starter at one defensive tackle position, while senior Chidera Uzo-Diribe is listed as the starter at right defensive end. The other leading candidates for starting positions are sophomore Samson Kafovalu at defensive end and sophomore Josh Tupou (the only returning starter from last season who participated this spring). Kafovalu was listed at starter at left defensive end, but he will be pushed by juniors Kirk Poston and Juda Parker (who sat out the spring with a shoulder injury).

While numerous combinations of players were tried this spring, the focus will be considerably narrowed come fall camp in August. “Now we’re really going to narrow it down come fall camp,” defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. “We’re going to sit down and really evaluate again and look at personnel and see if we need to move a couple guys maybe at a couple positions. We’ve got to talk about spread teams and how we’re going to line up to that.

“We’re going to go. We’re going to hit the ground running from the first practice.”

Linebackers … B-

Colorado fans recall the days, in the not too distant past, where they could brag about the University of Colorado as being “Linebacker U”, or at least the west of the Mississippi version of Penn State’s “Linebacker U”. After having ten linebackers drafted into the NFL in the 1990’s (including Butkus Award winners Alfred Williams and Matt Russell), Colorado has seen only three linebackers (Sean Tufts, Jordon Dizon, and Brad Jones) drafted since.

Whether defensive coordinator Kent Baer can mold any of the present linebackers on the roster into draft-worthy talent remains to be seen.

The Buffs do return players with considerable playing experience, with seniors Derrick Webb and Paul Vigo, along with juniors Woodson Greer, Lowell Williams, K.T. Tu’umalo and Brady Daigh.

Webb led the team in tackles in 2012, with 88 (61 unassisted), and is expected to be the leader of the unit this fall. Of Woodson Greer, who played in only six games last fall (12 tackles) much more is expected this fall. Baer on Greer: “I think Woodson Greer has done a really nice job at getting better at a lot of things. Now he’s still got a long way to go. We play him at outside backer and I’m forcing him to play inside. He’s got to learn both. I think he’s got some ability. I think he’s got some toughness. He really seems to be trying hard.”

The surprise of the spring, with Brady Daigh missing many of the practices with injuries, was gray-shirt freshman Addison Gillam.  Originally a San Jose commit from the Class of 2012, Gillam sat out last fall, expecting to enroll with the Spartans this January. Instead, he followed his head coach and position coach to Boulder. Baer on Gillam: “Addison Gillam is just going to be a tremendous talent some day. I don’t want to put any pressure on him. Maybe that’s the wrong word. He’s a young guy that can really run, very athletic, smart. He shows up in January and goes to spring ball in March. That’s hard.”

Two other freshmen are worth keeping an eye on this fall, as the Buffs attempt to shore up what has been a disappointing unit the past several seasons, and now is adjusting to life without Doug Rippy and Jon Major. The first is another gray-shirt freshman, Markeis Reed, who made some plays this spring. The second is Clay Norgard. A red-shirt freshman who played both ways in high school, Norgard moved over to the defense this spring, and has the background and talent to earn playing time this fall.

Defensive secondary … C

Wasn’t is just yesterday that Greg Henderson became only the second true freshman in CU history to start a season opener at cornerback (joining Victor Scott, 1980)? Now Henderson is an upper classman, paired at cornerback with sophomore Kenneth Crawley, who last fall became just the third true freshman to start the first game of the season at cornerback.

So, Colorado’s cornerbacks have a great deal of game experience, but the unit remains young. Parker Orms, who has had a star-crossed history with the Buffs, is a senior safety, joined by fellow senior safety Terrel Smith.  Junior Josh Moten is another safety/nickel back, joined by another junior, Jered Bell.

Despite the recent past, the unit remains confident.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” Henderson told cubuffs.com. “The new coaching staff is teaching us well, they’ve done a good job. I think we can win seven or eight games and go to a bowl game this season because we have great players on both sides of the ball and great coaches.”

In a sport that is sometimes overwhelmed by negativity and self-absorbed egotism, Henderson is a breath of fresh air. Although he carries himself with a great amount of confidence and conviction it never crosses the line into conceit or arrogance.

“I have to stay confident, “said Henderson. “You can’t be successful if you’re not confident.”

With the arrival of a new coaching staff comes new cornerbacks coach Andy LaRussa, who followed head coach Mike MacIntyre from San Jose State. Despite the lack of success, LaRussa decided not to completely overhaul the philosophies of the previous position coach. Many of the players, including Henderson, believe that that consistency will benefit the group more than any amount of serious philosophical change might have.

“Coach (LaRussa) is a good coach,” said Henderson. “He knows what he’s talking about. He and (previous position coach) Greg Brown did a lot of things the same way and I think that’s a good thing. They both emphasize getting to the ball and giving an all-out effort and just because it didn’t work before doesn’t mean it can’t work.”

Henderson believes that being thrown into the fire early in their careers will benefit both he and Kenneth Crawley in the long run.

“I think we could be the best tandem in the Pac-12, maybe even the country,” said Henderson. “He played really well last year and both of us got a lot of playing time right away (in our careers), so I think that will help us mature, learn the game quicker and succeed at a faster rate.”

This unit will be watched between the end of spring practices and the start of fall camp, as there are some players who were rumored to be leaving last December (Yuri Wright and Jeffrey Hall amongst them). Coach MacIntyre persuaded the entire team to stick with his program, at least until spring practices were concluded.

Well, now spring practices have been concluded.

Special Teams … B-

CU kickers were putting up some gaudy numbers through the first three scrimmages. Incumbent junior Will Oliver went 11-for-11 in field goal attempts in the first scrimmage, 5-of-6 in the second, then 6-of-6 in the third. Senior Justin Castor was equally prolific, going a combined 24-for-25 in the first three scrimmages.

Cause for celebration?

Well, yes and no.

Oliver and Castor were deadly accurate, to be sure, but the numbers show that the majority of the “field goal attempts” were nothing more than glorified extra points. Of the 46 made field goals in the three scrimmages, 25 were made from 20 yards out – extra points. Only two of the attempts were from over 40 yards (though Will Oliver did make both, converting from 42 and 47 yards out).

Part of the rebuilding confidence in players program from the new coaching staff.

Well, hopefully it works.

And it doesn’t help the mindset of the teams and the fans that Justin Castor was called upon to make a game-winning field goal at the end of the Spring game, and was successful. True, the field goal was only a 26-yarder, but Castor’s team was down, 16-14, and the senior did come through with a made field goal.

The Buffs also appear to be set at punter, with junior Darragh O’Neill already a two-year starter. Junior D.J. Wilhelm will not likely see the field this fall, but did demonstrate that the Buffs do have a reliable backup should O’Neill be injured.

The return game for CU receives an incomplete. The Buffs did go “live” for the spring game, but there were only five kickoff returns and two punt returns – too small a sample to draw any conclusions. It was worthy of note, however, that Darragh O’Neill, who did not have a punt blocked in the 2012 season, had one blocked in the spring game, and that Keenan Canty muffed a punt return.

The CU special teams, like the team in general, remain very much a work in progress …


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