An In-Depth Depth Chart – Defense and Special Teams

Note: The Colorado depth chart for the Colorado State game has, since the publication of this article, been released, and can be found here.

Defensive Line

Left Defensive End – Tyler Henington – Jr. / De’Jon Wilson – So.

Defensive Tackle – Josh Tupou – Jr. / Clay Norgard – So.

Defensive Tackle – Juda Parker – Sr. / Justin Solis – Jr.

Right Defensive End – Derek McCartney – R-Fr. / Markeis Reed – R-Fr. / Jimmie Gilbert – So. (injured)

The bad news?

Last season, Colorado was dead last in the Pac-12 in sacks, with 17.

The worse news?

Only 3 1/2 of those sacks came from players who played exclusively on the interior of the defensive line.

The Buffs are hoping to turn a weakness into a strength this fall, with assistant coach Jim Jeffcoat, who coached the defensive line last season, focusing exclusively on the interior of the line, with Andy Larussa, who coached cornerbacks last season, stepping in to work with the defensive ends.

Apparently it’s “so far, so good” with the new coaching lineup.

“It was an easy transition,” said LaRussa, who played defensive end in college and early on in his career had helped coached the defensive front as a graduate assistant.

“It helps,” Jeffcoat said of getting assistance from LaRussa. “We’re unique because most of our ends are hybrid – they drop, they rush. Now I can focus on the interior and give us a better advantage with those guys, get them learning techniques and schemes.”

The interior of the line has talent, but no depth. Josh Tupou is a budding star, and Justin Solis returns after starting the final seven games of last season in the interior. Solis had 39 tackles last season; Tupou 38. Tupou and Solis are being joined by senior Juda Parker, who is moving from the outside to the inside.

Jeffcoat calls Tupou, Solis and Parker “kind of my rocks. They’re starting to take the leadership role and help me. You can’t see everything and once you get your players to understand what you want and they can correct it for you, that helps a lot.”

Having three experienced players helps, but Jeffcoat wants five or six in a rotation, with no one player taking more than 60 percent of the snaps. This means that younger players, like the still undersized sophomore Clay Norgard (6’0″, 230-pounds) will need to grow into their roles very quickly.

Nervous time for Buff fans when it comes to the interior defensive line … and that’s the Buffs’ strong suit.

There are even more questions when it comes to the defensive ends.

CU loses last season’s sack leader (Uzo-Diribe) but returns three players with game experience: Jimmie Gilbert, Tyler Henington and De’Jon Wilson. Plus, redshirt freshman end Derek McCartney is coming off a productive spring and is likely to be in LaRussa’s rotation on the outside. Another solid candidate is redshirt freshman Markeis Reed, although a sports hernia which required surgery will sideline him for nearly a month. And Henington has been nursing a sore ankle.

“Whoever is ready to go (will rotate),” LaRussa told “The more guys you have out there, if there’s no drop off, it makes it harder on an offensive line. Those guys aren’t rotating. If we can have the same production, the same athleticism, speed and knowledge play after play it’s going to make it a lot tougher on those guys. If they’re all ready then we’ll figure out a rotation and let them play. We’re young but we’ve got a lot of athletic ability in the group.”


Mike (Inside) – Addison Gillam – So. / Brady Daigh – Sr.

Will (Inside) – Kenneth Olugbode – So. / Ryan Severson – So.

Sam (Outside) – Woodson Greer – Sr. / Deayshawn Rippy – So.

If there is one word which has been used to describe the CU linebacker corps more than any other this fall, it would be “faster”.

“But, yeah, we’re faster at linebacker than we were a year ago”, defensive coordinator Kent Baer told “A lot of it is some younger guys stepping up and playing like they can and the speed work we’ve done in the off-season.”

Sophomore linebacker Kenneth Olugbode agreed: “We’ve gotten a lot faster . . . that’s what happens being in a defense for two years”.

Much has been said and written about the Buffs’ breakout star from the 2013 season, Addison Gillam, but it will be up to his fellow starters to step us their games if Colorado is to go bowling this fall.

Olugbode, like Gillam, was thrust into the lineup as a true freshman. Unlike Gillam, though, who was a starter from game one, Olugbode came on late in the season when Derrick Webb was injured. “The last four games he was forced to play three different spots”, said Baer. “He’s a smart kid, very knowledgeable, and doesn’t make the same mistake more than once. He’s still got a lot to learn but he’ll be the guy who plays in that spot. He’s doing a great job.”

Growth is what you would expect to see from two sophomores, but what of the returning senior starter?

Baer’s assessment of Woodson Greer, who had 34 tackles in eight games last season, begins with the need for consistency. “They all need more (consistency) but with him sometimes the light will come on and you’ll go, ‘Wow,’” Baer said. “Then he’ll have the same defense or the same read and he’ll make an old mistake. It’s just about consistency with him.”

Defensive Backs

Left Cornerback (Field) – Greg Henderson – Sr. / Chidobe Awuzie – So.

Free Safety – Jered Bell – Sr. (since injured; out for the season) / Ryan Moeller – R-Fr.

Strong Safety – Tedric Thompson – So. / Marques Mosley – Jr. / Terrel Smith – Sr. (injured)

Right Cornerback – Kenneth Crawley – Jr. / Ahkello Witherspoon – So.

Nickel Back – Chidobe Awuzie – So. / Marques Mosley – Jr.

The loss of senior starting free safety Jered Bell will hurt the Colorado defense. Bell had 36 games of experience under his belt, and started 11 of 12 games last season. Bell’s 67 tackles was fourth on the team in 2013, just behind fellow defensive back Greg Henderson’s 68.

And yet, if the Buffs were to lose one player to injury from its returning starters, the unit best equipped to handle the loss is the defensive backfield.

“We’re in the process of double-teaching everybody,” safeties coach Charles Clark told “We’ve got corners playing nickel, nickels playing safety, safeties playing some corner . . . we’re just going to rotate (personnel) and get a good feel for it for the next week”.

Case in point – sophomore Chidobe Awuzie.

Listed at the start of fall camp as the starting nickel back, Awuzie could be spending time at safety this fall.  “I know a lot of the defense”, said Awuzie. “They can put me at any spot in the secondary and I know what to do. They trust me back there and I trust myself. I’m going to do my job.”

More likely to join Tedric Thompson at safety in the first starting lineup of the season, though, is senior Terrel Smith. Smith sat out last season after opting to undergo shoulder surgery. Smith called his final preseason camp “a long time coming . . . I’ve been working hard and preparing myself this off season and getting my body right so I can go out and perform. I’m so excited to be out here. My shoulder feels good, nice and strong, not loose. I’m ready to hit and that’s all that matters.”

The starting cornerbacks are likely set, with senior Greg Henderson and junior Kenneth Crawley both returning. But, as with the safety and nickel positions, there will be a number of players rotating in. Included in that list are four players – four – who were not on the field for the Buffs last fall: sophomore transfer corner Ahkello Witherspoon, sophomore Yuri Wright (who red-shirted last season), and freshmen Evan White and Jaisen Sanchez.

For the Colorado secondary this fall, it will all be about the numbers.

The Buffs’ interception total of ten was up from three in 2012, and Clark believes the 10 thefts in 2013 can be improved on this season. CU claimed 30 turnovers last fall (20 recovered fumbles, 10 interceptions) and Clark wants to see that number at least duplicated this season. “We want to see the turnovers jump,” Clark said. “We want to be over 30 and if we can get to the 40s we’re doing a really good job . . . we had a big jump in interception numbers last year from the year before, so I definitely think it’s realistic (to surpass 30 turnovers)”.

Cutting back on touchdown passes allowed also should be a shared goal for the secondary. A year ago, the Buffs gave up 24 touchdown passes and finished ninth in the Pac-12 in pass defense. But that was a huge improvement compared to 2012, when 39 touchdown passes were thrown on (mostly over) the Buffs.

For Colorado to be successful in the Pac-12, the improvement curve must continue to trend upwards … even without Jered Bell.

Special Teams

Kicker – Will Oliver – Sr. / Diego Gonzalez – So.

Punter – Darragh O’Neill – Sr. / Will Oliver – Sr.

Punt Return – Nelson Spruce – Sr.

Holder – Darragh O’Neill – Sr. / Wesley Christensen – Sr.

Snapper – Wyatt Tucker Smith – Jr. / Chris Hill – R-Fr.

Here’s the thing … It’s been a long time since anything about Colorado special teams has been “special”.

Darragh O’Neill, with his first punt of the 2014 season, will become CU’s all-time leading punter, both in number and in yardage (passing John Torp in yardage, Matt DiLallo in number of punts). O’Neill is already the Buffs’ all-time leader in number of punts inside the twenty, with 68.

And yet, O’Neill, who is ninth on the all-time list at Colorado in average per punt, has yet to earn even honorable mention league honors.

The other four year starter on special teams for the Buffs is kicker Will Oliver. With 189 career points, Oliver is eighth on the CU’s all-time scoring list, and fourth in points amongst kickers. By the end of the 2014 season, Oliver will likely rank second in both of those categories.

And yet Oliver, who is 34-for-48 in field goal attempts in his career, has yet to earn more than honorable mention league honors.

Two names which will be lodged in the CU record books for decades to come … but without stirring much emotion from the Buff Nation.

Such is the plight of kickers and punters for poor teams, they rack up big numbers – but in losing causes.

“Anytime you get to work with good players going into their senior years, it’s a privilege,” special teams coach Toby Neinas told about his two senior kickers. “Kids tend to play better in their senior year. They tend to be more focused. And when you have kids who have a pretty high talent, skill level, it’s exciting. In addition to that, I like them both on a personal level. I like their competitiveness. Those two boys will be tremendously successful in life, not just here on the field this fall.”

And then there is the return game … such as it is.

Last season, Nelson Spruce led the Buffs with nine punt returns for 45 yards.

“Led” is sort of a misnomer … as no other Buff had a punt return in 2013.

Yup. That’s it. Nine punt returns by Colorado, for 45 yards – for the season!

Buff opponents, meanwhile, had 30 punt returns for 182 yards.

“We played a lot of punt-safe last year,” Neinas said, adding that the Buffs need to develop more confidence in both return games (the majority of Colorado’s kickoff returns – 36-of-52 – were handled by Ryan Severson, a freshman linebacker). “We returned fewer punts in 2013 than any team in the Pac-12. We’ve got to get that going and help our returners have some confidence”.

Adding intrigue to the mix this fall are two new kickers, sophomore transfer Diego Gonzalez and red-shirt freshman Chris Graham. Gonzalez may handle the kickoffs this year, assisting Oliver, who faded last fall (Oliver touchbacks early in the season were at about 80 percent, then slipped to 50 percent at mid-season and 25 percent by year’s end).

As to the return game, though, Buff fans won’t know who the kickoff and punt returners will be until right before the start of the 2014 campaign.

Here’s hoping that the choices by the coaching staff lead to “special” again being a part of CU’s special teams.


Your opinions? That’s what the “Comments” section is for. Just click and let me know your thoughts …

3 Replies to “An In-Depth Depth Chart – II”

  1. Friday night Fox 1. Be there! Or be at Mile High. We made it through another off season and as pessimistic as I have been towards the Buffs this off season I am ready for Coach Mac to turn it around. Tough game vs CSU but the Buffs get it done 35 to 24.

    GO BUFFS!!

  2. Yo Stuart,
    This year, for the first time in way too long, I think we can finally take a look at the Buffs not based on last year. Last year’s four wins was a vast improvement over 2012, which may very well have been the worst team in Colorado history.

    The Buffs finally have some depth at some very important areas, most notably the offensive line and the defensive backfield. In addition, we finally have group that has had some serious time with Dave Forman.

    This guy Forman is an absolute genius at training athletes to perform at their highest levels while simultaneously bringing injuries down drastically. I think his methods are truly at the cutting edge in athletic training.

    We are in the process of watching what a truly professional staff with a plan can institute. While I agree with you that 2015 may be the year that CU starts to ring the bell on their national aspirations, I also think that 2014 will bring a long missing smile to the faces of CU players, students and fans.

    I would look for vast improvements across the board. Methinks the Buffs may shock some folks this year. That makes me happy. It’s been a long time since CU shocked anyone except by how bad we were.

    The fact that CSU turned their season around last year and went on to win a bowl game against a Pac-12 opponent is great. I want Colorado to beat a good or very good CSU team. All wins are good, but beating good teams is so much more satisfying.

    Check out my posts when you get a chance.

    Colorado Buff Watch

  3. As much as I’d like to think the Special Teams play will improve in 2014, it just seems like there isn’t much there to work with unfortunately.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *