CU’s Backup Plan – Defense

Note … This is the second in the series. “CU’s Backup Plan – Offense” can be found here.

Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre has yet to release an updated depth chart, preferring to keep his “pencil depth chart” in place with less than two weeks to go before the opener against Hawai’i.

“We’ve been working with everybody because we have to have backups everywhere,”  MacIntyre said, “but we’ll kind of start narrowing that down, getting a little bit more game specific as we go along.”

Even without the updated depth chart, many of the starters are known. What is good news for the Buff Nation is that the names of the backups are names with experience and talent. “I’m confident in the fact that when we put somebody in depth-wise, they’ve played,” MacIntyre said. “To me, that always makes a difference. You’ve been in a situation before.”

With much of the two-deep in place, we can take a look at how well the Buffs’ depth has improved heading into the 2015 season.

Note … Before we begin with the defense, it must be acknowledged that CU will be playing multiple defenses this fall, with 4-3, 3-4 and 4-2 schemes all likely to be seen on the field. Add to that the fact that multiple Buff players can play multiple positions in these defenses, it is hard to pin down 11 starters, much less their 11 immediate backups. Still, the “pencil depth chart” released by the CU coaching staff has a 4-3 scheme listed, so we will work from that …

Defensive Tackles

Starters … Justin Solis; Samson Kafovalu

Backups … Leo Jackson; Jordan Carrell; Eddy Lopez; Leo Jackson; Clay Norgard; Jase Franke; Lyle Tuiloma

The losses of Josh Tupou (suspension) and Tyler Henington (ankle) for the season hurts the CU defensive interior. Of that, there can be little debate.

There is an argument to be made, however, that the interior defensive line is – for the first time in years – well stocked to handle the blow of two lost starters. Justin Solis (355 snaps, 33 tackles) was already a regular in the rotation last season, while Kafovalu was in for 184 snaps and 18 tackles in 2013.

Junior college transfer Jordan Carrell received a great deal of attention during the off-season, being one of the most highly touted of the newcomers to the team. So far, so good. “I’m a lot more comfortable than I was in the spring,” Carrell told cubuffs.com. “Coach (Jim) Leavitt is really pushing us. He’s got a lot of passion, a lot of energy and makes sure we’re all putting in the effort”.

Leo Jackson is another transfer, and has also found his way to the primary backup role on the depth chart. Jackson had a very productive spring, as the coaches selected him as the recipient of the Dick Anderson Award, presented to the player with outstanding toughness following spring practice.  He also won the Iron Buffalo Award for the defensive linemen during spring practice, which recognizes hard work, dedication, toughness and total lifting performance.

Other names on the defensive interior are more familiar to Buff fans – Clay Norgard, Eddy Lopez, Jase Franke – and will get their share of playing time this fall. Backup Grade … B+.

Defensive Ends

Starters … Derek McCartney; Jimmie Gilbert

Backups … Timothy Coleman; Jaleel Awini; Blake Robbins; De’Jon Wilson; Terran Hasselbach

As is the case with the offensive line and CU’s returning starters at tackle, the Buffs appear set on the outside of the defensive line, with Derek McCartney and Jimmie Gilbert returning. Both were on the field for over 450 plays last year, and both had good years (Gilbert: 38 tackles; 2 1/2 sacks; four other tackles for loss … McCartney: 34 tackles; 4 1/2 sacks).

Both will be counted on to get to the quarterback, and, on occasion, drop back and play linebacker. “It fits my body shape a lot more,” Gilbert told cubuffs.com of his dual role. “With us being able to both rush the passer and drop into coverage, it opens up a lot of options for us.”

Behind Gilbert and McCartney on the defensive line depth chart, however, there is little proven experience. Timothy Coleman was in for 150 snaps last season, while De’Jon Wilson was in for 139. Those totals, while low, still outpace those played for CU last fall by Blake Robbins and Jaleel Awini (transfers), and Terran Hasselbach (a red-shirt freshman). While there is talent amongst this group, along with intrigue as to how these players will work out (Buff fans are particularly anxious to see what Awini, formerly a quarterback at Air Force, can do), there remains uncertainty at this position. Backup Grade … B-.

Inside Linebackers

Starters … Addison Gillam (Mike); Kenneth Olugbode (Will)

Backups … Rick Gamboa; Grant Watanabe; Christian Shaver; Ryan Severson; N.J. Falo

Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode may not have garnered much national attention, but they do make up one of the better linebacker tandems in the nation. Gillam, as Buff fans well know, set a slew of school records in 2013 on his way to becoming the first freshman in school history to lead the team in tackles (with 119). Last year, with Gillam hindered by injuries, Olugbode picked up the slack and led the team in tackles (with 83).

The backups? Well, let’s hope that Gillam and Olugbode stay healthy this fall. True enough, there is some talent behind the two starters, but, as is usually the case with the second-string, the talent remains unproven. Gamboa, Watanabe and Falo may be the future at the position for the Buffs, but they remain unproven freshmen. Severson, meanwhile, has proven to be quality special teams players, but was only on the field for 71 plays (nine tackles) last fall. Backup Grade … C.

Outside Linebacker

Starter … Deaysean Rippy (Sam)

Backup … Hunter Shaw

This is the part of the program where we talk about Colorado playing a great deal of 4-2-5 this fall. Even though the depth chart shows the Buffs lining up in a 4-3 defense, the reality is that, in 11 of 12 games last fall, there was a nickel back on the field at the start of the game, with only two linebackers.

The nominal starter at outside linebacker this season, Deaysean Rippy, did not play a down on defense last fall. He did contribute eight “knockdown or springing blocks on kick returns), but that was it for his statistics. Hunter Shaw, the listed backup, is a walk-on senior who dressed for three games in his career. Backup Grade … D-.

Nickel Back

Starter … Chidobe Awuzie

Backups … John Walker; Ryan Moeller

Lest we get too depressed over the state of the outside linebacker position, we should look at the position more likely to be filled in the starting lineup, that of nickel back. As noted above, nickel backs were in the starting lineup for the vast majority of games last season, and have been for the past several seasons.

Heading up the group is multi-talented Chidobe Awuzie, who is also listed as a starting cornerback in the “pencil depth chart”. Last season, Awuzie was third on the team in tackles, with 64, and was the only player on the team in double figures in third down stops (with 11). Right behind Awuzie on the depth chart for nickel backs is the equally versatile John Walker. Earning seven starts last season at nickel back, Walker had 28 tackles, and was fourth on the team in passes broken up (with five). The coaches selected him as the recipient of the Hale Irwin Award, presented to the most improved defensive back during spring practices.

The third nickel back, Ryan Moeller, played in all 12 games last season, and was pressed into duty as a starter at free safety at the end of the year (against Oregon and Utah). Backup Grade … A-.

Cornerbacks

Starters … Chidobe Awuzie; Ken Crawley

Backups … Ahkello Witherspoon; John Walker; Yuri Wright; Afolabi Laguda

If Chidobe Awuzie is on the field as CU’s No. 1 nickel back, then Ahkello Witherspoon is the listed choice to start at cornerback opposite Ken Crawley. Witherspoon made a splash in his first spring game in 2014, then had an interception return for a touchdown in this year’s spring game. This fall, in his junior year, he will need to show he is more than “Mr. March”.

Behind Witherspoon on the depth chart is Yuri Wright, an enigma. Though only a junior, it seems like it was a decade ago that Wright – a highly recruited prospect – started six games as a true freshman in 2012. Wright red-shirted in 2013, and saw action only on special teams last year. Buff fans are hoping Wright will have a breakout year this fall.

Afolabi Laguda will be seeing his first action as a Buff in 2015 after coming to Boulder by way of Butler Community College in Kansas.

The cornerback roster at Colorado is an eclectic bunch, but they do have plenty of combined playing experience. Backup Grade … B.

Safeties

Starters … Evan White; Tedric Thompson

Backups … Jered Bell; Ryan Moeller; Marques Mosley; Afolabi Laguda; Jaisen Sanchez

Both White and Thompson have starting experience at safety, and, for the 329th time (as it has now been 329 days since the CU secondary last had an interception) Tedric Thompson had all three of CU’s interceptions last season.

To the rescue comes Jered Bell, who had three interceptions of his own back in 2013, the last time he saw action. The sixth year senior provides not only the wisdom of his 23 years to the safety position, but plenty of starting experience (13 starts in his 36 games). Marques Mosley is also a senior, though without the playing time seen by Bell. Sophomore Ryan Moeller, as noted above, finished last season with two starts at the free safety position. Backup Grade … B.

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Overall, the Colorado defense has improved dramatically in terms of depth over the past two seasons under Mike MacIntyre. If any freshmen play this fall (linebacker/defensive end N.J. Falo may be one), it will be because of talent, not necessity. That in and of itself is progress.

We’ll find out very soon if CU’s “Backup Plan” will be sufficient to raise the Buff defense out of the 100’s nationally, and into the win column in the Pac-12.

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2 Replies to “CU’s Backup Plan – Defense”

  1. Yuri Wright was an enormous high school star here in NJ. He played for one of the State’s parochial powers, Don Bosco Prep, in an era in which DBP was pretty highly ranked nationally every year (and might have even won somebody’s “mythical” national championship). I do not recall all of the circumstances but I do recall he was either expelled from or asked to leave DBP in the middle of his senior year (a cynic might point out the request came AFTER football season). I’m not even sure from which high school he actually graduated. His last couple of years in high school he was viewed as a “can’t miss” prospect. It seems as if it just has not clicked for him in Boulder. Perhaps this is his year? For his sake and for the Buffs’ sake, I hope so.

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