“Preseason” ratings – Unit-by-Unit review of CU’s non-conference games

With Colorado taking a break between non-conference play and the start of Pac-12 conference games, it seems appropriate to take a step back and review how each unit has fared, not only based upon the numbers, but upon results compared to the expectations Buff fans had heading into the 2108 campaign.

NoteBelow is a review of how the defense and special teams have played. A review of the offense can be found here

Defensive Line … 

By the numbers … Defensive linemen aren’t usually counted upon to pile up significant statistics – it’s their job to take up space and tie up offensive linemen, paving the way for linebackers to make plays. Through the first three games of 2018, however, the Buff defensive line has been much more active. Defensive end Mustafa Johnson is third on the team in tackles, with 23, and leads the team with 3.5 sacks, to go with three other tackles for loss, four third down stops, and a team-best three quarterback pressures. Nose tackle Javier Edwards, who had 33 tackles in all of 2017, already has 11 tackles (and a sack) so far this year. Jase Franke has contributed eight tackles, while Chris Mulumba has seven.

Non-conference grade … B … No one is going to compare CU’s defensive line with that of the other CU … Clemson (which has NFL first-round talent all along its defensive front), but when taken in context, the Buffs have fared well during non-conference play. Sophomore Mustafa Johnson, who last fall was playing for Modesto Junior College, was a great find. Johnson has been a force to be reckoned with (19 of his 23 tackles have been solo tackles – the most solo tackles of any player on the defense). His 3.5 sacks and three other tackles for loss will force Pac-12 offensive coordinators to take notice.

Javier Edwards, who is “down” to 335 pounds this fall, has proven to be a more of a force in the middle … to the relief of many Buff fans. The other starter in CU’s 3-4 alignment is Israeal Antwine, the first true freshman to start for Colorado since 2015. Antwine has only four tackles in the first three games (in 111 plays. Chris Mulumba, by comparison, has seven tackles in 49 plays), but is still learning the college game, and gives Buff fans hope for a bright future.


Linebackers … 

By the numbers … Sophomore Nate Landman leads the team with 34 tackles (15 unassisted). Landman also has two interceptions, a sack, a team-leading five other tackles for loss, and a team-best five third-down stops. Landman’s running mate on the inside is senior Rick Gamboa, who is second on the team in tackles, with 24 (11 unassisted), with four third-down stops and two “quarterback chase downs”. On the outside, Drew Lewis has 11 tackles to go with three third-down stops, while junior Davion Taylor has eight tackles from the “Buff Backer” position.

Non-conference grade … A- … Nate Landman has all the makings of CU’s next great linebacker. Already named the Pac-12 Defensive Player-of-the-Week for his 14-tackle effort against Nebraska (which included a fourth quarter interception and a fourth quarter fourth-down stop which kept the Buffs in the game), Landman has been a monster against all three non-conference opponents. His 34 tackles puts in on a pace for 136 for the season, which would be the most for any Buff since Jordon Dizon posted 160 in 2007. If Landman continues such stellar play against Pac-12 competition, he is a lock for first-team All-Pac-12 honors.

While Landman has been exceptional, the other Buff linebackers have also played well. Rick Gamboa has CU’s other interception, coming on the first series of the New Hampshire game, setting the tone for the 45-14 rout. The insertion of Landman into the lineup as an inside linebacker has allowed Drew Lewis to move to the outside, keeping CU’s leading tackler from last season on the field. Lewis, along with two relatively inexperienced linebackers – sophomore Jacob Callier and junior college transfer Davion Taylor – have made few mistakes so far in the early going.


Defensive Backs … 

By the numbers … Cornerback Delrick Abrams, Jr., a junior college transfer from Independence Community College (Kansas) has introduced himself to the Buff Nation this fall. Inserted into the starting lineup when projected starter Chris Miller was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Abrams leads the defensive backs in tackles (21, 16 unassisted), with a team-leading four passes broken up. Senior safety Evan Worthington has 15 tackles, while fellow senior safety Nick Fisher is next on the team, with 11. Junior Dante Wigley, who has started all three games at the other cornerback position, has nine tackles on the young season.

Non-conference grade … B … If you had told Buff fans a month ago that CU would be three games into the 2018 season, and the defensive backfield had exactly zero interceptions, you would be met with concerned looks. As it turns out, however, the Buff defensive backs have not had any interceptions due to, at least in part, the improved play of the Buff defensive line.

“Talk about our front, talk about our pressure,” safeties coach and defensive passing game coordinator ShaDon Brown told the Daily Camera. “How many times do we hit the quarterback? We’re hitting the quarterback an awful lot. The quarterbacks don’t have three and four seconds to throw the ball down field. That’s why you don’t see the safeties making as many plays as in the past.

“Last year there wasn’t as much pressure, and a lot of deep balls. This year we’re applying pressure to the QB, so the ball is not down the field.”

Going forward, the Buff secondary will be productive … if they can stay healthy. There is precious little depth behind senior safeties Evan Worthington and Nick Fisher, with the pair being the only two Buff defensive players out on the field for over 200 plays each in the first three games. Chris Miller, touted as perhaps CU’s next great cornerback, saw his first action as a Buff in the New Hampshire game (Miller was for 24 plays against the Wildcats), which was an encouraging sign that Miller will be available for Pac-12 play.

The CU secondary has given up a long touchdown pass in each of the first three games (with the CSU and Nebraska scores both coming when the game outcome was still in doubt). Trading long completions for interceptions will be vital for the CU cause going forward if the Buffs are going to continue to pick up victories.


Special Teams … 

By the numbers … It’s been a mixed bag for the Buff kickers, with injuries hampering both of CU’s long-time starters. Punter Alex Kinney had a 46.0/punt average before being sidelined with a broken collarbone suffered on his first punt of the Nebraska game (out three-to-four weeks), while kicker James Stefanou suffered from a groin injury, an injury which contributed to his missing two of his first six field goal attempts (both in the fourth quarter of the Nebraska game). Punt returner Ronnie Blackmon (ten returns for 108 yards) is one of the nation’s leaders in punt returns … but has also been chastised for attempting to return punts from inside CU’s five yard line.

Non-conference grade … B … The efforts of CU’s kickers deserve a better mark. You don’t expect your specialists to be injured, but both Alex Kinney and James Stefanou have gotten hurt. Davis Price, CU’s kickoff specialist, has filled in admirably for Alex Kinney (eight punts for a 39.56/punt average), while still forcing touchbacks on 16 of his 21 kickoffs.

James Stefanou, despite nursing his groin injury, did not need to be replaced for CU’s lone field goal attempt against New Hampshire. Stefanou connected on the 19-yarder, and has remained perfect on extra point attempts (a school-record 49 straight made to open a career).

Kick coverage has also been good, with the Buffs allowing only 16 yards on kickoff returns, and a grand total of five yards on punt returns in the first three games.

The only real blemish (other than Stefanou’s two missed field goal attempts) has been the punt returns. Mike MacIntyre got quite animated during a post-practice meeting with the media last week, saying that the decision making of the punt returners in the first three games of the 2018 season was the worst he’d seen in 30 years of coaching … and that he was personally working with the kick return units during the bye week.


Overall … Defense and Special Teams … Non-conference grade … B+ … Colorado has had some lapses on defense over the first three games. The Buffs have allowed a long touchdown pass in each game, and Nebraska gashed the Buffs in Lincoln for 329 yards of total offense – in the first half. Still, when games were in doubt, the Buff defense has risen to the occasion. The defensive line, while still a work in progress, has been a pleasant surprise when compared to preseason prognostications, and Nate Landman has been a one-man wrecking crew.

The Buffs are going to see some quality offenses in Pac-12 play. Continued growth – and good health – for the defense will go a long ways in determining CU’s fate.


One Reply to “First Quarter Grades – Defense”

  1. “”It’s been great, just to be able to experience the growth that we’ve had coming from last year,” Lang said. “It’s a wonderful group.”


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