Eligibility Chart – A Closer Look (Defense)

RelatedCU at the Game Podcast: “On the Defensive” 

Every depth chart comes with a caveat: “Subject to change without notice”. The first depth chart of the Karl Dorrell era will be even more fluid. The coaching staff had exactly zero spring practices with this lineup. With only unit meetings, zoom chats, and weight training to go off of, it’s difficult to imagine a coaching staff trying to sort out a lineup under more difficult circumstances.

Still, after an off-season of nothing but tumult, it’s nice to talk about Colorado taking to the field of play … and it’s worth a few minutes to see who should be taking the field first …

Defense

Note bold: projected starter … 12 positions listed

Defensive End:

54 Terrance Lang, 6-7, 285, Jr.**
13 Justin Jackson, 6-2, 280, Jr.
90 Jayden Simon, 6-3, 290, Fr.-RS

Nose Tackle:

99 Jalen Sami, 6-6, 325, Soph.*
94 Janaz Jordan, 6-4, 305, Jr.* OR
55 Austin Williams, 6-5, 315, Soph.*
92 Lloyd Murray, 6-2, 300, Fr.-2*

Defensive Tackle: 

34 Mustafa Johnson, 6-2, 290, Sr.**
18 Jeremiah Doss, 6-4, 265, Sr.*
91 Na’im Rodman, 6-2, 300, Soph.*

Thoughts … Colorado is looking to play a base 3-4 defense, and will have returning starters at each position along the defensive line. Terrance Lang led the defensive line in tackles last season, with 40 (25 unassisted), leading the team with six sacks and 12 quarterback pressures. Mustafa Johnson, meanwhile, had 34 tackles (21 unassisted), with 4.5 sacks and seven quarterback pressures.

The real question mark last season – and coming into this season – is the play of sophomore nose tackle Jalen Sami. Forced into the fore as a freshman last year, Sami had an impressive first season in 2019, registering 25 tackles in 411 snaps played.

“Jalen is doing a good job,” CU head coach Karl Dorrell said. “He’s still a very young player. We have a lot of high hopes and expectations of him. He’s an ideal size that you want in terms of what you want your nose to be. Great kid, obviously he’s been a great student as well. He’s on the upswing of his career right now.

“I know he’s had some really good experience already. But what I like about him is that he’s understanding, really, the whole scope of being a college student-athlete. I think the world of him. I think he has the chance to play on the next level when it’s all said and done.”

While the starting defensive line remains in tact, there are new schemes to be learned.

In striving to get better this year, Sami is adjusting to the techniques taught by new defensive line coach Chris Wilson.

“It’s really a change in how our defensive line is playing, from last year, two gap, to this year, one gap, and getting off the ball,” Sami told the Daily Camera. “We have the same called plays and everything. It’s just working together and asking and doing all of that and adjusting to the coaching style of coach Wilson’s, learning how he wants it done – and then getting the reps in.”

How important is it for Jalen Sami – and the rest of the defensive line – to mature and improve? Statistically, last season the Buffs struggled mightily to contain the run. CU recorded a tackle for loss on just 7.27 percent of its opponents rushing attempts, the lowest mark in the Pac-12, and a lowly 122nd nationally.

Yikes.

While the starters along the line appear set, a battle for playing time – the defensive line will always need to rotate players – remains strong. “We’ve got some young D-linemen that are really starting to step up and have some really good production behind Mustafa and Terrence and Jalen,” Dorrell said. “Those guys are developing, they’re getting better.”

New defensive line coach Chris Wilson inherited a healthy list of returnees who received some significant snaps last year in backup roles. That will be a key in building depth up front, something Wilson sees as critical if the Buffs’ defense is going to take a step forward this season.

“I like to be like the Chinese army — I want to be a billion strong,” Wilson said. “I want as many good players as I can get to come in and play. You do that by creating depth and developing the bottom part of your roster. The more guys we can play at a high level, the more competitive we become and the faster we play.”

… Fingers crossed …

Antonio Alfano Update …

From the Daily Camera … A battle with epilepsy has kept highly touted defensive end Antonio Alfano from being cleared to practice with the Colorado football team.

Earlier this week, CU head coach Karl Dorrell told media, “We don’t quite have a handle on his medical situation well enough to be released to practice and to compete right now.

HIPAA laws have prevented CU from giving information on Alfano’s health, but Alfano reached out to BuffZone to provide clarity to his situation.

“My seizures are not under control right now, so I’m working with multiple doctors to figure out what is causing them,” he said in a message to BuffZone. “I cannot practice or compete until I’m seizure free.”

Outside Linebacker: 

2 Guy Thomas, 6-4, 240, Jr.
4 Jamar Montgomery, 6-2, 240, Jr.-2*

Inside Linebacker: 

53 Nate Landman, 6-3, 235, Sr.***
31 Jonathan Van Diest, 6-1, 230, Jr.**
6 Alec Pell, 6-4, 230, Fr.-2*

Inside Linebacker:

36 Akil Jones, 6-0, 235, Sr.-5***
7 Marvin Ham II, 6-1, 225, Fr.-2*
12 Quinn Perry, 6-2, 240, Jr.-2*

Outside Linebacker: 

26 Carson Wells, 6-4, 250, Jr.**
33 Joshka Gustav, 6-3, 235, Fr.-2*

Thoughts …First-team All-Pac-12 linebacker Nate Landman is the most decorated player on the CU roster. Landman has been named to the watch lists for the Butkus Award (nation’s best linebacker) and the Bednarik Award (nation’s best defensive player).

Last season, Landman led the team in tackles … and it wasn’t even close. Landman had 137 tackles (112 unassisted). Davion Taylor was second on the team in tackles – with 69. So, yes, Landman had almost twice as many tackles as any other Buff on the field.

The question for the CU coaching staff is whether the other linebackers – with Taylor graduating – will be able to step up and help Landman.

The Buffs’ defensive leader thinks so …

Fellow senior Akil Jones took over the starting job at the other inside linebacker spot midway through last season and enters this season atop the depth chart.

“Akil’s my guy; I love Akil,” Landman told the Daily Camera. “Ever since the beginning, Akil and I have been close. We study the playbook together, we watch film. He calls me if he needs questions answered and I call him. I love playing next to Akil, I feel completely comfortable and I trust everything he’s able to do.

“There’s often times where I’ll miss a call and he’ll be able to correct me or he’ll miss call and I can correct him so I think we play pretty well next to each other.”

Jones, who playing sparingly during his first three years at CU, had 61 tackles last year.

Landman said it’s not just Jones that makes him comfortable, though. Junior Jonathan Van Diest started early in the 2019 season and will fight for a starting role again.

“(That comfort) is that way throughout our whole linebacker corps and especially the older guys,” Landman said. “We have good synergy and the bond we have is great. Being able to have that shared experience on the field is great. I wouldn’t want to play next to anyone else.”

At outside linebacker, after Carson Wells, experience is slim. Transfer Guy Thomas reportedly has had a solid camp, as has returnee Jamar Montgomery, who saw some playing time last year. The Buffs also liked what they were seeing from redshirt freshman Joshka Gustav, but he’s now nursing a sprained ankle and has been missing time in camp.

“We’ve been very pleased,” Dorrell said of his outside linebackers. “We have some young guys that have been in that position, are learning and getting better each and every day.”

Star Back (OLB/S HYBRID):

14 Chris Miller, 6-0, 190, Soph.-2**
20 Will Anglen, 6-3, 195, Fr.

Left Cornerback:

17 K.J. Trujillo, 6-0, 165, Soph.*
27 Nigel Bethel, 6-0, 170, Soph.
21 Christian Gonzalez, 6-2, 200, Fr.

Free Safety: 

3 Derrion Rakestraw, 6-2, 200, Sr.-5***
22 Toren Pittman, 6-4, 190, Fr.

Strong Safety: 

5 Mark Perry, 6-2, 200, Soph.*
23 Isaiah Lewis, 6-0, 205, Jr.**

Right Cornerback: 

25 Mekhi Blackmon, 6-0, 170, Jr.-2**
16 Tarik Luckett, 6-3, 180, Soph.*
2 Jaylen Striker, 6-3, 205, Soph.

Thoughts … At first glance, it appears that the CU secondary is loaded with good young talent. The Buffs appear to be set with one senior starter, one junior, and three sophomores.

Glass half full?

Well, not exactly. Only Rakestraw and Trujillo return as starters, with the Buffs losing Mikail Onu and Delrick Abrams. And that was from a defense which put up some awful numbers in the passing game:

  • 288.3 yards passing allowed per game … 10th in the Pac-12 … 123rd nationally;
  • 441.9 total yards allowed per game … 8th in the Pac-12 … 104th nationally;
  • 47.4% – third down conversions allowed on defense … 125th nationally.

Defensive back Chris Miller, who has played well when on the field but has lost time to injuries, has been playing at the star position and safety and hopes to be a leader on defense. “If I could describe my game and what I want it to look like, I want to look like an effective, efficient, and physical player out there when I play; someone that gives a great amount of effort and knows his responsibilities,” he said.

Despite only having two starts last fall, Miller is not lacking for confidence. “I have bigger expectations than last year,” the 6-foot, 200-pound defensive back said. “I told myself over the offseason I want to be the best DB in the Pac-12, and I’m still standing by that.”

Perhaps having the same defensive coordinator will help the Buffs’ cause. Nine full or part-time defensive starters return, along with 16 other players who were on the field for at least 160 snaps.

“It’s helped us a lot, having the same terms and different things like that,” Perry said of Summers coming back. “We didn’t have to go in and learn a whole new defense, so we were able to keep the same kind of terms and just keep on growing with the defense, keep on learning it.

“There’s a lot of guys coming back from last year, and I feel like we understand it a lot more now than we did around this time last year.”

Let’s re-read that last sentence quote from Mark Perry …

“There’s a lot of guys coming back from last year, and I feel like we understand it a lot more now than we did around this time last year.”

That sentence pretty much sums up CU’s hopes for success in the shortened 2020 season.

“(Perry) has a lot of responsibilities because the communication goes through him,” safeties coach Brett Maxie said. “It starts with him and ends with him. He’s done a tremendous job of taking on that leadership role in the secondary.”

Perry has consistently made plays throughout camp.

“He’s one of the fastest guys and it’s hard to see,” Maxie said. “You can usually see speed, but his speed is more of a closer. Once he starts to go, he covers ground, especially on deep balls. He can handle all the communication because he did play last year.”

Even if Perry and Miller can stay on the field and produce, the Buffs are still vulnerable at the cornerback position.

“Young corners” is often a phrase which can spell disaster for a defense.

But, at Colorado, that is the reality in 2020.

The Buffs are, at a minimum, developing good depth at corner. Mekhi Blackmon, who started two games last year before an injury, has had a consistent camp, as have youngsters Jaylen Striker, Tarik Luckett (two starts last season) and Nigel Bethel.

But the standout of the young corners, Maxie said, might be true freshman Christian Gonzalez, a 6-2, 200-pounder who has consistently made plays since camp began.

“He has no fear of challenging,” Maxie said. “He’s done a tremendous job at that. He’s very prideful in terms of how he goes about his craft.”

Sounds like a great deal of “potential” in the secondary … will that translate into a pass defense which is better than 100th in the country?

We’ll see …

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3 Replies to “Depth Chart Deep Dive – Defense”

  1. Change from ‘two-gap’ to ‘one-gap’ (responsibility) for the D-line should theoretically assist in the D-line creating negative plays to address the stat mentioned at the top, and also in the pass rush as interior guys don’t need to worry about protecting gaps on either side of them…they can just hit their gap hard and try to win i.e. get ‘upfield’ in the backfield for either the RB or QB. If our Dline is growing as advertised (always a hard tell at CU…is the reality that our Oline is weak??…this year I don’t think so), this is a nice change to get them making some ‘big plays’.

  2. I am optimistic about the defense…my biggest question/concern is the Miller/Anglen at the Star…Miller is always hurt and I don’t see anyway he plays the whole year at a far more physical position than pure CB. Then you have a true FROSH behind him…hmm doesn’t seem like we have any depth there.

  3. the coach will be naming the starting QB this week. It is my guess that the name of the starter in the last game of the season will be different.

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