Spring Roster Review – Defense

April 19th

Well, what are you going to do?

We should be preparing for the Spring Game, scheduled for Saturday, April 25th, but the Spring Game, and all of CU’s spring practices, have been postponed indefinitely.

But that doesn’t mean that the Buffs aren’t out there.

They are practicing and doing weight training remotely, with some eight hours of contact per week allowed with the coaching staff.

The players are still on the team, and here is a look at the CU roster, which should be pretty much the same group who will (eventually) suit up for the 2020 (2021?) season …

Spring Roster Review – Offensecan be found here

Players in bold = Returning starter … Italicized players = Walk-ons … EE = Early Enrollee; would have been available for spring practices … TR = Transfer

Defensive Lineman …

  • Senior … Mustafa Johnson
  • Junior … Terrance Lang … Jeremiah Doss … Janaz Jordan … Justin Jackson (TR) … Dante Sparaco … Nico Magri
  • Sophomore … Jalen Sami … Na’im Rodman … Austin Williams
  • Redshirt Freshman … Jayden Simon … Lloyd Murray, Jr. … Antonio Alfano (suspended)
  • Incoming Freshman … Jordan Berry

Thoughts … It’s hard to imagine a unit which has gone from a liability to a strength as quickly as CU’s defensive line. Last August, Lindy’s had this to say about the Buffs: “Defensively, the lack of experience and depth on the line is glaring for a side that already struggled to generate turnovers a year ago”, while Athlon’s noted: “Nine of 11 the scholarship linemen have never played a snap at CU, and six have never played in a college game”.

Heading into 2020, the defensive line has three starters returning, and has been supplemented with significant talent. Now, while it is true that what would have been a huge get to have CU’s highest all-time rated recruit, Antonio Alfano (who was suspended indefinitely by head coach Karl Dorrell for violating team rules, and is not expected back) on the roster, there is reason to be excited about what this unit can produce – if given the chance – in the 2020 season.

Outside Linebackers …

  • Senior … Jash Allen
  • Juniors … Carson Wells … Jamar Montgomery … Guy Thomas (TR) … Devin Lynch 
  • Sophomores … None
  • Red-shirt Freshman … Joshka Gustav
  • Incoming Freshmen … Alvin Williams (EE) … Deven Grant … Jason Harris

Thoughts … The CU outside linebacker corps has the same issues the defensive line did last year. Heading into the 2020 season, five of the eight outside linebackers on the roster have never played a defensive snap for the Buffs and two others – senior Jash Allen and junior Jamar Montgomery – have combined for 53 career snaps at CU.

That leaves the returning starter, Carson Wells. Fortunately, Wells is one of the top players on the Buffs’ defense. He’s played 913 snaps over the past two seasons and finished 2019 ranking fifth on the team in tackles (57). Perhaps is a blessing that the outside linebackers coach, Brian Michalowski, was one of four assistant coaches retained by new head Karl Dorrell ahead of the 2020 season.

Inside Linebackers … 

  • Seniors … Nate LandmanAkil Jones
  • Juniors … Jon Van Diest … Quinn Perry .. Chase Newman
  • Sophomore … Ray Robinson
  • Red-shirt Freshmen … Marvin Ham … Alec Pell … Steele Dubar .. Hayden Waters
  • Incoming Freshman … Mister Williams

Thoughts … While the outside linebackers corps is thin and inexperienced, the outside linebacker room is the exact opposite. All of the players from last year’s roster return, led by first-team All-Pac-12 performer Nate Landman. Landman has started all 24 games over the past two years and he’s led the Buffs in tackles both seasons.

After posting 123 tackles in 2018, Landman racked up 137 last season – 68 more than anyone else on the team. He finished with 112 solo tackles, which ranks as the second-best single-season total in CU history. Joining Landman on the inside is Akil Jones started six games in the second half of the season last year … after replacing Jon Van Diest, who started the first five. With quality backups on the roster, the inside linebackers should be a strength of the CU defense.

Cornerbacks … 

  • Seniors … None
  • Juniors … Mekhi Blackmon … Chris Miller
  • Sophomores … K.J. Trujillo … Tarik Luckett … Nigel Bethel, Jr. .. Dylan Thomas … Curtis Appleton
  • Red-shirt Freshman … D.J. Oats
  • Incoming Freshmen … Christian Gonzalez … Josh Ortega 

Thoughts … At first glance, it may appear that CU has a lack of experience at the cornerback, with only one returning starter (and a sophomore at that), and no seniors in the lineup. However, while K.J. Trujillo is listed as the only returning starter (more than six starts last season being the qualifier), there are Buffs who have experience at the position. Junior Mehki Blackmon had two starts last season (five in his career), Chris Miller also had two starts last fall (four in his career), while Tarik Luckett earned the first two starts of his career last fall. And all of the above that doesn’t take into account Nigel Bethel, Jr., who sat out last season as a transfer. A prized recruit, Bethel originally signed with Miami, having spurned offers from schools like Florida and Georgia.

Then there is the Karl Dorrell recruitment of cornerback coach Demetrice Martin, who is not only a respected defensive backs coach, but is a renowned recruiter. Buff fans can hope that Martin will do for the secondary roster what Darrin Chiaverini has done for the wide receiver corps.

Safeties … 

  • Senior … Derrion Rakestraw
  • Junior … Isaiah Lewis
  • Sophomores … Mark Perry … Jaylen Striker (TR) … Dustin Johnson … Ryan Travis 
  • Red-shirt Freshman … Anthony Lyle
  • Incoming Freshman … Toren Pittman

Thoughts … If there was a unit which was going to be on par with the quarterbacks for attention this spring, it was going to be the safeties. Senior Darrion Rakestraw, who started the final nine games of the 2019 season, returns. After that … there is not much experience or depth. Junior Isaiah Lewis has participated in 21 games in his CU career, but has never started a game. Mark Perry does have one start to his credit, and Jaylen Striker will bring some game experience from his time at Independence Community College in Kansas, but that is a lot of faith to put into unproven players.

If there are to be any late additions to the roster between now and the start of the 2020 season, this would be a good place for it to be made …

Specialists … 

  • Senior … James Stefanou (K)
  • Junior … Josh Watts (P) (TR)
  • Sophomores … Evan Price (K) … Tyler Francis (K) … James Townsend (LS)
  • Red-Shirt Freshman … Derek Bedell, Jr. (LS)
  • Incoming Freshman … Travis Drosos (LS)

Thoughts … James Stefanou is the incumbent as the senior, but while Stefanou went 7-for-12 in his field goal attempts last fall, Evan Price went 5-for-5 in his opportunities. With a new coaching staff and a clean slate for each player, there may be a position battle at placekicker.

At punter, the issue as to who will be the starter is more clear cut, but perhaps just as worthy at attention. Transfer Josh Watts – transferring in from Australia – is the only punter on the roster. While it would be a fair assumption that the other kickers on the roster will be testing their punting skills this off-season, the Buffs are putting most of their eggs in this Aussie’s basket. Watts is replacing Alex Kinney, who was a four-year starter (actually five-year, since Kinney was injured in the 2018 Nebraska game and missed the rest of the season).

Two other positions in the specialist categories will also need to be replaced. J.T. Bale, a four-year starter as CU’s long-snapper, is off to try and find a place on an NFL roster, while CU’s holder on kicks for the past four years, punter Alex Kinney, will also need to be replaced. The CU coaching staff will have three walk-ons trying to fill Bale’s shoes, while the holder position, often the punter or a backup quarterback, may become the job of a tight end in Boulder. One of the transfer tight ends, Matt Lynch, spent a year as a holder while wearing a UCLA Bruins uniform, and may find the field in 2020 as a specialist.

(Note … Punt and kick returners aren’t usually named until Fall Camp, and CU will have plenty of options there).

Defense … Overall 

Aces and spaces.

Colorado is deep and experienced along the defensive line, and at inside linebacker. There are holes, however, at outside linebacker and safety.

On paper, CU returns seven starters on defense from a year ago … and that’s good.

On paper, CU’s defense improved significantly over the course of the 2019 season … and that’s good.

On paper, CU has some continuity on defense, with defensive coordinator Tyson Summers being one of the four assistant coaches retained by new head coach Karl Dorrell … and that’s good.

But there are still question marks, and there are still several unknowns when it comes to the Colorado defense, 2020 edition. Can the defensive line continue to improve? Can the coaches find a way to hide and cover for the lack of depth and experience at outside linebacker and safety? Can CU’s young cornerbacks mature – and stay healthy?

Some of these questions may have been answered this spring … but now we’ll never know.


2 Replies to “Spring Roster Review – Defense”

  1. Keep up the good work Stuart. Enjoying your podcasts too. However, the Aussies on the roster may take issue with you calling them Kiwis, as that is the nickname for New Zealanders! Good Aussies don’t like being called Kiwis. 🙂

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