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Fall Camp Roster Review – Secondary

Previously Posted …

The Roster … 

bold = returning starter … italicized = walk-on … *= early enrollee (in school for spring practices) … **Transfer

— Cornerbacks (7):

  • Seniors … none
  • Juniors … Mekhi Blackmon 
  • Sophomores … Nigel Bethel, Jr. … Jaylen Striker … Kyle Scofield
  • Red-shirt freshmen …
  • True freshmen … Christian GonzalezTrey Ortega
  • 2021 Signees … Tyrin Taylor* … Nikko Reed … Kaylin Moore

— Safeties (8):

  • Seniors … none
  • Juniors … Isaiah Lewis … Chris Miller … Curtis Appleton … Anthony Lyle
  • Sophomores … Mark Perry … Ray Robinson … Steele Dubar
  • Red-shirt freshmen …
  • True freshmen … Toren Pittman … Austin Dahlke … Matthew Jacobsen
  • 2021 Signees … Trustin Oliver (JC)** … Trevor Woods
  • 2021 Commits … none

The Stats … 

Derrion Rakestraw, who will be suiting up for the Tulane Green Wave this fall, was second on the team in tackles in 2020, with 35 (a distant second to Nate Landman, who had 61 tackles). Among the returning Buffs, Isaiah Lewis was fourth on the team in tackles, with 27, while freshman cornerback Christian Gonzalez was sixth, with 19.

The Buffs had four interceptions in the five-game regular season, one each by linebacker Carson Wells, safety Curtis Appleton, and cornerbacks Nigel Bethel and Mehki Blackmon.

The team leader in passes broken up was Isaiah Lewis, with eight, followed by Carson Wells with five and Mehki Blackmon with four.

… Isaiah Lewis was named as an honorable mention All-Pac-12 performer …

What Others Say About CU’s Defensive Backfield … 

Preseason Media All-Pac-12 All-Conference team … Second team: Mehki Blackmon … Honorable mention: Isaiah Lewis

Athlon … Defensive backs rated 7th in the Pac-12 … Safety Isaiah Lewis had a breakout season; and cornerbacks Mehki Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez formed a solid duo. Defensive backs Chris Miller and Mark Perry are also talented when healthy.

Lindy’s … Third team All-Pac-12: Isaiah Lewis … Potential problems: CU ranked eighth among Pac-12 defenses in points allowed, rushing yards and passing yards allowed, and they forced only eight turnovers.

Phil Steele’s … Last year, the unit lost a pair of starters, but rose much higher than expected in our PDR (Past Defense Rankings) to No. 16, with the unit staying much healthier. They allowed over 300 yards passing three times but just 157 yards per game in the other three. This year they lose No. 3 tackler (Derrion Rakestraw) and backup strong safety K.J. Trujillo. Added to the mix is 6’4″, 220-pound Trustin Oliver. While another Top 25 finish would be unlikely, there is plenty of talent in this group.

CU Nationally … 

  • Third down conversion defense … .318 … 13th in the nation
  • First downs allowed, defense … 128 … 27th in the nation
  • Passes intercepted … 4 … 94th nationally
  • Passing yards allowed … 239.2 yds./game … 71st nationally
  • Scoring defense … 31.67 pts./game … 77th nationally
  • Total defense … 420.3 yds./game … 76th nationally

Comments … from the Daily CameraCornerbacksThis is arguably the most underrated position group for the Buffs this season, because of the fact that there isn’t a ton of experience. If healthy, however, Blackmon and Gonzalez form one of the better cornerback duos in the Pac-12. Blackmon has been solid at nickel in the past but proved last year he can be a very good cornerback, as well. Gonzalez might be the most talented corner at CU since Isaiah Oliver in 2017. Bethel had some good moments in limited playing time last year, and Striker is a big corner with the potential to step in and play well when his number is called. The Buffs also like the trio of freshmen. Of the three, Taylor might be the readiest to play because he enrolled early and got a jump on learning the defense this spring.

Comments … from the Daily CameraSafetiesThis is arguably the most unsettled group on defense, but there is good talent in the room. Lewis went into last year just hoping to get some playing time but wound up as one of the more reliable safeties in the Pac-12. He led CU with eight pass breakups and will be a team leader going into this year. Perry is loaded with potential and excelled in a specialized role in 2019. Still relatively new to safety, Perry hopes to be better this year and should compete for a starting role. If healthy, Miller – who can play cornerback or Star, as well – could be one of the better players on defense. Robinson, a former safety who switched to linebacker, is back at safety and had a good spring, feeling more at home at his natural spot. He provides solid depth. Oliver is a big safety with speed. He needs some time to learn the defense and settle in but has the potential to be a key player on this defense. Appleton has played well in spot time. Pittman and Woods are freshmen who, barring injuries, may not see the field much this year, but have the tools to fill in if needed.

Comments … Brett Maxie has been promoted to defensive pass game coordinator.  Maxie, 59, who will continue in his role as safeties coach, is a veteran secondary coach of 21 combined seasons between the professional and collegiate ranks, which followed 13-year career as a defensive back in the National Football League. Improving a defensive backfield which was 71st in the country in pass defense last year will be his priority.

And there will be plenty of teaching moments. Six of the seven cornerbacks – and five of the eight safeties – are underclassmen.

Cornerbacks … One of the best results of the odd 2020 season was the fact that Christian Gonzalez got to play six games … and will return this fall as a true freshman. Gonzalez was targeted by many of CU’s opponents, but he learned the position, and, like the storied group of CU defensive backs from a few years back – Isaiah Oliver, Tedric Thompson, Chidoe Awuzie, Ahkello Witherspoon – who struggled early but then became great Buffs, Gonzalez seems destined for an NFL career. Mekhi Blackmon also more than held his own for much of the 2020 campaign, and, with CU’s trio of sophomores getting some playing time in 2020, this unit could grow from a liability to a strength.

“For you to be great on defense, you’ve got to be really good in the secondary,” defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. “Guys who can eliminate big plays, make good tackles in the secondary. I think (cornerbacks coach Demetrice) Martin has done a really great job of developing these guys and getting them to play really close. And that’s something that you’ve got to do in college football nowadays.”

Safeties … Yes, it’s kind of hard to understand the Buffs having having three returning starters for two positions … especially when the starter at strong safety, Derrion Rakestraw, has left for Tulane. Well, Mark Perry and Isiah Lewis alternated starts at free safety this past fall, with Lewis earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention for his work – mostly as a nickel back. A question mark here is Chris Miller, who can be an excellent player … when he is in the lineup. Miller only saw action in the UCLA and San Diego State games last fall. If Miller can’t stay on the field, junior college transfer Trustin Oliver (who was originally part of the CU Recruiting Class of 2019) may be asked to step up and contribute.

“(Safeties coach Brett Maxie) does a great job of teaching these guys concepts and how to identify because again, that’s really the quarterback of your defense at the safety area,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be nice to see guys like Mark Perry, as well as Isaiah Lewis and then you start encompassing some of the new newcomers like Trustin Oliver and Chris Miller plays into that role. You’ve got some quality depth. We’ll compete our butt off and see how it shakes out.”

Final word … “We have probably more depth now than we had a year ago where we were just concerned about who are we going to play at corner,” head coach Karl Dorrell said about the cornerbacks after Saturday’s practice. “I think now we have at least a solid three deep on both sides.”

That’s saying a great deal … and should give Buff fans cause for hope.

Christian Gonzalez is a second-year freshman who has star potential.

“He’s a quiet, confident player,” Dorrell said. “You don’t hear much from him vocally, but he’s a guy that’s high on detail, doesn’t like to make mistakes. … Even though he’s a young corner, he’s sharing his knowledge of what he’s learned over the last year.”

At safety, a great deal of CU’s success could hinge upon Chris Miller’s ability to stay on the field.

This will be Miller’s fifth season in the CU program, but he’s played just 12 games because of various injuries. After playing the first four games of 2019, Miller has missed 12 of CU’s last 14 games and was limited to 57 snaps in 2020.

When asked about Miller, defensive coordinator Chris Wilson quickly praised strength and conditioning coach Shannon Turley.

“I really believe that, if you’re gonna say one of the best acquisitions that we’ve had, it’s been Shannon Turley and the buy-in and his ability to keep guys on the field,” Wilson said. “Again, the weight room is more for preventive medicine than anything. So the belief factor (among the players and Miller) is high. We’ve just got to keep going in there every day and finding a way to improve.”

The starters are largely in place. The talent is there.

If CU’s defensive secondary can stay healthy, they can be one of the best units in the Pac-12.

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3 Replies to “Fall Camp Roster Review – Secondary”

  1. CB has me worried the most on D…3 deep on both sides means freshman are going to have to play. And what happens if any of them get hurt?? Don’t want to see any WRs making the switch in season again.

  2. They are so young.

    Hopefully the DC and his DB coaches can do to The MacWac holdovers and the new guys what Jim Leavitt and his staff did with his DB’s in his second year in 2016 Wilson and his staff first year (kinda) but I am wishing and hoping and praying his will will be done.

    Buffs Up.

    Note: Lotta injury history with the old guys. Hopefully that has been fixed.

    Note: Coaching in all phases matters.

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