CU in ’22: Roster Projections – Defense

The wait is almost over.

The long drought without football that counts – over nine full months for the Buff Nation – will come to an end on Friday, September 2nd, at 8:00 p.m., MT (ESPN) as Colorado hosts TCU.

While there are many unknowns about Karl Dorrell’s third team, much of the lineup is taking shape. Below are my thoughts on which 11 players will take the field at Folsom for the first snaps on defense (projections for the offense were posted on Friday).

These are just my guesses, and I welcome your thoughts and comments …

First, from the outset, we’ll have to agree that listing a starting 11 for the defense is more difficult than listing a starting 11 for the offense. Not so much that CU can’t determine its starters, but because defensive formations can vary so wildly. Colorado is set to play a 4-3 defense this year, a switch from the 3-4 of recent years. But even that doesn’t tell the entire story. The starting lineup on defensive for a given game will often be dictated by the opposition. As often as not, Colorado will have five (and sometimes even six) defensive backs on the field.

That being said, we’ll take a look at CU’s defensive roster listing four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs – yes, that equals 12 – with the idea of looking at which players are most likely to see significant playing time this fall …

Defensive Line

Defensive end

1.) Terrance Lang, Sr.
2.) Chance Main, Sr.
3.) Ryan Williams, R-Fr.

Defensive tackle

1.) Na’im Rodman, Jr.
2.) Justin Jackson, Sr.
3.) Allan Baugh, R-Fr.

Defensive tackle 

1.) Jalen Sami, Jr.
2.) Janaz Jordan, Sr. (dismissed from team on August 24th for violation of team rules)
3.) Tyas Martin, R-Fr.

Defensive end / Edge rusher

1.) Guy Thomas, Sr.
2.) Alvin Williams, So.
3.) Jamar Montgomery, Sr.
4.) Devin Grant, R-Fr.
5.) Zion Magalei, R-Fr.

The first three positions listed above appear to be set. Senior Terrance Lang started 11 games last fall, as did Jalen Sami. Na’im Rodman, meanwhile, started six games in 2021. While Rodman had the fewest starts of the trio last season, he has been on the field for all 30 games of his Colorado career. Jalen Sami has 28 career games under his belt while senior Janaz Jordan has played in 27 games and defensive end Terrance Lang, taking advantage of his extra sixth season this fall, has appeared in 40 games.

All of that experience was one of the reasons the Buffs decided to move to a 4-3 this fall … to keep their most experienced players on the field. “We’ve got a good group of guys up front, a veteran group of guys up front, so that was the best move for us moving forward,” defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said.

While the unit is long on experience, the issue of production remains. That’s where Lang and Guy Thomas (five starts last fall) need to step up. “Negative plays, sacks, TFLs,” Lang said of what he wants out of himself — and the rest of the group. “I mean, tackles are cool, but I want to make game-changing plays this year. Plays that are really going to change the game and give us an edge.

“There was a lot of plays I left on the field.”

Lang had just 1.5 sacks a year ago. Thomas had two — and five total TFLs — but missed the last five games with a foot injury.

That duo will lead what is a talented but fairly inexperienced group. Senior Jamar Montgomery, sophomore Joshka Gustav and freshman Devin Grant have all flashed their ability in limited playing time.

If the line can stay healthy, they could be the focal point of CU’s success.

“I feel like I’ve definitely gotten better”, Rodman said. “And as a team, I think we look like a whole different defense. We’ve just got to keep working, and building and trusting each other, and I think we’re going to be pretty good this year.

“It’s way better than a year ago. With ones and twos, we don’t really have ones and twos. We’re all ones. There’s no drop off between us and the other guys. That’s a good thing.”

Dorrell agrees: “We’re going to use the defensive line rotation like it’s hockey; line changes. They’re going to be fresh throughout the game, so we’re going to be able to attack the quarterback. Twelve sacks in a year (CU had 13 in 2021) is not enough. We’re going to double that number and get much more than that.”


Strongside Linebacker

1.) Robert Barnes, Sr.
2.) Josh Chandler-Semedo, Sr.
3.) Isaac Hurtado, So.

Middle Linebacker

1.) Josh Chandler-Semedo, Sr.
2.) Quinn Perry, Sr.
3.) Mister Williams, R-Fr.

Weakside Linebacker

1.) Eoghan Kerry, Fr.
2.) Marvin Ham, So.

A name that Buff fans are just now becoming familiar with is that of Josh Chandler-Semedo. A transfer from West Virginia, Chandler-Semedo led the Mountaineers in tackles last season.

“It popped on tape really quickly how smart he was, how he played both an inside linebacker position and an outside linebacker position and he did both of them very proficiently,” Dorrell said of recruiting Chandler-Semedo. “And he’s able to do that here. It’s been a seamless transition for him because his football IQ is really, really strong.

“His confidence as a leader … he’s able to kind of feel comfortable doing it because he knows football and I think he’s been a great addition for us.”

Not that senior Quinn Perry is going to cede playing time that easily. “We have so much more depth and talent there than we’ve had,” Dorrell said. “I feel really good about first- and second-team linebackers. I think there’s hardly any drop-off.”

Another transfer, senior Robert Barnes (who came from Oklahoma last season) is also primed to make a significant contribution.

“I think the adjustment (last year) came from safety to linebacker,” Barnes said. “I think it was learning how to play a different position, learning how to play that close to the ball, and just understanding tendencies of what a linebacker is looking for.

“Towards the end of the season, I caught that confidence, and I was able to go play the level of football that I was capable of playing, but it just took slowing down the game and being able to obtain that confidence I had at safety and flying around and making those plays that I knew I was capable of making. It was just, the game was so fast at one point that I had to just slow it down.”

With the scarcity of experience in the defensive backfield, the linebacker corps will have to be stellar.

Defensive backs 

Left cornerback

1.) Nikko Reed, So.
2.) Joshua Wiggins, Fr.
3.) Jason Oliver, Fr.

Right cornerback 

1.) Kaylin Moore, So.
2.) Keyshon Mills, Fr.
3.) Simeon Harris, Fr.

Nickel back

1.) Tyrin Taylor, So.
2.) Nigel Bethel, So.
3.) Jeremy Mack, So.

Free safety

1.) Trevor Woods, So.
2.) Jaylen Striker, Jr.
3.) Jordan Woolverton, R-Fr.

Strong safety

1.) Isaiah Lewis, Sr.
2.) Dylan Dixson, Fr.
3.) Anthony Lyle, Sr.

What might have been …

Three of CU’s four defensive back starters are starting elsewhere this fall. Christian Gonzalez is hearing talk of his NFL prospects as he starts at cornerback for Oregon, cornerback Mehki Blackmon is one of the unheralded pickups for USC, and Mark Perry will be on the field at Folsom on September 2nd – playing safety for TCU.

Instead of being a solid defensive backfield, Colorado has some real issues in the secondary. There is talent there … but untested talent.

The only player with any experience is senior safety Isaiah Lewis, who led the team in tackles last fall. “I’ve always talked about just trusting the journey, sticking to the script, working hard, no matter what the circumstances,” said Lewis. “If I had advice to give to someone it’s just put your head down and work. And at the end of the day, it’s gonna go to who works the hardest. And as one of my coaches out of the Bay Area, Nate Kenion, told me, ‘The cream will rise.”

Nikko Reed had a couple of good games at the end of the 2021 season (including an interception and a kickoff return for a touchdown in the season finale against Utah), but Reed’s brief exposure now counts as experience.

There might be future NFL players among his group at Colorado, but cornerbacks coach Rod Chance’s main task is to simply get a young set of cornerbacks ready to play.

“We’ve got a lot of bodies out there running around; we’ve got a lot of bodies out there competing for playing time, but as we end camp we’re gonna need a little bit more production, a little bit more situational football to kind of see what we truly have,” Chance said.

“We have four true freshmen in the room. I’m gonna earn my money this year for certain, but these guys have a really good growth mindset thus far and I’m excited to work with them, because it’s never too much for them.”

Keep a lookout for Nigel Bethel. The junior to be has experience in the defensive backfield, but suffered a knee injury against Arizona last fall, and is still working his way back onto the practice field.

Overall … The Colorado defense does not look overpowering when it comes to returning starter talent, with only three returning starters with significant numbers: Defensive linemen Terrance Lang (27 career stars) and Jalen Sami (24), along with senior safety Isaiah Lewis (15) are the only Buffs with long histories wearing the black and gold.

That being said, the Buffs are more experienced than they appear. As noted, West Virginia transfer linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo led the Mountaineers in tackles last fall, while fellow transfer linebacker Robert Barnes (from Oklahoma), earned starts for CU at the end of the 2021 season. Similarly, senior linebacker Quinn Perry started the final five games last season at middle linebacker when Nate Landman went down (and has 11 career starts).

And in the defensive backfield, the baby Buffs at least got their feet wet during the 2021 season. Nikko Reed, Nigel Bethel, Tyrin Taylor, Kaylin Moore and Trevor Woods all earned their first career starts last fall.

The Colorado defense was not great last year – 96th in rushing defense; 90th in passing defense; 98th in total defense; and 73rd in scoring defense – but certainly would have been better had the Buff offense been anywhere close to decent.

In fact, had the Buffs not been so decimated in the defensive backfield by transfers, we might be talking about a defense which would rank in the top half of the Pac-12 in 2022.

Until or unless CU can demonstrate that their defensive backfield is up to the task of stopping Power Five offenses … this defense will continue to be considered suspect.


3 Replies to “CU in ’22: Roster Projections – Defense”

  1. 3-4 to 4-3 seems to be just a label…agree w/your depth chart but the ‘rush end’ is the same as our SLB in the year’s past. Still hard to see improvement on paper w/the DB situation….

    1. Freshman Oakie Salave’a is listed on the roster as an “athlete”, and has reportedly been practicing as a defensive back. I haven’t seen anything showing him as a potential contributor this fall, and do he didn’t make my three-deep projections.

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