CU at the Game NIL Interview Series: What I Learned – Part III, The Faces behind the Facemasks (Defense)

We are entering the home stretch of the CU at the Game NIL Podcast Interview series. Interview No. 18, with sophomore placekicker Cole Becker, was posted June 5th. On Sunday, I will be posting my interview with wide receiver Daniel Arias.

I have had the opportunity to interview at least one member from every unit on the team, and, if projections hold, I have spoken with at least half of the starting lineup on both sides of the ball for the 2022 season.

It has taken a great deal of time and energy, but, on the whole, I feel the project has been worth it. Once again, my sincere thanks to all of you who contributed to the GoFundMe campaign, which raised $10,000 for 20 $500 interviews in less than three days back in February.

So, what did I learn along the way?

Let’s find out …

I’m calling this “The Faces Behind The Facemasks” because the past few months have really been a series of revelations. I objectively understood that, under the uniforms were actual student-athletes, players trying their best to win for their teammates and their school. Still, when you don’t know the individuals  – and have limited means to get to know them – it’s hard not to look at their net results and not the effort.

Here are some of the stories about the individuals I have picked up along the way, stories which will make it easier to cheer for these players this fall:

 

DL Jalen Sami has not only been through three head coaches in his time at CU, but six position coaches. You have to admire Sami, who was not heavily recruited out of high school in Colorado Springs. Despite being 6’6″, 320-pounds in high school, Sami only had offers from Division II schools until a CU coach came to look at a junior at Sami’s high school, and offered Sami the opportunity to be a grey-shirt. Sitting out a fall, plus a redshirt year, plus a COVID year, Sami still has two years of eligibility remaining despite graduating high school in 2017. I really enjoyed his story about his game-saving tackle on a punt return against Washington, with his extra motivation to beat the Huskies because he had attempted a camp at Washington, but never heard from them again.

Podcast interview with Jalen Sami

DL Terrance Lang, along with linemate Jalen Sami, has been through the gauntlet of head coaches and position coaches in his time at Colorado. Through all the changes, Lang has been a steady presence for the Buffs’ defense. He has played in 40 games, 27 of them as a starter, while racking up 85 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. Last year, Lang led CU’s defensive linemen in snaps played (589), but when asked what he can improve this year, he didn’t hesitate with a one-word answer: “Production.”

Podcast interview with Terrance Lang

LB Robert Barnes was celebrated transfer from Oklahoma last season, and while he played in 11 games, Barnes didn’t really start to show his potential until later in the season, with the Washington game – a 10-tackle, interception and a fumble recovery – the first contest in which he showed the Buff Nation the impact he could have on a game. Barnes gives us a unique perspective on what it was like to be “recruited” by Colorado as a transfer, and a comparison of locker rooms. Despite losing eight games in 2021 as a Buff (after losing eight games in four years as a Sooner), Barnes is nonetheless very optimistic about his new team, and its prospects for the 2022 campaign.

Podcast interview with Robert Barnes

LB Devin Grant may be a name that CU fans are not yet familiar, but they will be soon. Despite seeing playing action in both 2020 and 2021, Grant will open the 2022 season as a red-shirt freshman with four years of eligibility remaining. Grant was very forthcoming in his interview … from his discussion of the recruiting process (he stayed with CU because of the “fake love” he was receiving from other schools) … to his talk about the attitude in the locker room (“we’re tired of losing”). He is also setting his sights high – His goal for the season: a sack a game and All-Pac-12 honors.

Podcast interview with Devin Grant

CB Nikko Reed is a cornerback who is not lacking for confidence. Inserted as a starter late in the season as a true freshman, Reed came up with a game-saving interception against Washington, and had a kickoff return for a touchdown against Utah. Buff fans may be surprised to learn that Reed, an important cog of the defensive backfield with all of the defections, will still be returning kicks in 2022. It was my pleasure to inform Reed that he set a school record with the Utah kickoff return … it was the 12th return of 100 yards in CU history (eighth kickoffs; four interceptions), but the first ever by a Buff outside of the state of Colorado (the previous 11 coming either in Boulder or Denver).

Podcast interview with Nikko Reed

S Isaiah Lewis is a Buff worth knowing. While not one of the best known players, he nonetheless led the team in tackles in 2021, and was a second-team All-Pac-12 preseason selection by Athlon (the only Buff to make either the first or second teams). Lewis was to be one of four returning starters in the secondary, but cornerbacks Christian Gonzalez and Mehki Blackmon, along with safety Mark Perry, have defected, leaving Lewis as the lone returning starter in the defensive backfield. Lewis was very forthright and open in discussing losing three teammates to the Transfer Portal, what the losses mean to the CU defense, and his thoughts on the talented – but inexperienced – replacements.

Podcast interview with Isaiah Lewis

PK Cole Becker gave an interesting interview. Becker was an Iowa State commit until CU’s kicker commit from the Class of 2021, Joshua Bryan, changed his commitment to Notre Dame. Becker talks about his decision to join the Buffs, and what it was like to compete for the starting position against an incumbent, Evan Price, who was also a walk-on. Becker opened the 2021 season with three misses, and was almost benched during the Arizona State game, but a 51-yard field goal was his redemption. Becker went on to connect on three 50-yarders – the most by a Buff since Mason Crosby in 2005 – making 14 of his last 17 attempts. Becker also gives us the lowdown on what kickers and punters talk about during the long practices, when the specialists spend most of their time standing around.

Podcast interview with Cole Becker

Others … 

PF Evan Battey is a fan favorite, and with good reason. The unofficial “mayor of Boulder” talked with me just a few days after the Buffs stunned No. 2 Arizona on Senior Night in the Events Center. Battey is personable, friendly, and wears his emotions on his sleeve. He also bleeds black-and-gold. His story of overcoming a stroke early in his CU career, the standing ovation he received while standing alone at the free throw line during an NIT game, and what it meant to beat Arizona on Senior Night, are must-listen-to stories. While most Buff fans would see Battey as the most NIL friendly student-athlete in Boulder, it actually took some intermediaries to get him to agree to the interview, as Battey believes NIL money is bad for collegiate athletics. While not a football interview, I believe most Buff fans would benefit from hearing what Evan has to say …

Podcast interview with Evan Battey

G KJ Simpson may be the next Evan Battey, at least in terms of popularity with the Buff Nation. Perhaps my favorite interview in the series, Simpson has a personality similar to Evan Battey’s, and his enthusiasm is intoxicating. Simpson is confident without being cocky, and has palpable desire to learn and improve. Simpson led the team in assists last season as a freshman (despite starting only one game), and finished the year averaging 7.4 points and 2.5 rebounds per game. Simpson talks about how highly he regards Tad Boyle and Evan Battey (Simpson actually helped convince Battey to give me his interview), and how he hopes to keep learning and improving. Take a listen to this interview, and you will, like me, get excited about the future of CU basketball with KJ Simpson on the court …

Podcast interview with KJ Simpson

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