Fall Camp Preview – Defensive Backfield and Specialists

Fall Camp, like everything else about Year One of the Coach Prime era, will be closely watched and closely scrutinized. The consensus from the outside world is the the CU coaching staff will not be able to forge a team out of 70 newcomers. The long-standing belief is that team unity, especially along the lines, is something developed over time, and continuity in the coaching staff and development of players over time is the tried and true path to success.

Colorado has all but none of that. Every coach is new, and almost every position will have new starters. The majority of the team is still finding its way around the Champions Center, much less the CU campus.

A month of practices is all that stands between Coach Prime and a date with TCU in Ft. Worth. A unit-by-unit look at the position battles which will be waged in CU’s very fluid lineup … begins here …

… Fall Camp Preview Schedule … 

— Cornerbacks (6) …

Returning starter (bold); walk-on (italics):

  • Seniors … none
  • Juniors … Omarion Cooper (TR)
  • Sophomores … Travis Hunter (TR) … Kyndrich Breedlove (TR) … Jahquez Robinson (TR) … Liam McGannon
  • Red-shirt freshmen … Branden Keith
  • 2023 Signees … Cormani McClain … Carter Stoutmire … Nahmier Robinson

— Safeties (8) …

Returning starter (bold); walk-on (italics):

  • Seniors … Rodrick Ward (TR)
  • Juniors … Trevor Woods … Myles Slusher (TR) … Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig (TR) … Shilo Sanders (TR) … Travis Jay (TR) … Trey Ortega
  • Sophomores … Vito Tisdale (TR) … Ben Finneseth … Austin Dahlke
  • Red-shirt freshmen … none
  • 2023 Signees … Jaden Milliner-Jones … Israel Solomon … Brandon Miller 

— Specialists (3) …

Returning starter (bold); walk-on (italics):

  • Seniors … none
  • Juniors … Mark Vassett (P) (TR)
  • Sophomores … Jace Feely (PK) (TR) … Alejandro Mata (PK) (TR) … Christian Palazzo (PK) (TR) … Trent Carrizosa (P) (TR) 
  • Red-shirt freshmen … Noah Hubbard (P) (TR)
  • 2023 Signees … none

The Stats … 

2022 stats for select returning players …

Cornerbacks …

  • Omarion Cooper … at Florida State … Played in 20 games with seven starts, totaling 30 tackles, three interceptions, four pass breakups, and one forced fumble
  • Travis Hunter … at Jackson State … Played in eight games, with 20 tackles, 10 pass breakups and two interceptions, also coming up with one fumble recovery
  • Kyndrich Breedlove … at Mississippi … In two seasons at Mississippi, he played in 10 games, mostly on special teams
  • Jahquez Robinson … at Alabama … Played in seven games, registering two unassisted tackles, one tackle for a loss, and one sack

Safeties …

  • Trevor Woods … at Colorado … 509 plays … 84 tackles (66 unassisted) … one interception … eight third-down stops … five passes broken up
  • Rodrick Ward … at Southern Utah … Played in 28 games, registered 92 tackles, two and a half tackles for a loss, one sack, two fumble recoveries, 12 pass deflections, and five interceptions
  • Myles Slusher … at Arkansas … Played in 23 games over three seasons, starting in 15. Had 93 total tackles, nine tackles for loss, two and a half sacks, one forced fumble, seven pass deflections and two interceptions
  • Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig … at Jackson State … Played in 25 games in two seasons, with 111 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, five interceptions, 11 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries. First-team All-SWAC in 2022
  • Shilo Sanders … at Jackson State … Played in 13 games, with 15 tackles (11 solo), with one interception and three passes broken up
  • Travis Jay … at Florida State … Played in 16 career games with two starts, totaling 33 tackles, four pass deflections, three interceptions, and one forced fumble.
  • Vito Tisdale … At Kentucky … Appeared in 19 career games, with 41 tackles, two for a loss, one pass breakup, and one quarterback hurry.

What to Watch For … 

There was a great deal of discussion this spring about Travis Hunter practicing with the offense. Buff fans, starved for quality starters at any position, openly wondered if Hunter, the No. 1 overall recruit in the nation from the Recruiting Class of 2022, was spreading himself too thin playing wide receiver.

CU head coach Deion Sanders does not share those concerns.

“I played two ways and this kid’s a two-way player and I know how to handle this kid”, Coach Prime said this spring. “I don’t know if anybody else in the country would have started the kid both ways, but we will. I’m only going to do that if he’s ready and he’s in shape with his conditioning and he has a grasp on both playbooks, offensively and defensively. I could only obtain that and understand that because I’ve been there and done that.”

Assuming Hunter will be able to handle playing time on both sides of the ball for a full season this fall (Hunter played in only eight games last season as a freshman due to injuries), and Hunter lives up to his accolades (Hunter was named as CU’s only first-team All-preseason Pac-12 player, both as a defensive back and as an all-purpose/special teams player … while also receiving honorable mention status as a wide receiver. No other Buff – on offense or defense – was named to either the first- or second-teams), CU has a shut down corner on one side of the defense.

On the other side?

Incoming freshman Cormani McClain comes to Boulder as the No. 1 cornerback in the nation from the Recruiting Class of 2023, and the No. 14 overall prospect in the country (247 Sports; No. 18 overall Rivals), but has some work to do in order to be surefire starter come September 2nd.

Through no fault of his own, McClain didn’t arrive on campus in Boulder until early July (he didn’t graduate high school until June), putting him behind on his conditioning. “Cormani’s funny,” CU quarterback Shedeur Sanders said at Pac-12 media. “(Travis Hunter) calls Cormani, ‘Pukey.’ Cormani, he’s getting adjusted to the altitude real well. We have a bet like every day that he’s not gonna throw up.”

Sanders, though, is doing his part because he sees the potential in McClain to be an elite cornerback.

“I expect a lot of things out of Cormani because I’m gonna go at him each and every day in practice when I see him out there,” Sanders said. “He has no choice because I’m gonna keep trying, you know: go at him, go at him, see what he’s good at. He was a five star in high school, which doesn’t mean nothing now that you’re in college, but he’s got a good IQ. He’s got things that other guys don’t have. In his toolbox, he has a lot of things.”

Cormani being good sooner rather than later would be helpful because CU only has six scholarship cornerbacks. Two – McClain and Carter Stoutmire – are true freshmen, and the other three transfers not named Travis Hunter all have limited playing experience (albeit at Power Five conference schools).

That’s a stark contrast to a few months ago. Before the purge after spring ball, CU had 11 scholarship cornerbacks and 10 scholarship safeties on the roster.

While the Buffs may be a bit thin in true cornerbacks, any deficiency should be made up for by the significant number of safeties on the roster – safeties with playing experience.

Shilo Sanders and Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig were both starters at Jackson State last year, while Rodrick Ward was a starter at Southern Utah. Myles Slusher has been a starter at Arkansas, while Jahquez Robinson (Alabama) and Vito Tisdale (Kentucky) were likely to compete for starting roles had they stayed at their previous schools.

On top of that, Trevor Woods returns after being arguably the best player on CU’s defense in 2022.

“Trevor bought into everything that we were trying to accomplish as a team,” said defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, who coaches the safeties. “It was very obvious.

“I think he really improved in what we were asking him to do. He’s a very conscientious young man. He’s one of those guys that asks a lot of questions. He can adjust. He can process the game very well.”

The potential is there for Colorado to have an elite defensive backfield.

The only troublesome word in that sentence is the word “potential”.

“We have a lot of new guys in the secondary,” Kelly said. “I’ve been very impressed with the way they’ve worked.”

It’s a group, however, that has a ways to go to be ready to line up in a game.

“You’re not going to find exactly where you’re at until probably a couple of weeks out before the game because you’ve been through summer conditioning, you’ve been through our player-led practices, the things that the NCAA allows us to do,” Kelly said. “I will tell you this: our players have worked extremely hard. … As far as the secondary is concerned, I think seeing what we’ve done this summer, I believe we can create more depth than we’ve had. Listen, we’re going to play a lot of guys. If there’s people that can play, we’re going to play them. That gives us an advantage. So the more depth we can create, that’s going to help us.”

The kicking game will be manned by new starters.

At punter, the Buffs are set with Louisville transfer Mark Vassett. Last year, he earned All-ACC honorable mention, ranking 18th in the country with an average of 44.63 yards per punt. That’s the best single-season average in Louisville history, and he also has the best career average in Cardinals history at 43.3.

At snapper, Camden Dempsey and Cameron Warchuck are returning Buffs, but the edge might go to Jacob Politte. As a redshirt freshman last year, Politte was the snapper at Jackson State. Gabe Landers will also compete after coming to CU from Miami.

The kicking position, meanwhile, won’t be decided until fall camp, with two transfers vying to replace Cole Becker, who left and signed with Utah.

During his one season at Jackson State, Alejandro Mata earned Coach Prime’s trust by making 12-of-13 field goals and 50-of-51 extra points. Both misses were blocked.

“I think all that trust, obviously he already knows what I can do,” Mata said.

But … Mata’s longest field goal last season was from 36 yards out. Will he be able to make a 45-yarder in the snow to win a game in November?

Mata’s competition is Arizona State transfer Jace Feely. While Feely didn’t get much playing time in Tempe, he too has a prior history with Coach Prime.

Feely’s father, Jay, kicked in the NFL and worked with Coach Prime at the NFL Network.

“It’s kind of full circle and you can kind of see God’s plan in it,” Feely said of coming to CU to play for Coach Prime. “It was like seven years ago, and he sent me a message through my dad doing Thursday night games with him and recruited me to come play high school football for him. He was like, ‘Oh a kicker who plays linebacker? I love it.’”

Projected Starters …

Cornerback … Travis Hunter and Cormani McClain

Nickel back … Myles Slusher

Safeties … Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig and Trevor Woods

Punter … Mark Vassett

Kicker … Alejandro Mata


3 Replies to “Fall Camp Preview – Defensive Backfield”

  1. oh wait
    This was an article about the secondary.
    Looks to me like the safeties are more of a sure thing than the corners. There is definitely some talent at the corner, but aside from Hunter, we dont know how good anyone else will be on the other side.
    How will it develop once the games start? Will Hunter spend most of his time at WR, helping out the coach’s kid? or plugging holes at the corner? Can the Buffs finally get lucky enough for both?

  2. Tough situation with a back up QB. I may have read the same article in the athletic…..after you prompted me to look for it.
    Dont think Moss or anyone with his cred is coming here. Do you transfer from USC just to sit behind someone else? with the Buffs? who wont be playing in the PAC in a year? Moss is from Cal.
    If Moss goes anywhere it will be someplace where he has a much better chance to start.
    For the Buffs to get anyone capable they are going to have to get lucky…..especially with practice beginning in a few days. Keep your fingers crossed with Staub, Hopefully he will develop quickly.
    Dont remember the kids name but the Buffs did have a commitment from a kid with crazy high school passing stats that was pegged to be a corner here…..which in hindsight was a mistake. He decommitted of course and maybe went somewhere else to be a QB. As a corner he probably would have been a good dual threat as a QB.

  3. Great analysis Stuart. There are a things worth mentioning:

    1. Overall, this revamped roster is not only just the bigger, stronger, faster; one thing that sticks out is the depth and experience (# of the games played, no matter the level), that the Buffs have not had in decades. Arguably, only two positions are thin: Backup QB and TE. At TE, I think the Buffs might be fine if Passarello and Fauria are healthy, and the one of other guys Harrison and/or Yelverton step-up if necessary. Also, Antonio gives them a mismatch option in the slot.

    The defense has depth and if someone gets hurt or does not step up, there are other players with a legitimate shot to show what they can do, probably without a drastic drop off. Overall, I think the talent level on the D is just much better; as is the depth.

    2. This team sports 120 players, and some of the preferred walk-ons look to have legit opportunities. Although these players may not project in the 2-deep, some will make the three deep and a few could make some noise. Given the Buffs talent, the Buffs competition on the depth chart will be intense. From a practice squad perspective, they will have a vastly improved practice squad, so the week-of prep practices (where the practice squad imitates the opposing team), should be better.

    3. This roster breeds competition. Many of the players are not only used to playing, but have quite a few have starts under their belt. These guys will not be complacent, as they expect to play a ton. Hopefully, that makes all the practices much more intense. It is not like they have guys just sticking around. Football will be #1 for the entire roster. If a player gets hurt or comes into camp out of shape (from looking at the off-season pictures and videos, these guys look in shape), others will be chomping to take their spot;

    4. Champion Johnson does not appear on the roster. Did something happen there? Perhaps, he needs to complete more coursework to get eligible? I think that he has been doing off-season workouts with the team–do you have any news here;

    5. The offense and defense installs will be a steep learning curve and work-in-progress, however the depth of players can help here. If a certain player(s) were not ready or are absorbing the schemes slower, I think that the Buffs will have some options with a decent replacement on the field and time for those players to be brought up to speed;

    6. I think for the most part, the position coaches seem happy from a perspective of their numbers and what they have to work with; and

    7. I’m eternally holding out hope for a late-QB grad transfer. It has to be for immediate eligibility, unless there were a potential waiver, but who knows how long that process could take? Reading stuff on the USC board, I found an interesting article about Miller Moss… with Caleb Williams coming returning and Malachi Nelson incoming, he might be lost of the depth chart shuffle. I’m hoping another P65 team may have a Grad Transfer that is beat out, and transfers in.

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