Fall Camp Preview – Defensive Front Seven

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 … 

A disclaimer/explanation from the outset. Colorado, like most schools, will be running multiple defenses this fall. There will be times when CU is in a 4-3, sometimes in a 3-4, and other times, in dime packages, there will be more defensive backs on the field than defensive linemen and linebackers. What’s more, the traditional position of defensive end has, at many schools, morphed into a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position, further blurring the line between defensive line and linebacker. So, for the sake of simplicity, I am putting the defensive front seven in one grouping, and the defensive backs in another …

— Defensive Tackles (8) …

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

  • Seniors … Taijh Alston(TR) … Leonard Payne Jr.(TR) … Chance Main
  • Juniors … Shane Cokes (TR) … Chazz Wallace (TR)
  • Sophomores … Amari McNeill (TR) … JJ Hawkins (TR)
  • Red-shirt freshmen … Bishop Thomas (TR)
  • 2023 Signees … Jacob Woida

— Edge Rushers (8) …

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

  • Seniors … Jordan Domineck (TR)
  • Juniors … Derrick McLendon (TR) … Deeve Harris (TR) … Sav’ell Smalls (TR) … Khairi Manns (TR) … Joshka Gustav
  • Sophomores … Arden Walker (TR)
  • Red-shirt freshmen … none
  • 2023 Signees … Taje McCoy … Tristan Marois (TR)

— Linebackers (8) …

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

  • Seniors … Brendan Gant (TR)
  • Juniors … LaVonta Bentley (TR) … Jeremiah Brown (TR) … Demouy Kennedy (TR) … Marvin Ham
  • Sophomores … Thomas Notarainni … Caiden Robertson
  • Red-shirt freshmen … none
  • 2023 Signees … Victory Johnson … Morgan Pearson … Kofi Taylor-Barrocks

The Stats … 

2022 stats for select returning players …

  • Marvin Ham … at Colorado … 195 plays … 13 tackles (7 unassisted) … four third down stops
  • LaVonte Bentley … at Clemson … Played in 40 games with two starts, totaling 73 tackles, 11.5 for loss, five-and-a-half sacks, two pass breakups, and two forced fumbles in 417 defensive snaps … Played in all 13 games in 2022 registering 21 tackles, three for a loss including one sack in 163 defensive snaps
  • Demouy Kennedy … at Alabama … one assisted tackle
  • Taijh Alston … at West Virginia … Played in 28 total games with 56 total tackles, 15 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and four forced fumbles
  • Leonard Payne, Jr. … at Fresno State … Played at Fresno State for five seasons, seeing action in three, 28 total games with nine starts … Had 35 tackles, 10.5 for a loss with 5.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and one safety
  • Shane Cokes … at Dartmouth … Started all 10 games in 2022 registering 53 total tackles, eight and a half for a loss, four and a half sacks, a pass deflection, and a forced fumble … Played in 22 games starting 20
  • Jordan Domineck … at Arkansas … Played five seasons, most recently at Arkansas (four previous seasons at Georgia Tech … in 2022, had 34 tackles; 19 unassisted, with 7.5 sacks
  • Jeremiah Brown … at Jackson State … In two seasons at Jackson State, Brown played in 20 games and recorded 53 tackles, 11 for a loss with seven sacks, four quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, a blocked kick and fumble recovery.

What to Watch For … 

If you skimmed through the 2022 stats sheet for the CU defense, you would not come away impressed. The Colorado defense last season was not only bad, it was historically bad. The Buffs were not only (far and away) the worst Power Five defense in the nation, they were arguably the worst defense in the country, and one of the worst defenses the University of Colorado has ever sent out onto the playing field.

There were 131 FBS teams last season, (Sam Houston and Jacksonville State will make it 133 this fall) and Colorado finished dead last – 131st – in rushing defense and scoring defense, and were second-to-last in total defense. These are not random, inconsequential statistics … those are baseline numbers for any defense, and CU posted numbers worse than 130 other schools.

One more sorry stat must be singled out: The Buff defense generated a grand total of nine sacks last season … while every other team in the country posted at least 14.

Before the spring purge, Buff fans thought that at least two starters from last season’s line, Jalen Sami and Na’im Rodman (who between them had a combined total of 54 career starts), would return, but, when the dust settled, the complete rebuild of the CU front seven will prove to be exactly that.

A complete rebuild.

With a lack of Power Five experience along the defensive line, and with the atrocious numbers put up by the Buff defense last season, you would think that experienced and savvy defensive line coaches would have been a priority for Coach Prime.

And Coach Prime found one … at least for a short time. From LSU came Patrick Hill to coach the defensive tackles. Hill’s other coaching stops included James Madison, West Virginia State, Eastern Michigan, Central Oklahoma, Upper Iowa and Birmingham Southern, among others. Hill was the last position coach Coach Prime hired … and the first to leave, being hired away by the Minnesota Vikings.

Sal Sunseri, a special assistant to Nick Saban at Alabama, was hired as CU’s new defensive tackles coach … on the eve of spring practices.

The new defensive ends coach is Nick Williams. Compared to other coaches on the assistant coach list, Williams is still in the early stages of his collegiate coaching career. In fact, this appointment as defensive line coach is his first as a position coach regardless of level. A former defensive lineman at Georgia and North Alabama with brief stints in the Canadian and Arena Football Leagues, Williams spent the last two seasons as a defensive analyst at Texas A&M.

Williams is a great recruiter, and was certainly brought onto the staff to assist at that level, but it remains to be seen how well he will do with CU’s defensive line.

So … the Buffs are starting fresh along the defensive front … and with coaches new to their positions.

The linebackers, meanwhile, will be coached by Andre Hart, who was an assistant under Coach Prime at Jackson State.

So … Who will start?

Best guess … It has to be the older guys, right?

At defensive tackle … Shane Cokes was a second-team All-Ivy League selection at Dartmouth, starting all 10 games with 53 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. Cokes could be one of the Buffs’ most important players on either side of the ball this season.

Leonard Payne possesses a 6-foot-3, 310-pound frame and could be called upon to be the primary run stuffer on the line. Payne arrives in Boulder as a grad transfer from Fresno State.

At edge rusher … The potential is here for CU to have some quality players, but, as Fall Camp opens, potential is a double-edged sword. Jordan Domineck is coming off a 7.5 sack season for Arkansas and has flashed NFL ability on the edge. The Lakeland, Florida, native is listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds and should be able to be a factor not only rushing the passer but defending the run as well. Derrick McClendon, who played at Florida State, is another big edge rusher (6’4″, 245-pounds), who should help CU’s woeful sack stats. The wild card? Washington transfer Sav’ell Smalls. Smalls was a five-star recruit a few years ago, but has been stuck behind NFL talent along the Huskie defensive line. If Smalls lives up to his potential, he could be a fan favorite by season’s end.

At inside linebacker … Demouy Kennedy and LaVonta Bentley seem to be the clear choices to start at linebacker this season. Bentley enters as a grad transfer who saw a significant amount of playing time at Clemson and Kennedy was a highly touted recruit who suffered a season-ending injury last year while at Alabama. Bentley projects to be a more traditional linebacker who should run the defense and make the calls at the MIKE (middle linebacker) position. Kennedy’s premier trait is his speed and once fully healthy, he should be collecting tackles at the WILL (weakside linebacker) position.

There is a whole lot of “new” to the Colorado front seven. Granted, with the mess Coach Prime and his staff inherited on defense, almost anything new will be better than what CU fielded last season.

But just being better won’t be good enough to win games. Moving from 131st to 100th in defensive statistics would be a quantum leap forward … but it wouldn’t be enough to give the Buffs a fighting chance at victories.

Last season, Colorado was only down to TCU, 7-6, at halftime in the opener. After the break, the Horned Frogs decided to play football and just ran the ball up the middle, daring the Buffs to stop them. The Buffs didn’t, with TCU racing to a 38-13 win … creating a template for every other CU 2022 opponent.

If Colorado is to be competitive in 2023, it has to start with the front seven of the defense.

We’ll find out soon enough if the wholesale changes will be enough.

… Projected starters …

… Defensive tackle … Shane Cokes Leonard Payne 

… Edge … Jordan DomineckSav’ell Smalls

… Inside linebacker … Demouy Kennedy and LaVonta Bentley


2 Replies to “Fall Camp Preview – Defensive Front Seven”

  1. Ya know this is pretty exciting speculation.

    Go Buffs. Camp in like two weeks. Sheesh. Time is flying.

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