Unit-by-Unit Midseason Report Card – Defense and Special Teams

How are the Buffs doing this year?

The offense has been productive, and the defense has had it’s moments. Unfortunately, the moments for the defense have been few and far between, and with less and less frequency as the season has progressed.

Ask any longtime Buff about which seasons were the worst in Colorado history, and the 1980, 2012 and 2022 campaigns will all make the top five, if not the top three:

  • The 1980 team went 1-10, with losses by scores like 56-14, 49-7, and 82-42;
  • The 2012 team went 1-11, with losses by scores like 70-14, 48-0, and 69-14;
  • The 2022 team also went 1-11, with losses by scores like 49-7, 54-7, and 63-21.

Now here’s a stat which will make you wince … Most yards allowed per game in Colorado history:

  • 509.8 – 2022
  • 488.5 – 2012
  • 473.7 – 2023 (through 7 games)
  • 464.4 – 1980

Yup, through the first half of the season, the Colorado defense has not only been bad, it’s been historically bad.

Defensive line – Grade … D

Buff fans knew that the defensive line was going to be a question mark heading into the season. That fear was enhanced when two of last years starters, Jalen Sami and Na’im Rodman, were shown the door last spring.

The first stat you look at when you are grading the defensive line is rushing defense. The Buffs are giving up 157.4 yards per game rushing, 88th in the nation.

Another stat to consider … third down conversions allowed. When your defensive can’t get off the field on third-and-two consistently, drives which should be three-and-outs turn into sustained touchdown drives. This fall, the Buffs are allowing teams to convert on third down 45% of the time, which is 109th in the country. On fourth downs, the conversion rate is even higher, with CU allowing opponents to convert 53% of the time.

Jordan Domineck has been effective at times, with a team-leading 7.5 tackles for loss and a team-leading three sacks, but Domineck hasn’t been getting much help. Shane Cokes has started each game, but has only 14 tackles in seven games, with no sacks or tackles for loss. Leonard Payne, Amari McNeil and Taijh Alston have all received starts as defensive tackles coach Sal Sunseri searches for an effective combination.

Upgrading the “dawgs” along the defensive line will be a priority for Coach Prime and his coaching staff this off-season. Until then, however, the defensive line will continue to be a work in progress … and a liability for the Buff defense.

Edge Rushers / Linebackers … Grade: D+

Another unit … more negative stats.

The Colorado defense has allowed 177 first downs in seven games. That’s 126th in the nation, tied with perennial power UMass.

But wait, it’s even worse than that. The NCAA is tracking stats for 130 FBS teams this fall, and the Buffs are fifth from the bottom … except … all of the teams ranked below Colorado have already played eight games (heading into this weekend). If all of those teams took the next two weekends off, and CU only allowed 11 first downs to UCLA next Saturday … Colorado would still be last in first downs allowed.

The Buffs are an acceptable 50th in the nation in sacks, averaging 2.43 sacks per game, but are 79th in tackles for loss, posting 5.6 per contest.

LaVonta Bentley (31 tackles, four tackles for loss), Juwann Mitchell (31 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss despite missing the Stanford game), and Marvin Ham (29 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack) have all been … adequate, but none have distinguished themselves. CU’s two leading tacklers are its safeties, Shilo Sanders and Trevor Woods, and that is not the recipe for success for a defense.

Colorado is 121st in scoring defense, giving up 35.86 points per game, and 129th in total defense, surrendering 473.7 yards per game.

These numbers are not all on the linebackers and edge rushers, but an effective defense must have the ability to keep opposing offenses – both in the rushing game and the short passing game – in check.

And the Buffs have been largely ineffective in these categories.

Defensive backs … Grade: C- 

The Buff secondary is the class of the Colorado defense. All-everything Travis Hunter, four- and five-star talent at every position.

So this grade is as much about a failure to live up to expectations as anything else.

Colorado was supposed to have two shut down five-star cornerbacks, with Hunter and Cormani McClain making it possible for the CU coaching staff to devise schemes which would hide some of the flaws in the lineup.

Instead, Hunter has missed three of CU’s seven games, and McClain is just now finding his way onto the field of play. True freshman Carter Stoutmire stepped up early, but has been injured, playing in only four games. Omarion Cooper, the transfer from Florida State, has been the most consistent cornerback, and is third on the team in tackles.

As noted, safeties Shilo Sanders and Trevor Woods lead the team in tackles, but both have missed action due to injuries.

The unit, like the Buffs, got off to a hot start. In CU’s 3-0 start, the Buff secondary had six interceptions.

In the four games since, only two, and none in the past two games.

The unit has been exposed at times (crossing patterns v. CSU; slants v. Stanford), with the defensive backfield being consistently beaten by teams which have found weaknesses, and continued to exploit them.

There were many aspects of the Colorado defense which were suspect heading into the 2023 season, but you could have gotten good odds betting that the Buff defense would be 128th in the nation in passing yards allowed.

The CU roster has plenty of talent in the secondary. If the Buffs are going to win any games in the tough stretch of games to finish the season, that talent will have to show up.

Defense – Overall Grade … D+

88th in rushing defense … 128th in passing defense … 129th in total defense … 121st in scoring defense.

With those numbers, it’s amazing that Colorado is 4-3 on the season.

The Buff defense made plays in the first month of the season, creating turnovers to mask its deficiencies. In the past few games, though, the turnovers have dried up, and the gaps in the lineup have been exposed.

Coach Prime and the coaching staff has had an extra week to try and find schemes and personnel groupings to allow the Buff defense to be competitive in the second half of the season.

Perhaps … with Travis Hunter back at full speed, and with other defensive players getting a week to get healthy, the Buffs can improve. If, on the other hand, if the Colorado defense continues to put up numbers comparable to some of the worst teams in Colorado history …

It could be a long second half to the 2023 season.


3 Replies to “Midseason Report Card – Defense”

  1. When all the stats are there in one place it’s not a pretty picture. Most concerning to me is the D has regressed through the season, more lapses, more disarray, penalties. The last 2 games arguably the bottom Pac12 QBs have looked like all-Americans.

      1. I believe Kelly will be back next year. IMO, you need to give any DC at least 2 years to install their defense, have mostly experienced guys playing in it and see what it does. If they are not much improved 1/2 way through next year, probably gone after 2 years. I think most of his assistants are safe this year unless Prime + Kelly + AD demand a change. Sul Sanseri (sp?) is the interior Dline coach, who could get replaced, but sort of doubtful since he came with Kelly from Alabama and very experienced. Nick Williams the DE/Edge coach should be safe as although he is a younger coach, he is great recruiter. He came from Texas aTm so look out if Jimbo is fired and a bunch of the team hits the transfer portal. Hart, the LB coach came with Prime from Jackson, so is probably safe. Also, Mathis (CB/DB’s) is also safe given he came with Prime from Jackson and had real success there.

        Warren Sapp is rumored to be coming here, but would probably be an intern or analyst given his lack of coaching experience; however who knows where Kelly/Prime might want to have him–it might be as a full fledged assistant working directly with the players/recruiting or a grad assistant depending on how much/if they can recruit.

        I’m not sure how the roles of assistant v. grad assistant v. analyst v. consultant all work regarding actual coaching time, duties and recruiting. If a Grad Assistant can both be on the recruiting trail and with the players in practice? If so, Warren Sapp may go there.

        CU still has to be careful in making wholesale coaching changes. If they get better, they will suffer attrition with guys departing to move up–this can sometimes be good. However, if CU fires assistants after one season, although CU is in high demand now, in the asst. coaching community they could be viewed as less stable. You saw this after the short tenures of Embo, Smell, and KD. Hawklove was sort of dead man walking during his last 2 seasons so he could hardly get a decent assistant to come here. Also, if CU lost Lewis, you would not want to hire two new coordinators during the same season unless you have to.

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