Projecting CU’s 2023 Starting Lineup – Defense

The Colorado roster has seen unprecedented an overhaul, but the depth chart for the 2023 season is finally beginning to take shape. The Transfer Portal has closed, so any player who wants to leave their team now will be forced (absent an appeal to the NCAA) to sit out the season. The limit of 85 scholarships is now almost 90% in place, with 77 scholarships for this fall distributed.

The few remaining open scholarships are being watched closely, to be sure. Buff fans are still anxiously awaiting word on an experienced backup quarterback … but, for the most part, the team which will take the field against TCU on September 2nd is in place.

While summer workouts and Fall Camp will play the defining role in which players rise to the top of the depth chart, there are some tentative conclusions which Buff fans can draw.

Below is the first way-too-early projection of the CU depth chart. For comparison’s sake, and to give you some reassurance of the improved status of the Buffs’ starting 11 on offense, I am also listing the depth chart from the 2022 season.

Before we begin … CU’s defensive formations will be multiple, and Coach Prime and defensive coordinator Charles Kelly aren’t tipping their hand as to who will be on the field first against TCU. So, for the sake of comparison, I’m using a 3-4 setup, which is what CU ran most of the 2022 season …

Nose Tackle/Defensive Tackle

2022 season depth chart

  • Jalen Sami (Jr.) … Justin Jackson (Sr.)
  • Na’im Rodman (Jr.) … Tyas Martin (Fr.)

2023 season projected depth chart

  • Shane Cokes (Jr.) … Taijh Alston (Sr.)
  • Leonard Payne, Jr. (Sr.) … Bishop Thomas (R-Fr.)

Thoughts … No other way to state it … CU’s defensive line was porous in 2022. The Buffs were 131st in the nation last fall – dead last – in rushing defense. Third down conversion defense? 131st. Total defense? 130th. That being said, Buff fans were surprised when CU’s two returning defensive tackle starters, Jalen Sami and Na’im Rodman, entered the Transfer Portal. That surprise turned to concern when both of the seniors were picked up by other Power Five schools (Jalen Sami by Michigan State; Na’im Rodman by Washington State).

To the rescue, though, has come a flood of defensive line transfers. Since the Spring game, CU has received commitments from nine – yes, nine! – defensive linemen. How those large bodies will sort themselves between now and the season opener is anyone’s guess. Shane Cokes and Leonard Payne, though, committed to CU back in December. Both participated in spring practices, which makes them the favorites to earn starting positions in the interior of the defensive line. Cokes was a stalwart at Dartmouth, and Payne is a senior who brings years of experience from Fresno State. Will Cokes and Payne ultimately be beaten out for starting positions by the likes of Taijh Alston (from West Virginia) and Bishop Thomas (from Florida State), who have Power Five experience? Will Chance Main, a Buff who was granted an extra year of eligibility, take advantage of his seventh year as a collegian? Stay tuned …

Defensive Ends/Edge Rushers/Outside Linebackers

2022 season depth chart

  • (Defensive End) … Terrance Lang (Sr.) … Devin Grant (Fr.)
  • (Joker Linebacker) … Guy Thomas (Sr.) … Joshka Gustav (Soph.)
  • (Star Linebacker) … Robert Barnes (Sr.) … Isaac Hurtado (Soph.)

2023 season depth chart

  • Derrick McClendon (Jr.) … Jordan Domineck (Sr.)
  • Sav’ell Smalls (Jr.) … Arden Walker (Soph.)

Thoughts … Of all of the damning statistics which can be posted about the 2022 Colorado defense, perhaps the most embarrassing is this one: CU posted nine sacks last season. Not only did that total give CU a dead last, 131st in the nation ranking, but the Buffs were last by a good margin. Every other of the 130 teams which played FBS football in 2022 managed at least 14 sacks. Terrance Lang and Guy Thomas have graduated, but it wasn’t as if there were too many talented players pushing them.

Bold prediction: CU won’t be last in the nation in sacks last season.

Derrick McClendon (considered by 247 Sports to be the No. 4 overall Transfer Portal prospect) started 12 games for Florida State last season, while Jordan Domineck played in 13 games last season for Arkansas, recording 9.5 sacks … more than CU did as a team in 2022.

And don’t lose track of Sav’ell Smalls. Smalls was a five-star prospect when he signed with his home-state Washington Huskies, but he has yet to live up to his high school hype. Perhaps the reason why: Washington returns stars Tuli Letuligasenoa and Faatui Tuitele. Collectively, these grizzled veterans, one a sixth-year senior from Concord, California, and the other a fifth-year junior from Honolulu, Hawaii, have appeared in 73 Husky outings and started 42. I’m looking for Smalls to turn heads in Fall Camp … and then this season.

And you can’t help but cheer for Arden Walker, a Cherry Creek product who has returned home after two seasons at Missouri. Walker is the son of Arthur Walker, who ably manned the CU defensive line from 1986-89. It might be asking too much of Arden to follow in his father’s footsteps, and help lead the Buffs from the abyss to national prominence … but it would be a great story.

Inside Linebackers

2022 season depth chart

  • Josh Chandler-Semedo (Sr.) … Mister Williams (Fr.)
  • Quinn Perry (Sr.)  … Marvin Ham (So.)

2023 season depth chart

  • LaVonta Bentley (Jr.) … Brendan Gant (Sr.)
  • Demouy Kennedy (Jr.) … Marvin Ham (Jr.)

Thoughts … Josh Chandler-Semedo (101) and Quinn Perry (77) were first and third on the team in tackles last fall. Neither senior was drafted, and neither earned an NFL free agent contract (though Perry did earn an invite to a minicamp by the New York Giants). That being said, there were three linebackers from the 2022 team which made the “dirty dozen” list of holdovers – Marvin Ham, Isaac Hurtado, and Eoghan Kerry – with Hurtado earning a jersey number during spring practices.

So, were the backups that much better than the first-teamers? Does the new coaching staff see more in the trio than did the previous coaching staff? Will Ham, Hurtado and Kerry see more playing time than we would otherwise have expected?

I’m guessing no.

I’m going with the four-star recruits coming to CU from other Power Five programs. LaVonta Bentley is a junior out of Clemson; Kennedy is a former five-star recruit out of Alabama; and Gant is a former four-star player who played for Florida State.


2022 season depth chart

  • Nikko Reed (Soph.) … Jason Oliver (Fr.)
  • Kaylin Moore (Soph.) … Nigel Bethel (Jr.)

2023 season depth chart

  • Travis Hunter (Soph.) … Kyndrich Breedlove (Soph.)
  • Cormani McClain (Fr.) … Jahquez Robinson (Soph.)

Thoughts … After CU lost three of four of its starting defensive backs to the Transfer Portal after the 2021 season, Buff fans were braced for some growing pains from the young secondary. Sophomores Nikko Reed and Kaylin Moore did about as well as could have been expected, and would have been on the list of CU players Buff fans would have most liked to see stay on the roster for the 2023 season. It wasn’t meant to be however, though Buffs faith in the talents of the pair was justified as both Moore (Cal) and Reed (Oregon) have landed on Pac-12 rosters.

But if you have to keep losing your starters in the defensive backfield to Power Five teams, it’s nice to have a Hall of Fame cornerback as your new head coach. The cornerback tandem which many expect to see starting this fall represent two of the most prized recruits in CU history. Travis Hunter was not only the most sought-after cornerback in the Recruiting Class of 2022, Hunter was the highest-rated player in the entire Class. Meanwhile, McClain was also the highest-rated of his Recruiting Class … but had to settle for “only” being one of the top 20 prospects in the country.

Hunter and McClain are so decorated, in fact, that the projected “backups” have largely been lost in the shuffle, yet would have been the most celebrated recruits in most CU Recruiting Classes. Kyndrich Breedlove comes to CU by way of Ole Miss, and was a four-star recruit, while Jahquez was a four-star recruit who signed with Alabama. Oh, and you will also see junior Omarion Cooper on the field this fall. Cooper comes to CU by way of Florida State … but he was only a measly three-star recruit out of school (with 19 Power Five offers).

Safe to say, CU has one of the best cornerback units in the Pac-12 … if not the nation.

Safties / Nickel Backs

2022 season depth chart

  • Strong safety … Trevor Woods (Soph.) … Jeremy Mack (Soph.)
  • Free safety … Tyrin Taylor (Soph.) … Anthony Lyle (Sr.)
  • Nickel back … Simeon Harris (Fr.) … Nigel Bethel (Jr.)

2023 season depth chart

  • Strong safety … Trevor Woods (Jr.) … Vito Tisdale (Soph.)
  • Free safety … Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig (Jr.) … Travis Jay (Jr.)
  • Nickel back … Myles Slusher (Jr.) … Carter Stoutmire (Fr.)

Thoughts … Trevor Woods finished second on the team in tackles last season, and would have finished with the most tackles had he not missed the last two games due to injury. The knock against Woods, though, was that he wasn’t fast enough to stay with opponents’ faster receivers. Still, Woods is the only – the only – defensive back to stay on the roster under the new coaching staff. Coach Prime on several occasions has sung the praises of the likely returning starter at strong safety.

“It’s been work”, Woods said after earning his number this spring. “I kind of just put my head down and work now. Even with all the cameras that I even kind of try to avoid all that but I put my head down and work. That’s all it’s been for the past couple months.”

Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig will likely be Woods’ running mate on the back end of the defense. Sil’mon Craig played for Coach Prime at Jackson State, so he has that going for him (which is nice), and also earned his number before the Spring game.

The name not mentioned above, of course, is the Coach Prime’s other son, Shiloh, who played safety at South Carolina before transferring to Jackson State last season. Sanders has graduated from Jackson State, and can transfer to CU for his senior season. It’s hard to imagine Sanders not figuring into the mix at safett this fall, but, as of this writing, he’s not yet a Buff.

More at issue than who will play safety is who will be on the field as CU’s nickel back. Assuming that the Buffs will likely have to five – and often six – defensive backs on the field against many of the offenses they play this fall, the nickel back will be playing most of the downs this fall. My money is on the Arkansas transfer, Myles Slusher. The former four-star recruit saw significant playing time with the Razorbacks, starting 15 games. At 6’0”, 195-pounds, Slusher is a “tweener” in the defensive backfield, but that will just give him the versatility to be on the field for most of the defensive snaps.

So … What might the CU starting lineup look like on defense for the TCU game on September 2nd?

First, let’s look at the starting lineup for the 2022 season (using the players with the most starts at each position last fall):

  • DT – Jalen Sami
  • DT – Na’im Rodman
  • DE – Terrance Lang
  • OLB (Joker) – Guy Thomas
  • OLB (Star) – Robert Barnes
  • ILB – Josh Chandler-Semedo
  • ILB – Quinn Perry
  • CB – Nikko Reed
  • CB – Kaylin Moore
  • SS – Trevor Woods
  • FS – Kaylin Moore

Now, on to 2023 … 

  • DT – Shane Cokes (Jr.)
  • DT – Leonard Payne, Jr. (Sr.)
  • DE/Edge – Derrick McClendon (Jr.)
  • DE/Edge – Sav’ell Smalls (Jr.)
  • ILB – LaVonta Bentley (Jr.)
  • ILB – Demouy Kennedy (Jr.)
  • CB – Travis Hunter (Soph.)
  • CB – Cormani McClain (Fr.)
  • SS – Trevor Woods (Sr.)
  • FS – Cam’Rom Silmon-Craig (Jr.)
  • Nickel – Myles Slusher (Jr.)

Thoughts … I’m kind of liking the fact that, other than all-everything cornerbacks Travis Hunter and Cormani McClain, the remainder of the projected starting lineup is all made up of upperclassmen. We can have plenty of discussions as to what configurations defensive coordinator Charles Kelly will employ this fall, but CU definitely needs

— A run-stopper to plug up the middle of the defensive line;

— Edge rushers to give CU the semblance of a pass rush, after CU fans endured a season with an embarrassing lack of production;

— Inside linebackers who can stop the run, and have enough speed to get to the outside, leading the team in tackles as a result;

— Lock down corners; and

— Safeties who can help with run support, while staying with some of the best receiving corps in the country.

Has the new coaching staff under Coach Prime filled all of the holes? Perhaps not … but CU is much closer than it used to be to having a Power Five worthy defense …


6 Replies to “Projecting CU’s 2023 Starting Lineup – Defense”

  1. Outside of Hunter I wouldnt even begin to predict a two deep. Seems to me there are lots of unknowns here and lots of room for movement. Not being a smartass but I would like to hear more about your “lots of guys.”

  2. We have 4 5 star players projected to be playing on the defense in your line up. I don’t recall ever having that before. The many of the others are 4 stars. Now most of the 4 and 5 stars are coming from programs where they did not succeed. So are we looking at guys like Barnes who were amazing athletes but we could never figure out how to take advantage of his skills? Those who are not 4 and 5 star players are coming from lower division programs where they dominated. I think this is how you succeed in the transfer portal for a whole team make over. Sure there are teams that are getting a few guys from the portal that dominated at the power five level, but there are not a whole lot of guys like that. We have not had this sort of talent in Boulder in a long long time. I think the coaches have a challenge in front of them getting these guys in the right position, making sure they stay motivated and work hard. Frankly, taking the guys from lower division that dominated I think will end up better. My bet is that all of those players will be solid competitors and over half will still be very good at this level. On the 4 and 5 stars and guys from other teams I bet our hit rate will be much less and we get 1/3. But that will be enough because we brought so many guys in.

    1. Those that dominated at a lower division also probably got more playing time then a rated player that went to a ranked P5 team and played behind another rated player.

      1. I agree. The practice and coaching quality might be lower but the playing time in game is going to be worth alot.

  3. McClain won’t be starting, Domineck will, lots of guys in your two deep won’t be in the two deep.

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