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Countdown to Spring Practices – Defensive Backs

… Program Note … Colorado’s first of 15 spring practices will be conducted on Monday, March 18, with the spring game scheduled for Saturday, April 27th, at Folsom Field.

In addition to a look at the current roster and questions which Coach Prime & Co. will be looking to address this spring, we’ll take a look at the odds of whether the described unit is likely to add new players – or face attrition – after the spring.

Previously posted:

Up next: Special Teams … Coming Sunday

— Cornerbacks (6) …

Returning starter (bold); walk-on (italics); early-enrollee (EE); summer-arrival (SA):

  • Seniors … Omarion Cooper … Preston Hodge
  • Juniors …  Travis Hunter
  • Sophomores … Cormani McClain … DJ McKinney … Braden Keith
  • Red-shirt freshmen … Adam Hopkins … Isaiah Hodge … Israel Solomon … Nahmier Robinson
  • 2024 Signees … Kole Mathis … Angel Lopez

— Safeties (8) …

Returning starter (bold); walk-on (italics); early-enrollee (EE); summer-arrival (SA):

  • Seniors … Shilo Sanders … Herman Smith … Travis Jay … Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig
  • Juniors … Myles Slusher … Vito Tisdale … Austin Dahlke … Ben Finneseth
  • Sophomores … Carter Stoutmire … Jaden Milliner-Jones … Nathaniel Watson
  • Red-shirt freshmen … Brandon Miller
  • 2024 Signees …

The Stats … 

Finally, an area of strength on the CU roster to talk about, right?


Even with safety starter Trevor Woods moving to linebacker, the Buffs have three starters returning in the defensive backfield. All-world everything Travis Hunter returns, along with the Coach Prime’s son, Shilo, who returns at safety. Throw in seniors Omarion Cooper and Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig in with former five-star recruit Cormani McClain, and you’ve got a shut down back end to the Colorado defense, right?


Well, check out the stats, below.

Even with shut down corners and a wealth of dependable nickel backs and safeties, the Colorado pass defense last season was 124th in the nation, giving up over 275 yards per game. In the other most important metrics for a defense – total defense and scoring defense – the Buffs were also ranked in the Bottom Ten nationally.

Those are 2022 season numbers, folks.

To be sure, the lack of a pass rush and a lack of dependable tacklers at the linebacker position contributed to CU’s woes in the passing game, but there is nothing to take for granted with the Colorado secondary as the new season approaches.

The talent is there, but as is the case with the rest of team, there remains plenty to prove.

Nationally … CU in 2023 … 

  • Passing defense … 276.9 yds/game … 124th nationally
  • Passes intercepted … 10 … 65th nationally
  • Passing efficiency defense … 148.81 … 113th nationally
  • Total defense … 453.3 yds/game … 127th nationally
  • Scoring defense … 34.83 pts/game … 121st nationally

What to watch for …

(Program Note … As you know by now, I am using a 4-2-5 model to break down the unit previews. New defensive coordinator Robert Livingston is an unknown, with no coordinator experience, but he comes to CU from the Cincinnati Bengals, where the 4-3 defense was the norm. With the passing offenses Colorado will face in the Big 12, together with the simple fact that the Buffs have more talented nickel backs than they do linebackers, makes it plausible that CU will be playing  a great deal of 4-2-5 this fall).

Let’s start at corner. Travis Hunter is a legitimate first-round NFL draft pick at both wide receiver and cornerback, and this spring will play on defense as much as he wants/needs to play. His interception reel (the magical athletic picks against TCU and UCLA will be run again and again during ESPN’s draft coverage in April, 2025), but Hunter was also burned on occasion, giving up a highlight reel touchdown himself in the Stanford debacle. With CU ushering in new offensive sets under Pat Shurmur, Hunter will likely – as he did last spring – spend more time with the offense than with the defense, but it’s worth looking for stories this spring about Hunter mastering Robert Livingston’s defensive schemes.

Many eyes this spring will be upon Cormani McClain. As a general rule, Colorado doesn’t sign five-star players, and to have two five-star cornerbacks on the roster at the same time is unprecedented. That said, McClain played in nine games last fall, being brought along slowly. McClain did start the final three games of the season, perhaps an indication that he has earned the trust of Coach Prime. McClain played at 165-pounds last fall, so Buff fans will be anxious to see if the off-season in the weight room has been productive … that that McClain is ready to hold off the challenge for playing time by a host of upper-classmen.

Speaking of upper-classmen …

Preston Hodge didn’t come to Boulder for his final collegiate season to watch games from the sideline. Last season, playing for undefeated (regular season) and Fiesta Bowl-bound Liberty, Hodge saw action in all in 13 games with 48 tackles (32 unassisted), two interceptions, 10 passes defended and one forced fumble. Pro Football Focus gave him a coverage grade of 88.0, which was 22nd-best for all defensive backs in the nation, earning Hodge four-star status in the Transfer Portal.

Another challenger for playing time at corner will come from Oklahoma State transfer DJ McKinney, who played in all 14 games for the Cowboys last season as a red-shirt freshman. McKinney finished the season with 38 tackles and five pass breakups, with a career-high seven tackles against Texas in the Big-12 Championship Game.

The nickel back position will also have plenty of competition, where there will be any number of hybrid talents who will be competing at cornerback and safety … but may end on the field at nickel.

It’s been six months since the opener against TCU, so it may be hard to remember the game-winning fourth down stop in the final minutes was made by Myles Slusher. A starter in the opener, Slusher battled injuries last season, but will be back to try and reclaim his starting role this spring. His replacement last fall? Cam’Ron Silmon Craig, who went on to start ten games, staying on the field for 673 defensive snaps while tying for the team lead with three interceptions.

With Trevor Woods looking to play more at linebacker, starting safety Shilo Sanders will be looking for a new running mate in the back end of the defense. One intriguing option might be Herman Smith, a senior coming to CU from Idaho State … by way of Jackson State.

Which means that the Colorado could well have four former Jackson State stars – Hunter, Sanders, Smith and Silmon-Craig – in its starting defensive backfield.

Burning questions for spring … 

  • The distinctions between CU cornerbacks, nickel backs and safeties are slight, so one of the major questions for the spring will be how the roster shakes out, and whether specific starters are identified by the time the Spring Game rolls around on April 27th;
  • Will the returning backups, including Jaden Milliner-Jones (who could be a sleeper pick to be a starter in 2024), Travis Jay and Vito Tisdale, make names for themselves this spring?;
  • Will any of the red-shirt freshmen: Adam Hopkins; Isaiah Hodge; Israel Solomon; and  Nahmier Robinson find their way into the rotation?;
  • Will Cormani McClain remind everyone why he was the top-rated cornerback in the nation in the Recruiting Class of 2023 … or will questions start to creep in as to whether McClain is ready to become a shut down corner in 2024?;
  • If CU ends up with four former Jackson State starters in its defensive backfield, will it be seen as a strong unit which will play well together … or seen as an indictment of Coach Prime, and his inability to recruit outside of his base?

Addition/Attrition likelihoodMedium … The hedge here is that, just like the wide receiver corps, Coach Prime doesn’t like to turn down talent in the defensive backfield when it becomes available. As a result, if there are any disgruntled four-star defensive backs available, CU will likely take a run at them, even though the roster in the back end seems to be loaded with talent.

That being said, there just isn’t enough roster space for the Buffs to become any more defensive back centric. Which means … if there are any new defensive backs coming in, it is also more than likely there will be a defensive back (or two, or three) who will be asked to take their talents elsewhere.


6 Replies to “Countdown to Spring Practices – Defensive Backs”

  1. Prime was the GOAT at this position. did he leave it up to Kelly to do all the coverage design and calls?
    Certainly the lack of help up front contribute to the performance failure last year.
    I am expecting Livingston to be of help this year as it appears all his numerous years in the NFL was concerning this position.
    Get er dun

  2. Not convinced Prime is a good recruiter and has the staff to do it.
    There were many 5 and 4 stars in the transfer portal that went elsewhere.

    All Jackson state Backfield? Interesting eh?

    Go Buffs.

    Note: 2nd year like the second game is where the most improvement comes? New coaches all over the field. Sheesh

    1. If it was only a matter of good recruiting, Prime would be one at the top with name and charisma alone, but many went elsewhere because of NIL monies. Prime had a great LB committed until more money was offered by the school that got him.

    2. That’s awesome. There are more four and five star kids playing in Boulder now than in probably 30 years, and you’re complaining prime didn’t get em all. After one year.

      He’ll probably have more kids in the nfl by year four than CU’s had in the last 20yrs.

      Live a little. Have some fun. Enjoy the ride.

      Go Buffs




  3. Stu, the general rule is broken. Or at least temporarily rewritten. There are now three five star recruits playing for CU. And more coming.

    Go Buffs

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