Mind The Gap – Defense

Previously posted … “Mind the Gap – Offense” …

If you have ever traveled by the Underground in London, or taken a train anywhere in England, you have seen the sign, “Mind the Gap” – a basic warning to travelers to watch out for the space between the platform and train.

I’ve always liked the “Mind the Gap” reminder, a little more polite admonishment than a “Keep back” or “Stand back” warning you see in the United States, and a fond memory for those who have had the pleasure of traveling in the United Kingdom.

For CU fans, “Mind the Gap” for the next eight months will mean keeping an eye out for the spaces in the roster between what we would like to see on the field this fall … and what is actually on the current roster.

There will be much fanfare with each new transfer commitment this spring. There will be also much hand-wringing about the potential loss of players from the roster when the second Transfer Portal window opens (April 15th-30th).

The truth of the matter, though, is that there will not be wholesale changes in the locker room this spring. It will not be the turnstile the Buff Nation witnessed during the first season of Coach Prime.

Yes, some players will leave, and others will be brought in. But the reality is that most of the 85-man roster which will run out behind Ralphie on August 31st against North Dakota State is already in place. Likely 80-90 percent of this year’s team is already in the weight room in the Champions Center, getting ready for their first season in the Big 12.

As a result, while there will be plenty of time to sift through the roster and try and discern starting lineups over the course of spring practices and Fall Camp, we already have a pretty good idea of what the coaching staff will have to work with … and where the gaps are which still need to be filled (if possible), this off-season.

Below is a unit-by-unit look at the current roster, and a summation as to whether the unit is already “Power Four” conference caliber, or whether it is still of “Group of Five” quality.

The 2022 Colorado roster, candidly, didn’t have a single unit which was good enough to compete in the Pac-12.

The 2023 roster was a marked improvement, but still had noticeable gaps in quality.

What about the 2024 roster?

Let’s find out …

*Note … The delineation of year in school below for each player has no basis in reality. This year, and for the next several years, being a “senior” in school has nothing to do with being a “senior” in terms of eligibility. There are seventh-year seniors out there, and “juniors” who are graduate transfers. So, for the purposes of dividing the roster below, the term “senior” should be read as: “one year of eligibility remaining”.*

Defensive Line: 

  • Seniors: Chazz Wallace; Shane Cokes; Sav’ell Smalls; Chidozie Nwankwo; Taurean Carter
  • Juniors: Amari McNeill; JJ Hawkins; Anquin Barnes
  • Sophomores: Bishop Thomas
  • Redshirt Freshmen: none
  • True Freshmen: Brandon Davis-Swain; Eric Brantley; Omar White

On paper, Colorado has 12 scholarship defensive linemen, which is good. On closer inspection, though, the unit is not as deep as it needs to be. There are three true freshmen in the group, and Omar White’s legal (and commitment) status remains up in the air. Brandon Davis-Swain is a four-star recruit, but, as is the case with offensive lineman, you don’t usually expect true freshmen to see the field unless they are physical freaks of nature (see: Seaton, Jordan).

Meanwhile, Bishop Thomas spent most of last season under suspension, and Sav’ell Smalls saw action on only a handful of plays last season, with two assisted tackles to his credit.

Which leaves the CU coaching staff realistically going to war in the Big 12 with seven defensive tackles – not 12 – with three of the seven being transfers.

Power Four or Group of Five? … The Colorado offensive line bore the brunt of the blame for Buffs’ struggles in the second half of the 2023 season, but the defensive line did its share to keep CU out of the win column. The Buffs were 107th in rushing defense last fall, 122nd in third down percentage defense, and 81st in tackles for loss. The unit has been upgraded overall since November, but remains a Group of Five unit in terms of overall talent.

Additions between now and August 1st? … Yes, if at all possible, but Buff fans may have to wait until April for the second Transfer Portal window to open to find a quality prospect. A good example of what’s out there currently is CU’s latest addition to the defensive line, Taurean Carter, who comes to Boulder by way of Arkansas. Carter was rated as the No. 585 overall prospect in the Transfer Portal this off-season by 247 Sports (No. 748 by Rivals). A welcome addition, to be sure, but not a “can’t miss” prospect … and Carter only has one year of eligibility.

Edge Rushers:

  • Seniors: Deeve Harris; Khairi Manns; Jeremiah Brown
  • Juniors: Arden Walker; Keaten Wade
  • Sophomores: Quency Wiggins; Samuel Okunlola; Nikhil Webb-Walker
  • Redshirt Freshmen: Taje McCoy
  • True Freshmen: none

This group screams of potential, but still unlocked potential. Quency Wiggins (from LSU) is a former five-star recruit; Samuel Okunlola (from Pitt) is a former four-star recruit; Keaten Wade (from Kentucky) is a former four-star recruit. While all had some measure of success at their previous stops, none are lockds to be All Big 12 performers this fall.

Arden Walker returns, but he only started two games last season; Khairi Manns had all of nine tackles and one sack. Jeremiah Brown had one start, and 11 tackles on the season.

The distinction between defensive linemen, edge rushers, and outside linebackers has become blurred over the years, so some of the above names could be considered defensive linemen or linebackers, but you get the idea.

There has been a step up in talent, but this unit remains a question mark.

Power Four or Group of Five? … Bringing in talented players from other Power Four schools certainly bolsters the overall prospects for the group, but, as is often the case with the CU roster in January, the unproven aspect of the room leaves this as a Group of Five unit.

Additions between now and August 1st? … Likely, but again, it has to be the right fit. Nikhil Webb-Walker was added this week. Webb-Walker played for New Mexico State last season, and was lightly regarded (and unrated by the recruiting services) out of high school. As a transfer, though, Webb-Walker did attract some notice, as he had a half dozen or so Power Five offers before choosing to become a Buff. A good sign of his potential, but “diamonds in the rough” are what’s out there right now, so it’s hard to say how many scholarships the CU coaching staff will want to take on flyers at this point.


  • Seniors: LaVonta Bentley; Demouy Kennedy; Brendan Gant
  • Juniors: none
  • Sophomores: none
  • Redshirt Freshmen: Victory Johnson; Morgan Pearson; Kofi Taylor-Barrocks
  • True Freshmen: none

Unless you want to count Nikhil Webb-Walker as a new addition to this group, the Buffs will head into spring with the same players they ended the season with. LaVonta Bentley was second on the team in tackles, with 68 (40 unassisted), was second on the team in tackles for loss (11.0) and tied for the team lead in sacks (5.0). Demouy Kennedy and Brendan Gant, though, were only part-time players, and the other three returning players were true freshman last season.

With the great defensive backfield CU will have this fall, it may fall to some of the safeties (like Trevor Woods did at the end of the last season) to play linebacker. It’s a band-aid solution, but with a full off-season to identify and correct the issue, it shouldn’t be the first option.

Power Four or Group of Five? … A Group of Five lineup at this point. It was last season, and will continue to be one until further notice.

Additions between now and August 1st? … The loss of DJ Lundy, who committed to Colorado on Christmas Day, only to recommit to Florida State two weeks later, hurts. Lundy is the type of linebacker the Buffs need, and the type of linebacker the coaching staff will continue to seek. If the Colorado defense is going to improve this fall, this unit needs to improve … and this unit needs an infusion of new talent.


  • Seniors: Omarion Cooper; Preston Hodge
  • Juniors: Travis Hunter
  • Sophomores: Cormani McClain; Carter Stoutmire; DJ McKinney
  • Redshirt Freshmen: Isaiah Hardge
  • True Freshmen: none

This unit has the opportunity to be one of the best cornerback groupings in the Big 12, if not the nation. Travis Hunter will be a preseason first-team All Big 12 selection, and will make some All-American teams. Cormani McClain, the second five-star recruit in the room, didn’t get onto the field right away, and suffered some growing pains. If McClain watches his film, and learns from his coaches (and his mentor, Hunter), CU has the two shut down corners Buff fans have been waiting for.

If McClain isn’t yet ready for Prime Time, Preston Hodge, a highly-sought after transfer from Liberty, is there to step in. Carter Stoutmire started last season when McClain wasn’t ready to go, and Omarion Cooper had plenty of time on the field over the course of the season, finishing seventh on the team in tackles, with 37, finishing tied for the team lead (with Travis Hunter) in passes broken up (with five).

Power Four or Group of Five? … A Power Four grouping for certain, and, if Cormani McClain can live up to his billing, one of the best groupings in the Big 12.

Additions between now and August 1st? … As is the case with wide receivers, Coach Prime loves skill position players on defense. If a high-profile cornerback in the Portal this spring decides that he wants to be coached by a Hall-of-Famer at the position, CU will certainly take him. That being the case, barring injury this unit is set for the fall.


  • Seniors: Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig; Shilo Sanders; Trevor Woods; Travis Jay
  • Juniors: Myles Slusher; Vito Tisdale
  • Sophomores: Jaden Milliner-Jones
  • Redshirt Freshmen: none
  • True Freshmen: none

Raise your hand if you – like me – thought Shilo Sanders or Trevor Woods (or both) were seniors in 2023. As it turns out, both of the starters from last year’s lineup will return, and will be a force. Sanders is a big hitter (sometimes too big), while Woods is able to often be at right place at the right time (witness his game-winning interception in the end zone in overtime against Colorado State). Oh, and Cameron Silmon-Craig tied with Travis Hunter for the most interceptions on team (with three), while Myles Slusher is a great contributor when healthy (Slusher had the game-winning tackle on fourth down against TCU).

Put another way … if the Colorado front seven on defense can even be good this fall, the defensive backfield will be great.

Power Four or Group of Five? … Power Four talent, with the ability to be one of the best in the Big 12. The depth is not all that it might be, and the unit is top heavy with seniors, but that’s a concern for the 2025 season. For 2024, Buff fans can enjoy having a secondary which is as good as any in the league.

Additions between now and August 1st? … Perhaps, but if there are new transfers, they may be for depth and for the future. Any transfer with only one year of eligibility remaining would probably look at CU’s starting lineup … and look elsewhere for playing time. An underclassman, though, who is looking to learn this year and take over next year, Boulder could be good option.


  • Seniors: Mark Vassett (P)
  • Juniors: Alejandro Mata (PK); Jace Feely (PK)
  • Sophomores: none
  • Redshirt Freshmen: none
  • True Freshmen: none

Mark Vassett, a Vanderbilt transfer, more than held up his end in 2023. Vassett averaged 44.5 yards/punt (CU opponents: 43.6), with 14 fair catches (9 for opponents); 22 punts inside the 2o (13), and 16 punts going for over 50 yards (7).

Alejandro Mata took over the place-kicking duties early in the campaign (including the game-winner against Arizona State), hitting 10-of-12 attempts on the season.

Kickoffs, though, for CU was an adventure. Five times over the course of the season, Buff kickers kicked the ball out of bounds (v. none by opposing kickers). Out of 60 kickoffs, only 25 went for touchbacks … while 53 of 71 opponents kickoffs went for touchbacks.

Hopefully, Jace Feely – or someone else – will use this off-season to learn how to consistently kick the ball threw the endzone (or at least learn to keep the ball inbounds). If that happens, the Buffs are set at the kicking positions.

The returners won’t be named until Fall Camp, but CU will not be lacking for quality candidates. The top candidate for lead punt returner may be recent transfer LaJohntay Wester. Last season at Florida Atlantic, Wester was named a first-team All-American at punt returner by the Football Writers Association of America.

The defense as a whole … 

Power Four or Group of Five? … Colorado is taking steps to remedy holes in the front seven on defense, but the jury is out as to whether that mission has been accomplished. Coach Prime made a point of pointing to the lines as the biggest need for the off-season. The offensive line received a considerable infusion of talent, while the defensive line hasn’t been as lucky in its new crop of defenders.

Even with some elite talent on the roster, Colorado was 127th in the nation in total defense in 2023, surrendering up 453.3 yards per game, and 121st in scoring defense, giving up 34.83 points per game. Those are not Power Four numbers … they are not even quality Group of Five numbers.

An improved defense is likely, but it’s a considerable leap to see this team improving enough to be considered a Power Four quality defense in 2024.

Additions between now and August 1st? … Most definitely. A few four-star defensive linemen and linebackers would be most welcome, but are unlikely to find their way to Boulder this spring. The CU coaching staff may pick up a plum transfer or two, but there may well be a number of fingers-crossed, “tremendous upside”, “under the radar”, “diamond in the rough” defenders taken over the next six months.

The Buffs are certainly in position to move out of triple digits in defensive statistics for the first time in years, but this is far from a dominant lineup, so more players are going to be brought in before fall.



Guess what London Tube: I will not mind the GAP | by Reem Shraydeh | Medium



3 Replies to “Mind The Gap – Defense”

  1. Not hard to “find the gaps” in re underclassmen in the depth charts
    Upgrade LB position with a couple of plugs on DL still important
    Coaching changes may provide a couple of palyers in spring
    Long live Kyle Rappold

  2. The recent infusion and upgrading of talent resulted in an improvement for sure, while simultaneously exposing the breadth of the overall condition of this team and magnitude of the rebuilding process. Imho, right there with the Embry years, and…gasp…the pre McCartney dark ages of Chuck Fairbanks and the light blue jerseys.

  3. Mind the gap of young (freshman- sophomore) vs older (junior-senior). Flipped from a couple of years ago when it was opposite. Not always , but older rosters tend to be more competitive.

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