Colorado Buffaloes: 2010 First Look: Secondary

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Colorado Buffaloes: 2010 First Look: Secondary
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2010 Secondary – Returning Players / Recruits

After the humbling 54-38 loss to Toledo, the Colorado secondary, purported to be the strength of the 2009 Colorado defense, was in shambles. Rocket quarterback Aaron Opelt looked like a Heisman contender, completing 60 and 70 yard passes on Toledo’s first two possessions.

On the night, Opelt needed to complete only 15 passes to rack up 319 passing yards – over 20 yards per completion. Oh yeah, and there was that one “scramble” on the first play of the fourth quarter. With the Buffs down 37-24, but trying to mount a comeback, the not so fleet-of-foot Opelt outran the entire Colorado secondary for 61 yards and a game-clinching touchdown.

Toledo turned out to be the nadir of the 2009 season for the Buffs’ defensive backfield. Comparatively, the Colorado secondary improved over the course of the year. In the second half of the 2009 campaign, no team passed for more than 250 yards. When all was said and done, four Colorado defensive backs received some form of post-season honors - cornerbacks Cha’pelle Brown and Jimmy Smith were named second-team All-Big 12 by several services, with safety Benjamin Burney and cornerback Jimmy Smith earning honorable mention honors.

In 2008, the Colorado secondary could brag about being the best in the Big 12. The honor was dubious, though, as the Buffs were ranked 72nd nationally in the pass-happy Big 12 conference. In 2009, Colorado slipped to fourth in the conference, but moved up to 34th nationally, giving up an average of just over 200 yards per game. From game two to game 12, the defensive secondary at Colorado made significant strides.

In 2010, the Buffs will lose several strong components from their 2009 defensive backfield. Senior cornerback Cha’pelle Brown started every game last fall, usually at nickel back. Brown had 36 starts in his career, and in a role usually reserved for a linebacker, Brown led the team in tackles in 2009. 

Brown led the team with 96 total tackles on the year, three better than linebacker Jeff Smart . Overall, Brown finished 26th all-time on the Colorado tackles list (257), 14th in solo tackles (183) and 11th in pass deflections (25). At the end of season awards banquet, Brown was selected by his teammates as the Buffaloes’ 2009 Most Valuable Player.

Another defensive back the Buffs will miss next fall is safety Benjamin Burney . Returning from a series of injuries and multiple surgeries, Burney started all but one game at strong safety in 2009. He finished fourth on the team in tackles last season, with 73, and returned one of his two interceptions on the season for a touchdown. Burney’s 78-yard “pick six” against Missouri was the only defensive touchdown for the Buffs all season.

One defensive back who might have left Boulder, but decided to stay, was cornerback Jimmy Smith . The junior did look into applying for the NFL draft in April before deciding remain in Boulder for his senior season. “We’re proud of his accomplishments and look forward to his growth as a player and as a person,” said Dan Hawkins in December. “We firmly believe he will be one of the best cornerbacks in the country next year.” In 2009, Smith was fifth on the team in tackles, had two interceptions, and according to Colorado coaches, allowed only eight completions in man coverage all season.

Aside from Jimmy Smith, who will be back for the Buffs in 2010?

There will be only one senior defensive back for Colorado next fall other than Jimmy Smith , and that will be fellow cornerback Jalil Brown. The "other Brown" had 66 tackles in 2009, good enough for sixth on the team. He also had two interceptions, and led the team with 15 passes broken up. The only other Buff in double figures in that category was Jimmy Smith, who had ten PBU’s.

Colorado will have no fewer than four defensive backs who were on the two-deep roster in 2009 who will play as juniors next fall. The back returning who has logged the most playing time is free safety Anthony Perkins, who has 13 career starts to his credit, nine of those coming in 2009. Perkins was third on the team in tackles in 2009 (yes, for the Colorado defense in 2009, defensive backs posted five of the top six highest numbers in tackles). Helping to fill the shoes of Benjamin Burney at safety will be Patrick Mahnke and Travis Sandersfeld . The other returning junior is cornerback Arthur Jaffee , who, along with Sandersfeld, has so far logged most of his playing time on special teams.

The only other defensive back listed on the final two-deep roster is safety Ray Polk . The sophomore-to-be moved over from running back last spring, and played in ten games last season. In for roughly one-third of the plays on defense last year, Polk posted 40 tackles. Joining Polk in spring practice, 2010, hoping to garner the attention of the Colorado defensive staff will be:

At cornerback, junior Jonathan Hawkins and red-shirt freshmen Paul Vigo and Deji Olatoye and at safety, red-shirt sophomore Vince Ewing and red-shirt freshman Parker Orms .

What do the Buffs have coming in from the recruiting class of 2010?

With only two players lost from the 2009 class, defensive back has not been a high priority for Colorado this recruiting cycle.

Another contributing factor to the lack of defensive back commitments? Colorado lost its defensive backs coach.

Recall that Greg Brown, the Buffs’ secondary coach and defensive passing game coordinator, left Colorado for Arizona. He has not officially been replaced. While the “search” has been going on since Brown’s announcement on Dec. 12, the official word is that “shuffling assignments amongst the current staff” is also a possibility.

Ashley Ambrose , who was supposed to take over as the wide receivers coach in 2010 after serving two years as a defensive intern, is the likely choice to coach the defensive backs if no outside hire is made.

It’s hard to recruit a defensive back when there is instability in the coaching staff at their position.

Still, one defensive back has said “yes” to signing on with Colorado on Feb 3. Cornerback prospect Jared Bell , from Ontario, CA, is 6′0″, 179 pounds, and runs a reported 4.45 in the 40. Bell is considered a three-star prospect, the 34th-best cornerback in the nation, according to Rivals.com.

Ironically enough, Bell had an in-home visit with Greg Brown the day before Brown’s announcement that he was leaving Colorado. “At first I was super worried, but then I found out a little bit about Coach Ambrose,” Bell told BuffStampede.com, “and how he played in the league for 13 years and even played under coach Brown. I know Coach Ambrose knows what he is talking about, so it won’t be a problem at all.”

Bell had five interceptions, and posted roughly 50 tackles, in helping his high school team to a 10-2 record. He had interest from several Pac-10 teams, including UCLA, Washington, and Oregon, but his only known other offer came from Colorado State.

Any signing day surprises out there?

There are a number of other defensive backs which Colorado has made offers, but they appear to be either headed to other schools, or are not considered highly by the recruiting services.

At cornerback, the highest rated player still on the board is Keanon Lowe from Portland, Oregon. Lowe is considered a four-star prospect, but is listed as “soft verbal” to Washington, with an official visit to Oregon this weekend. Colorado is apparently not on Lowe’s radar at this time.

The only other cornerback with a known offer who has not given a verbal commitment elsewhere is Nelson Gammage , from Compton, CA. Gammage, who had his official visit to Colorado back in October, is either a three-star prospect, the 68th-best cornerback in the country (Rivals), or a one-star no-name (Scout).

There are two possible reasons for the discrepancy. First, Gammage played quarterback last season for Centennial high leading them to their first league title in some time. Second, Gammage is only 5′10″, 185-pounds, in an era when schools are looking for taller cornerbacks. “I would like to believe that football does not have a size requirement,” said Gammage’s head coach, Eric Scott, who has coached several players in high school who went on to play in the NFL. “(Gammage) is 5′ 10″, but if he was 6′1″, he would have been gone a long time ago.” For now, Gammage only holds offers from Colorado and Idaho, though Utah has shown interest.

Meanwhile, at the safety position, there are several players out there who have expressed an interest in Colorado, but do not yet have offers from the Buffs. One safety who has Colorado on his list is Tre Sayles , from Compton, CA, who is considered a three-star prospect, but only has offers from Air Force and UTEP.

Another safety who had an interest in playing in Boulder was A.J. Powell , one of a quartet of players from Covina, CA, who made official visits to Colorado in December. Powell said at the time that if Colorado offered, he would accept.

Apparently, however, the Buffs never did, so on Jan. 18, Powell committed to play for Portland State. The final known safety who is considering Colorado, but has yet to garner an offer, is Brett Thomas , from Poway, CA. Also considered a three-star prospect, Thomas holds offers from Indiana and San Diego State, but not from Colorado.

Colorado will miss Cha’pelle Brown’s talent, and Benjamin Burney’s toughness and determination. The Buffs, though, are far from devoid at quality or quantity in the defensive backfield. From 2008 to 2009, Colorado moved from 72nd in the nation in pass defense to 34th. Continued improvement will rely upon the talents of Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown at cornerback, along with Anthony Perkins at safety. Those three returning starters will be assisted by a number of talented, and now experienced, defensive backs.

How these players will gel without long-time defensive backs coach Greg Brown remains to be seen.

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