Defensive line making strides
Just as Denver Johnson and the offensive coaches are in search of the "best five guys," defensive line coach Romeo Bandison is faced with similar difficulties. "I've got some tough decisions to make," Bandison said. Last spring, the Buffs were looking for any warm body they could find to fill up the defensive line, so you get the feeling that for Bandison, having choices to make this spring is a welcome dilemma.
The Buffs start with a good base of talent. In 2009, the Buffs officially played a 4-3 defense, but started every game with only three down linemen, as pass-happy opponents dominated the schedule. Three players—junior Curtis Cunningham, sophomore Will Pericak, and senior Marquez Herrod—started every game, and all return. Bandison has been pleased with the play of his two tackles, Cunningham and Pericak. Both, Bandison said, have had "solid springs ...They look like old veterans. They're growing up, and starting to get like those last two guys we had (George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas)."
"Yeah, we're striving to be the best players we can," said Cunningham, who is still relatively small (6'1", 280 pounds) for his position. "We're going on pretty much another half season (with spring drills) of playing together, trusting each other, and I think those are good things." Chimed in Pericak, up to 6'4", 285-pounds, 20 pounds heavier than last spring, "It's a process ... we're taking little steps and getting the little things right. Eventually, you want to get to be as good as (Hypolite and Nicolas)—even better." Pericak, who is a converted tight end, still has a tremendous upside. "I feel a ton more comfortable," Pericak said. "I hadn't had a spring with the D-line ... getting the techniques down and the little things right - the footwork, things like that make a difference in the way you play."
The third returning starter is defensive end Marques Herrod. A senior this fall, Herrod led the team in sacks in 2009, with six, along with four other tackles-for-loss. Herrod led the team in quarterback pressures, with ten, and was second on the defense in third down stops, with 11.
So, the Buffs have three starters back. All three started all 12 games of 2009.
Not quite, and this is why Romeo Bandison is happy to have tough decisions to make. Two other players saw action last fall, and will be competing for playing time in 2010. Junior Eugene Goree, at 310 pounds, tests out as one of the strongest players on the team, but has yet to make his mark on the field, participating in only 91 plays in 2009. "At the end of last season, his work ethic probably quadrupled," Bandison said. "It was really good to see ... I'm excited about that. It'll translate, there's no other way it can't, onto the field ... Maybe the lights came on ... He walks around with a smile on his face, he comes in and watches film. He's doing all the things he needs to do to be a good player."
Another name familiar to Buff fans who has yet to live up to his potential is Conrad Obi. A 6'3", 290-pound junior, Obi was in for only 23 snaps in 2009. "He's improving, and as we keep evolving in the defense and tweaking some things, it's starting to suit him more," Bandison said of Obi. "He's still got some things to work on, but he's gotten to the point where I feel like he's going to do the right thing all the time, and we can depend on him."
What should really have Buff fans excited, though, is that, in addition to all of the above returning players, the three highly-rated players from the Class of 2009 are getting ready to have an impact as well. Nick Kasa was the top player in the trio, but saw the least playing time last fall. Kasa tore his MCL during preseason camp on August 17th. After rehab, Kasa made it back to play in four games (47 snaps) before a case of mononucleosis sidelined him for the rest of the season. "I was pretty pissed that I didn't get my year back, I was hoping for that," Kasa said. "They said if I had only played in three games I would have gotten it back, but I played in four (he was in for one snap—the last play of the game—against West Virginia), so I guess I was just unlucky."
Kasa is behind senior Marques Herrod at the defensive end position, but is ready to make the impact Colorado fans hoped for when Kasa spurned Florida to stay at home in Colorado. "I am definitely a lot more comfortable with everything right now," Kasa said. "I have been studying my plays, and know what I need to do so I can just do it as opposed to last year, when I really had to think about it." Bandison sees Kasa contributing this fall. "He really started to show up right before he got hurt ... you could tell he was going to be a good player," Bandison said. "There are a lot of things you can't figure out unless you play ... but he's looking good right now. He'll play a lot and help us."
The other two freshman from the 2009 recruiting class saw more playing time than Kasa, and also look to contribute this fall. Forrest West saw the most playing time, seeing action in all 12 games, recording 10 tackles in 192 snaps of play. Nate Bonsu was in for fewer plays than West, 184, but was more productive, with 15 tackles. Defensive line coach Romeo Bandison was counting on Bonsu to make great strides this off-season, but the sophomore-to-be underwent off-season knee surgery, and is out until fall.
"It's frustrating, not being out there, because you see how much fun they have," Bonsu said. "But this is reality. I just need to keep doing everything I can." For now, Bonsu is optimistic about contributing in 2010. "The rehab, everything, it's on schedule," Bonsu said.
Bandison, a year removed from having to explain how he hoped to fill the shoes of George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas with as-yet-to-find-their-way-to-Boulder freshmen, now has a myriad of options. "All my guys have done pretty well. You could tell after last year, with a lot of young guys playing, you can see they're mature," Bandison said. "We've got good depth and there's not a lot of drop off in (the backup's) play. I've got some tough decisions to make."
Compared to the offensive line, which is also searching for the right mix of players, the defensive line seems to be on a better footing. All three starters return, with able backups ready, willing, and apparently able, to challenge for playing time.
This is what spring practice is supposed to be about. Sorting through the roster, finding the right combinations.
It may just be me, but it sounds as if the defensive line is much further down that road than is the offensive line.
We'll know better come September ...
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