2010 Preview – Defense/Special Teams

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2010 Preview – Defense/Special Teams

2010 Colorado Preview – Defense

Defensive Line

Personnel: Senior Marquez Herrod; junior Curtis Cunningham; junior Josh Hartigan; junior Tony Poremba; junior Conrad Obi; junior Eugene Goree; sophomore Will Pericak; sophomore Nick Kasa; sophomore Forrest West; and sophomore Nate Bonsu.

New in 2010: Freshmen Kirk Poston; Chidera Uzo-Diribe; and Dakota Poole.

Losses from 2009: Two seniors from the defensive line were lost, Taj Kaynor and Tyler Sale. Of the two, only Kaynor saw playing time on the defensive line, playing in 38 plays over five games, registering three tackles on the season.

Strengths: Looking for depth and experience? Look no further than the Colorado defensive line. While the Colorado depth chart shows four positions, the reality is that, with the offenses run by the opponents’ defenses, the Buffs started every game last season with three defensive linemen and a nickel back. Those three starters, however - senior defensive end Marquez Herrod; junior defensive tackle Curtis Cunningham; and sophomore nose tackle Will Pericak -  each started all 12 games in 2009. Still, out of 804 plays run by the opposition, none of the three starters were in for over 600 of those plays, so other players were in the rotation, and there will be more playing time for the backups this fall. “This is where you want to be – having a lot of competition,” said Colorado defensive line coach Romeo Bandison. “You like to have depth with very little drop-off when you rotate. That’s what we’re starting to get to.”

Will reduced playing time be a problem for the starters? “I’m happy this year because it’s the first time I think we actually have a rotation – and I’m totally okay with that,” said Marquez Herrod. “Guys can come in, swap out and rotate every few plays; it keeps everyone fresh and playing hard at their best.” There are plenty of names familiar to Buff fans waiting in the wings to break out and post some great stats, including the sophomore trio of Nate Bonsu, Forrest West, and Nick Kasa.

Many eyes thsi fall will be on Kasa, a highly ranked recruit who spurned Florida to stay and play at Colorado. Kasa suffered a knee injury during camp last fall, his freshman year, and then developed mononucleosis during the season, ending up with only 47 snaps over four games. “During the season there’s not as much individual work; it’s more assignment stuff,” said Bandison. “(Kasa) missed a whole lot of ‘reps’ “. But now Kasa is ready to go. “I think he’s going to make his biggest improvements in the games,” said Bandison. “You’ve got to get in the games and fail once in awhile to figure it out.”

Weaknesses: As with many units on the Colorado football team, the quality of the personnel is not matching up with the quality of the results. In 2009, despite having the same starting lineup in place all season, the Buffs were 80th in rushing defense, giving up 161.2 yards/game, and 88th in scoring defense, surrendering 28.8 points/game. Colorado did get to the opposing quarterback 27 times, good enough 41st in the nation in sacks, but Bandison and his players know the total could have been – should have been – much higher. “We can’t pass up opportunities, which I think we did sometimes last year – especially in the pass,” said Bandison. “We had opportunities to get to the quarterback. We need to be in a position to make plays … we’ve just got to play like vets and not make rookie mistakes.”

Marquez Herrod, who led the team with six sacks last season, knows last year’s total should have been higher – “We actually counted eight or nine,” said Herrod. “One was a facemask call … Two others got taken off for guys getting off-sides … I literally had the sacks and lost them.” Now Herrod is ready to become only the second Buff to record double digits in sacks in the past 18 seasons (11 1/2 by Abraham Wright in 2006). “I think I have a very good shot at being that guy,” said Herrod. “I really take pride in pass rushing. I’m just going to go out there and do my thing, but I definitely think I have the skills and now the experience to go out there and put up the good numbers.”

Colorado can go 8-4 if … Colorado is in the top half in the nation and in the Big 12 in rushing defense and scoring defense. This shouldn’t be asking too much. The Buffs already have a good pass defense, and have plenty of talent in the defensive backfield to continue that trend. Another season ranked 9th in the conference in rushing defense and 11th in scoring defense is simply unacceptable. (It also wouldn’t hurt if Marquez Herrod and Nick Kasa spent the season vying to see which player will become the first to register ten sacks this fall).

Colorado will go 4-8 if … It’s the “same ‘ol; same ‘ol” for the defensive line. Three starters return, but from a unit which struggled for much of last season. The Buffs are deep in each position along the defensive line, yet are still not dominating games. The added depth – sophomore Nick Kasa, as mentioned, is finally able to participate as a healthy member of the team; junior Conrad Obi, who was in on only 35 plays as an underclassman, has been getting rave reviews this fall, as has true freshman Chidera Uzo-Diribe – this all bolsters hope for the unit.

Now they just need to produce.

Linebackers

Personnel: Senior B.J. Beatty; senior Michael Sipili; junior Tyler Ahles; junior Patrick Mahnke; junior David Goldberg; sophomore Douglas Rippy; sophomore Jon Major; red-shirt freshman Derrick Webb; and red-shirt freshman Liloa Nobriga.

New in 2010: junior college transfer Evan Harrington; freshman Gage Greer; and freshman Lowell Williams.

Losses from 2009: Starters Jeff Smart and Marcus Burton were lost to graduation, along with contributors Shaun Mohler, Bryan Stengel, and Brandon Gouin.

Strengths: Depth & Depth. Two deep depth. “My two deep – I can play any of them with first group, and that’s where I want to go,” said linebackers coach Brian Cabral. “I want to play anybody I need when I want them. I feel like I’ve got enough experience and depth to do that. I’m not so hung up on who’s starting and who’s second team as I am this: just give me four guys I can play a game with. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do or say that. But I’m feeling very confident I’ll be able to do that.”

Nice to hear, especially since two of Cabral’s three starters from last year’s team, including 33-game starter and captain Jeff Smart, have graduated.

When the depth chart was released, there was one surprise, as junior Tyler Ahles was listed ahead of senior B.J. Beatty. Last season, Beatty started ten games; Ahles two. But, if Cabral’s statements above are to be given credence, it will be difficult for Buff fans to notice the difference. “I’ve got a lot of competition going on,” said Cabral. “I would suspect that the first eight can change, but that’s the flexibility I have.”

The returning Buffs credit Mike Sipili for taking over the leadership of the corps. “He’s a leader to all the ‘backers – a fifth-year guy. He’s been here the longest,” said red-shirt freshman Derrick Webb. ‘You can watch Mike and learn a lot, plus he’s probably one of our hardest working linebackers … he’s inspired me to work harder.”

Weaknesses: Colorado likes to think of itself of a Western version of Penn State, a regular “Linebacker U”. The list of All-Conference linebackers over the past twenty years - Alfred Williams; Kanavis McGhee; Greg Biekert; Ron Woolfork; Chad Brown; Ted Johnson; Matt Russell; Jashon Sykes; and Jordon Dizon – is an impressive one. But … from this list, only Dizon has been All-Conference in the past decade. That’s a long drought for Brian Cabral and the Buffs. The current team has some potential All-Conference players, but were named to any of the preseason All-Big 12 teams. The Buffs will have to rely upon the two-deep to be collectively better than the opposition, as there is no one player the Buffs can look to do dominate a game.

Colorado can go 8-4 if … Colorado’s defense is in the top half of the conference in the major statistical categories. In 2009, the Buffs ranked in the top half of the conference in pass defense, largely thanks to a strong defensive backfield. When it came to rushing defense, total defense, and scoring defense, however, the Buffs were in the bottom half of the Big 12. The linebacker corps does not boast stars, but does have quality depth. Unfortunately for Colorado and Brian Cabral, the NCAA will not allow Colorado to play eight “good” linebackers at the same time. Three or four will have to step up their games and deny opposing offenses consistent success.

Colorado will go 4-8 if … The Buffs’ rotation does not produce. The defensive line is getting better; the defensive secondary is one of the Big 12’s best. For Colorado to post a winning record in 2010, the linebackers have to come through. Eight All-Conference linebackers in the 1990’s; one in the 2000’s. That number has to improve in the 2010’s … and a good start this year wouldn’t hurt.

Defensive Backs

Personnel: Senior Jimmy Smith; senior Jalil Brown; junior Anthony Perkins; senior Cameron Ham; junior Arthur Jaffee; junior Travis Sandersfeld; junior Jonathan Hawkins; junior Matt Meyer; sophomore Ray Polk; sophomore Vince Ewing; red-shirt freshman Deji Olatoye; red-shirt freshman Paul Vigo; and red-shirt freshman Parker Orms.

New in 2010: Red-shirt freshman Terdema Ussery (a 2009 wide receiver recruit); freshman Jered Bell; freshman Terrel Smith;  freshman Josh Moten.

Losses from 2009: Senior starters Cha’pelle Brown at cornerback/nickel back and safety Ben Burney.

Strengths: Ask almost any defensive coordinator in the country what they would like first when setting up their defense - After a “monster defensive end”, many coordinators would point to having two “shut down corners” as a foundation upon which to build a defense. Well, the Buffs may still be working on producing that monster defensive end, but they do have the two shut down corners in seniors Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown. Both are receiving pre-season accolades, with Smith being named to the watch list for the Thorpe Award, presented to the nation’s top defensive back. “You can’t take away the ability they have,” said defensive backs coach Ashley Ambrose. “Now, the one thing that I want them both to do is be better technicians, be comfortable with what we’re doing, and understand what offenses are going to do try and do against them.”

With Smith and Brown ably manning the corners, a little of the pressure will be taken off the remainder of the defensive backfield. Junior Anthony Perkins and sophomore Ray Polk are atop the depth chart at safety, with red-shirt freshman Parker Orms filling the shoes of departed Cha’pelle Brown at nickel back. Last season, Brown was the Buffs’ defensive MVP, so Orms has a significant role to play in the Colorado defense. “Parker has that same ability (as Brown), and he’s only a freshman,” said Ambrose. “Throughout the spring he made plays and reminded you of Cha’pelle. It’s hard to find a guy who’ll come in and do the things he did – he led the team in interceptions, forced fumbles, everything. I think when the lights are on, he’s going to show up.”

Weaknesses: There is great talent at the corners, and speed everywhere, but … zero depth. Parker Orms will likely be out on the field for the first play of the season, and he is a freshman. Backing up cornerback Jimmy Smith? Red-shirt freshman Paul Vigo. Backing up cornerback Jalil Brown? True freshman Jered Bell. Backing up strong safety Anthony Perkins? Red-shirt freshman Deji Olatoye. Backing up free safety Ray Polk? Red-shirt freshman Parker Orms (if he isn’t already busy in his role as a nickel back).

Detect a trend here? Three senior starters in the defensive backfield, then … no experience. Coach Ashley Ambrose is not deterred. “I am liking the enthusiasm. They are running around, playing, competing against each other,” said Ambrose. “They are focused and they are confident and feeling like they can really win a lot of ballgames … We are faster, we’re stronger, and it is amazing just over those couple of years the difference that has been made.”

Colorado can go 8-4 if … Parker Orms can live up to his billing, and Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown are high on Mel Kiper’s draft board. The Colorado defense has question marks along the defensive line and at linebacker, with stars in the making in both units, but no proven stars there yet. The Buffs will need to keep opposing defenses honest – 15 plays last year went for over 40 yards; a mind-boggling 53 plays going for over 20 yards – if Colorado is going to be successful. If Smith and Brown can shut down the opposition’s leading receivers, and force teams to be one-dimensional, Colorado can stay in most of its games this fall.

Colorado will go 4-8 if … One or more of the three returning starters go down. There is good talent in the freshman class … Ashley Ambrose on Terrel Smith: “He is a playmaker. He is a ball hawk. He is a downhill guy. He is all about hitting. I think he’ll be somewhere in the rotation.” … Jered Bell on being a cornerback: “I’m learning everything I can from Jalil (Brown) and Jimmy (Smith),” said Bell. “You have to learn pretty much everything that happens on the field, and not just your position. That’s a big change from high school”, but good talent won’t protect the Buffs from freshmen mistakes.

A starting lineup this fall which includes red-shirt freshman Orms, along with one or more of the true freshmen, could spell disaster for the Colorado defense.

Kickers/Punters

Personnel: Senior Aric Goodman; senior Joe Silipo (snapper); junior walk-on Marcus Kirkwood; and red-shirt freshman Zach Grossnickle.

New in 2010: Freshman Justin Castor; freshman Ryan Iverson; freshman Dillan Freiberg

Losses from 2009: Senior Matt DiLallo was the Buffs’ main punter for the past four seasons. As a freshman, DiLallo made freshman All-American teams. His numbers declined each season, however, and, in 2009, his 37.8 yards/punt averaged ranked 11th the Big 12. Perhaps even more significant was the loss of Justin Drescher, who for the past four seasons has served as both long and short snapper for the Buffs.

Strengths: … hmm … Let’s go with experience. Senior Aric Goodman does have that going for him. Still, it is hard to ignore Goodman’s 15-for-32 record on field goal attempts (the last two seasons, Colorado opponents have connected on 37-of-48 field goal attempts). In 2009, Goodman was 10-for-18, connecting on a 54-yarder in the opener against Colorado State, but then going 2-for-9 the remainder of the season from outside 40 yards. The Buffs also at least have some competition for Goodman this season, as true freshman Justin Castor has looked impressive in fall camp, and Kirkwood, checking in at 6′6″, 220 pounds, might be utilized for kickoffs this fall.

Weaknesses: It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Mason Crosby was a Buff, and the Colorado offense knew it was in scoring position as soon as it crossed the mid-field stripe. Now, consciously or unconsciously, the Colorado offense is under more pressure to score touchdowns, as Goodman has been erractic from all distances. For a team which was 92nd in the nation in scoring in 2009, added pressure is never welcome. Yet, Goodman, who has been good in practice but inconsistent in games, may still be the best option for the Buffs, until or unless Justin Castor is given his chance to show he can execute under game conditions.

As for red-shirt freshman Zach Grossnickle, the Buffs’ new punter is a complete unknown. A highly recruited kicker out of Denver East high, his signing late in the 2009 recruiting class cycle (Grossnickle had originally committed to Kansas) was greeted with high hopes. Grossnickle missed only one field goal attempt his senior year in high school – and that was from 58 yards out. Still, Grossnickle has been groomed to be exclusively a punter, and Buff fans will see this fall if the experiment has worked out, as there is only freshman walk-on Dillan Freiberg on the roster as a backup.

It is also worthy of noting that the Buffs will be breaking in two new snappers this fall. Justin Drescher ably manned both roles for the past four seasons, and was not a name well known to Colorado fans because he did do his job so well. This fall, senior Joe Silipo will be taking over as short snapper on field goals, while freshman Ryan Iverson will handle the long-snapping duties. Rest assured, these players are hoping to remain just as anonymous as Drescher was for his four years.

Colorado can go 8-4 if … Either Aric Goodman has a career year (a big “if”), or if true freshman Justin Castor proves to be the second coming of Mason Crosby. Castor did go three-for-three, including a 52-yarder, in the one fall scrimmage open to the public, so there is hope that Castor will be the kicker of the future. For the Buffs to have a winning record, however, Colorado needs to have Goodman or Castor to be the reliable kickers of the present. As for the punting chores, Zach Grossnickle does not have to be spectacular for the Buffs to be successful (though that certainly wouldn’t hurt). Still, for a school renowned for producing great punters, it is ridiculous for the Buffs to be ranked 113th in the nation in net punting.

Colorado will go 4-8 if … there is no improvement in the kicking game. For Colorado to be competitive, defense and special teams must keep the games close against the better teams on the schedule. Failing to score points when opportunities present themselves, or failing to pin the opposition deep in their own territory with a decent punt, wears down an average team over the course of the game. If Buff fans are still turning away during field goal attempts because they can’t bear to watch, and are holding their breath every time the punting unit takes the field, it will be a long season.

Kick/Punt Returners

Personnel: Senior Jalil Brown; junior Brian Lockridge; junior Arthur Jaffee

New in 2010: Senior Travon Patterson; junior Toney Clemons

Losses from 2009: Darrell Scott, despite playing in only five games in 2009, still led the team in kickoff returns with a 26.9 yards/return average. His 21 returns were second only to the 30 kicks returned by Brian Lockridge. On the punt return team, Jason Espinoza (22 returns), Scotty McKnight (seven), and Rodney Stewart (one) all return, but none are listed on the depth chart this fall.

Strengths: Speed is the operative word this fall with respect to Colorado’s kick return teams. Former USC wide receiver Travon Patterson had, as one of his main attributes when he was being courted by Colorado this summer, his ability to step right in as a punt and kick returner for Colorado. Toney Clemons, who has a size advantage (at 6′2″, 210 pounds), will serve as a nice compliment to Patterson on punt returns. On kickoff returns, the Buffs ranked 21st nationally (thanks in part to Darrell Scott’s numbers), with Brian Lockridge returning to show that his 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Oklahoma State last fall was no fluke. Colorado was also, it is worth noting, was 27th in the nation in kickoff return defense, an admirable position considering some of the other kicking numbers posted in 2009.

Weaknesses: The Colorado punt return team in 2009 was … (insert appropriate vile term here) … let’s go with “awful”. The Buffs ranked 117th out of 120 teams in punt returns in 2009, posting a microscopic 3.3 yards per return average. It got to the point late in the season that it appeared Colorado had given up on attempting a punt return. It seemed as if the hope was that, if Scotty McKnight was able to field the ball cleanly, and not lose yardage on the return, it was considered to be a positive result. While the infusionn of speed, by way of the additions of Patterson and Clemons, will certainly help, there also needs to be a change in attitude amongst all of the members of the punt return team. Jason Espinoza, who had 22 of Colorado’s 30 punt returns in 2009, is not without speed or agility, so there is also the reality that the punt return team personnel was not creating opportunities for big returns. That simply must improve.

Colorado can go 8-4 if … Travon Patterson and/or Toney Clemons and/or Brian Lockridge is in the top half of the conference in punt and kickoff returns. The Buffs were 5th in the conference in kickoff returns in 2009, so the main focus will be on punt returns. A change in field position is mandatory for an offense which struggled last year (104th in total offense; 92nd in scoring offense), so a short field on occasion would be very welcome.

Colorado will go 4-8 if … the punt return team continues to struggle. Another season with a 3.3 yards/return average would be devastating for a Colorado team looking to improve its field postion, score more points, and, ultimately, win more games.

Simply put - and this can equally be applied to the every unit on the Colorado defense and special teams – there cannot be a weak link on this team if a winning record is to be realized. Having a great secondary makes no difference if the opposing quarterback is not pressured. Decent linebacker talent won’t win games if the tackles are all being made five yards past the line of scrimmage. Long drives by the offense won’t win games if the field goal kicker cannot turn the drives into points. Hard work by the defense will be wasted if the opposition is playing on a short field all game long.

A 3-9 team cannot turn into an 8-4 team unless many breaks go their way. Through fall camp, one break has gone Colorado’s way - few long term injuries (only sophomore wide receiver Dustin Ebner and sophomore safety Vince Ewing have suffered injuries which will keep them out for an extended period of time).

A few more breaks wouldn’t hurt.

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