Last season, I graded out the depth chart on a "glass half full/glass half empty" scale (if you want to check out how I did, go to http://www.cuatthegame.com click on the 2007/Preseason link under "Archived Seasons"). In 2007, the Buffs were coming off of a 2-10 campaign, and there were gaping holes on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
In 2008, such a scale is not appropriate. There is talent and depth at virtually every position. For Colorado, the glass is definitely "half full". As a result, for each position, we will look at the players the Buffs will suit up at each position, look at the strengths and weaknesses of those players, and give each unit a letter grade.
Defensive tackles: George Hypolite (Sr.); Brandon Nicholas (Sr.); Taj Kaynor (Jr); Eugene Goree (Fr.-RS); Eric Lawson (So.); Tyler Sale (Jr.); Will Pericak (Fr.)
Defensive ends: Maurice Lucas (Sr.); Marquez Herrod (So.); Jason Brace (Jr.); Conrad Obi (Fr.-RS); Lagrone Shields (Fr.-RS); Kevin Cooney (Fr.-RS); Tony Poremba (Fr.-RS)
The interior of the defensive line is set. Senior George Hypolite has 21 career starts, and led the Buffs with six sacks last season. A pre-season All-Big 12 selection in almost every publication, and a preseason All-American in several, Hypolite will be one best players on the field for Colorado. Hypolite will also be one of the most quoted Buffs (at the preseason Big 12 media days the gregarious Hypolite predicted a Heisman trophy for Darrell Scott in three years).
Beside Hypolite in the interior of the line is senior Brandon Nicholas. Nicholas also started every game in 2007, and was third on the team in sacks with three. The Hypolite/Nicholas tandem was largely responsible for the Buffs holding the opposition to 128 yards rushing/game, 31st best average in the nation.
The defensive end positions are not as clear cut. Senior Maurice Lucas played in every game in 2007, with six starts. The other end position is up for grabs, with sophomore Marquez Herrod and red-shirt freshman Conrad Obi amongst those trying to break into the starting lineup.
The Colorado rush defense is well established, and with three senior starters, is not likely to falter in 2008. Hypolite and Nicholas jam up the middle of the line of scrimmage, making it possible for CU’s quality linebacking corps to take unencumbered paths to the ball carrier. The pair also had nine of the 12 sacks registered by the defensive line, and ten of the 18 quarterback hurries. There is also much better depth behind these seniors, as six red-shirt freshmen are learning the tools of the trade from two of the best in the conference.
Did I mention that the two defensive tackles had nine of the 12 sacks registered by the defensive line? That translates into three sacks—for the season—from the defensive end position. While Maurice Lucas, who had two of those sacks, will be back, there needs to be immediate improvement in this area if the Buffs are to be successful in stopping some of the pass-happy attacks and mobile quarterbacks they will face this fall.
Grade: B- .
The Buffs should be solid against the run, but the Big 12 has turned into a passing conference. If the defensive front cannot put pressure on quarterbacks like Chase Daniel, Patrick White, Colt McCoy, Todd Reesing and Josh Freeman, it could turn into a long season for the Folsom Faithful.
At least there is depth now at the position. Due to a lack of bodies in 2007, Colorado was forced to play Hypolite and Nicholas on 84 percent of its defensive snaps. That won’t happen this year, with a half dozen potential substitutes ready to make their marks.
"Ideally, with the D-line, you’d like to go into each game with ten guys—five tackles and five ends," said Dan Hawkins. "It’s kind of like hockey; you jump over the boards, run out there, and get going."
In 2008, the Buffs will be a few steps closer to that goal.
Brad Jones (Sr.); Jeff Smart (Jr.); Marcus Burton (Jr.); Michael Sipili (So.); Shaun Mohler (Jr.); B.J. Beatty (So.); Bryan Stengel (Jr.); Josh Hartigan (Fr.-RS); Tyler Ahles (Fr.-RS); David Goldberg (So.); Douglas Rippy (Fr.)
Senior Brad Jones and juniors Jeff Smart and Marcus Burton are the most likely trio to be in the starting lineup at Invesco Field for the opener against Colorado State. Jones has the most career snaps, but Smart has emerged as the leader of the corps. Smart was third on the team in tackles in 2007, with 80 (behind Jordon Dizon and senior safety Daniel Dykes).
"I probably have the most experience out of the inside guys now," said Smart. "I know the defense pretty well, so I try and help them [the younger players] out in that area and in general. I know coach [Cabral] really looks to me to lead the linebackers."
Are you kidding? This unit is, by far, the deepest and strongest on the team. Even with the losses of Dizon to the NFL, Lynn Katoa to suspension, and Jon Major to injury, the list of potential all-stars is deep. Sophomore Michael Sipili, who returns from suspension, was to be in the mix last year as a freshman. Sophomore B.J. Beatty and junior Bryan Stengel are linebackers with experience looking to hold off red-shirt freshmen Tyler Ahles, David Goldberg, Josh Hartigan and Brandon Gouin. Oh, and did I mention the 2008 recruits? In addition to Katoa, the Buffs landed junior college transfer Shaun Mohler and true freshman Douglas Rippy. All that, with Katoa and Jon Major, lost for the season after tearing his ACL in week two of practice. This position will be deep and talented for the foreseeable future. Just sit back, Buff fans, and enjoy!
They can’t all play at the same time. While the Buffs this season may, at times, play a 3-4 to get more of the linebacker talent on the field, there is only room for so many at the top of the depth chart. The cumulative talent is excellent, but what Colorado really needs is to have three or four of these players truly distinguish themselves. Who will it be?
"I think (Jeff) Smart is on the top of his game and (Michael) Sipili is coming along," said CU linebackers coach Brian Cabral after the August 17th scrimmage. "After that, there is a lot of work to be done. I’ve got a lot of work to do still, and there is a lot to sort out still."
Lose All-American Jordon Dizon to the Detroit Lions? Okay. Lose prize prospect Lynn Katoa to suspension? Handled. Lose top recruit Jon Major to season-ending injury? Covered. No other position on the CU roster could have sustained such hits to the roster and come out with such a strong unit. The Buffs’ linebackers represent one of the strongest units in the Big 12. Good thing. With weaknesses in the pass rush and at the corners, the linebackers will have to be everywhere on the field at once.
Gardner McKay (Sr.); Cha’pelle Brown (Jr.); Jimmy Smith (So.); Anthony Wright (Fr.-RS); Jalil Brown (So.); Lamont Smith (Fr.-RS); Jonathan Hawkins (Fr.-HS); Steven Hicks (Fr.)
Ryan Walters (Sr.); Daniel Dykes (Sr.); Anthony Perkins (Fr.-RS); Joel Adams (Sr.); Bret Smith (So.); Matt Myer (Fr.-RS); Travis Sandersfeld (Fr.RS); Patrick Mahnke (Fr.); Vince Ewing (Fr.)
Let’s start with the good news. Senior safeties Ryan Walters and Daniel Dykes are back. Only an injury to Walters late in 2007 kept the tandem from starting every game together last season. As noted above, Dykes was second only to Jordon Dizon in tackles last season, and Walters is the field general for the defense.
The bad news?
The cornerback positions remain in flux. Senior Gardner McKay and junior Cha’pelle Brown continue to top the roster, but they are being pushed by sophomores Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith, and red-shirt freshmen Anthony Wright, Lamont Smith, and Jonathan Hawkins.
I think I mentioned that our safeties are pretty good. On the corners, there is speed, the makings of quality depth, enthusiasm, and ....um .... did I mention that our safeties are pretty good?
In the Big 12, where being ranked in the top twenty in the nation in total offense barely rates a ranking in the top half of the conference, it is tough for any team to have good numbers in pass defense. Still, the Buffs’ defensive numbers continue to disappoint. Since 2000, Colorado has ranked 100th or worse in the nation in pass defense four times, including last season’s rank of 103rd—and that was with All-Big 12 cornerback Terrence Wheatley (and second round NFL pick) in the lineup.
The list of quality quarterbacks the Buffs will face this season may as well be a Who’s Who of college quarterbacks. Two—Patrick White of West Virginia and Chase Daniel of Missouri—are legitimate Heisman trophy candidates. The CU secondary, which must rely on an improved pass rush in order to be effective, will decide the fate of the Buffs in 2008.
There is hope for the future at cornerback at CU. The sophomores and red-shirt freshman show signs of being All-Big 12 caliber, and the quality freshman class will only supplement the Buffs’ defense. Colorado’s starting safeties are first rate, and must anchor the defense in what will likely be some growing pains.
Check back with this group at mid-season. How is this for a prediction: If Colorado is ranked in the top half in the nation in pass defense, the Buffs will be ranked in the national polls. If Colorado is languishing back in triple digits in pass defense at the midway point, well .....
Josh Smith (So.); Patrick Williams (Sr.); Scotty McKnight (So.); Cha’pelle Brown (Jr.); Jason Espinoza (Fr.-RS)(injured)
Josh Smith (So.); Daniel Dykes (Sr.); Jason Espinoza (Fr.-RS)
Red-shirt freshman Jason Espinoza was being counted on to be one of the Buffs’ return specialists this fall, and he still may be by season’s end. Espinoza, though, broke his collarbone in the second week of fall practice. He may be back as early as the West Virginia game. In his stead, sophomore wide receiver Josh Smith has been seeing time as both a punt returner and a kick returner. Freshman Rodney Stewart may also see time as a returner, with senior safety Daniel Dykes a solid backup if the younger players struggle.
Speed, elusiveness, and more speed. Freshman Rodney Stewart has impressed everyone in fall camp with his quickness. In addition to seeing spot duty on offense (screens, draws, reverses), Stewart may have the opportunity to demonstrate his talents very early in the season. Sophomore Josh Smith may also see extensive duty until a dominant player can be determined.
No one on the roster has any game experience with returning kickoffs and punt returns. Daniel Dykes had one punt return in 2007; Scott McKnight had one kickoff return. That’s it. As electrifying as Stewart and Smith may be, there will times - at least early on - when coaches and fans will be holding their breath that these budding stars will make good decisions (and hang on to the ball!).
If we could grade purely on potential, the mark would be higher. Stewart reminds me of Ben Kelly or Jeremy Bloom, and Josh Smith has the speed and moves to be an All-Big 12 performer. Next season, with a year of catches and highlight runs under their belts, this could be a much higher grade.
Defense - Overall Grade: B-
Same grade as the one given to the offense. A copout? Perhaps. While CU has one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the conference, and while the Buffs’ linebacker corps may be the envy of much of the Big 12, the fact is that, until CU can generate consistent pressure on the quarterback, the pass defense will suffer. If there is sufficient pressure on the opposition quarterback, the inexperienced cornerbacks cannot be exploited. If the Buffs can’t get to the passer, the cornerbacks will be left on an island, and the CU will be giving up some big plays on defense. Yes, the Colorado linebackers are amongst the best around. Let’s hope that they don’t spend their fall watching passes float over their heads to open receivers in the secondary.
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