Breaking Down Colorado’s Defense

Following a convincing 58-23 win at New Mexico the Sun Devils will look to use that momentum as they get set to hit the road again for the start of Pac-12 play against South division foe Colorado this Saturday in Boulder. What can Arizona State expect from the Colorado defense? Byron Kline talked to ASU’s offensive coordinator and coaches and players on this topic

D.J. Foster rushed for a career-high 216 yards and one touchdown, becoming the first Sun Devil to eclipse the 200 yard mark since Delvon Flowers ran for 226 yards against Oregon in 2001 and just the third player to do it since 1994, as Arizona State erupted for 621 yards of total offense against the Lobos, including 423 yards on the ground in last week win.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to where we could be,” said left tackle Jamil Douglas. “I think we left a lot of points out there that we could’ve scored against New Mexico. We still have a lot to improve on and I think we can still get a lot better.”

Saturday’s contest marks, not only the conference opener for both sides, but the home opener for the Buffaloes, who, after falling to rival Colorado State 31-21 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, traveled cross-country to face Massachusetts last Saturday at Gillette Stadium and rallied for a 41-38 win, thanks in large part to a spirited second half defensive effort.

Similar to Arizona State, Colorado features a young defense - which included two true freshmen and four sophomore starters last Saturday against UMass - led by sophomore linebacker Addison Gilliam.

Gilliam leads the Buffaloes with 22 tackles (17 solo) already on the season, including a career-best 15 tackles against the Rams despite suffering from a hyper extended elbow that he suffered late last month in practice.

“I think you can just see the way that he plays that he plays with a high motor,” said Arizona State Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell. “He flies around sideline-to-sideline and is really a tough-nosed player. We played against him last year when he was just a true freshman and you can see the growth to this year with just the experience that he’s had.

“We’re looking forward to seeing him play and we know they’ve got some guys who are really talented.”

Colorado was gashed on the ground by Colorado State in the season opener as the Rams rushed for 266 yards in the win. CU Head Coach Mike MacIntyre has stressed the importance of stopping the run to his young defense and praised their efforts last weekend, holding UMass to just 104 yards on the ground and -1 yards in the deciding fourth quarter as CU rallied late.

“They’re very well coached on defense,” said Douglas. “Their coach does a great job of scheming up things and giving the (defensive) ends freedom. Their defensive line is very talented and very long. They’re quick-twitch guys so we’re going to have to be on point with our technique.”

Helping Gilliam shoulder the load up front is a defensive line that features a pair of freshmen - Derek McCartney and Christian Shaver - at the end positions coupled with the experience of junior Josh Tupou and senior Juda Parker at the tackle positions.

At 6-3 and 325 pounds, Tupou commands a lot of attention from opposing offensive lines on the inside, which allows Gilliam and the CU linebackers to find gaps along the line of scrimmage. The junior collected 34 tackles and 0.5 sacks a year ago, while the 6-2, 270 pound Parker tallied 27 tackles for the season.

“Colorado is going to show multiple fronts,” added Norvell. “I’ve got a great amount of respect for their coaching staff and the job that they do. They’re going to present some different challenges. You see those guys, and even though they are young, they’re working to get better.

“The second half there in the UMass game; you saw them making some strides in what they were doing. We know we’ve got to go out there and play our game, execute, and we’re going to be up for the challenge.”

The Buffaloes also boast a skillful secondary, anchored by senior cornerback Greg Henderson and sophomore safety Tedric Thompson, who’s already becoming one of the premier defensive playmakers in the Pac-12 conference.

As a full-time starter in 2013, Henderson recorded 58 tackles and four interceptions while Thompson has already posted 20 tackles and one interception this season for the Buffs.

“They’ve got some guys in their secondary who are quality players,” remarked Norvell. “They’ve got some long guys who can run and move well and they play a lot of press coverage.

“We played against both of their corners last year and they’re both very capable, Pac-12 corners that play hard and get their hands on receivers, so we’ve got to go out there and make sure that we bring our ‘A’ game and try to put ourselves in position to be successful.”

Similar to Arizona State, Colorado relies heavily on their defensive backs to pressure and frustrate opposing quarterbacks, perhaps even more so in 2014 given the lack of experience at the defensive end position for the Buffaloes.

The Sun Devils can expect to see plenty of both Henderson and Thompson bringing the heat to try and disrupt Kelly’s rhythm, though Douglas insists the ASU offense will be tracking them throughout the game.

“We’ve just got to count them and make sure he’s not going to be a factor for our quarterback and our running backs,” he said.

Still, a different kind of challenge awaits Colorado on Saturday as the Sun Devils enter the weekend ranked seventh in the nation in total offense (595.5) and eighth in scoring (51.5).

With Foster leading the charge, Arizona State also sits atop the Pac-12 and sixth nationally in rushing offense (345.0).

The junior has rushed for 100+ yards in four of ASU’s last five outings while also rushing for eight touchdowns. In his previous 24 career games as a Sun Devil, Foster had zero 100 yard rushing performances and just four rushing scores.

Now, as the team’s featured back, the dynamic playmaker, who also has seven receptions for 80 yards this season, is proving he can handle the workload in Norvell’s powerful offense.

“I always tell people, there’s nothing that D.J. does that really shocks me,” said the Sun Devils’ offensive coordinator. “I’ve got a tremendous picture of what he can be. I think he’s one of the most versatile and explosive athletes in the country. To see him and the toughness that he shows is exciting as a coach.

“He had a great game the other night and I’m excited to see him continue to grow and improve as the season progresses.”

While Arizona State has relied on its stable of running backs - which also features seniors Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks as well as freshmen Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard - early on this season, Norvell has preached the need for the Sun Devils to demonstrate a balanced offensive attack, putting the ball back in the senior Kelly’s hands and letting him make plays happen downfield through the air.

“Ever since I’ve been here, that’s been something that we firmly believe in, establishing the run, and then depending on how they want to take that away, it’ll open up opportunities for us on the perimeter,” Norvell said. “As we plan to be balanced, we know that we’re going to establish the run and be able to go from there, but if a defense is going to take that away, we’re going to do what we need to do to move the football.

“We’re going to practice to prepare to be balanced and then we’re going to take what the defense gives us.”

For ASU, that means targeting wide receivers Jaelen Strong, Cameron Smith, and Gary Chambers, who after recording the first two catches of his Sun Devil career against Weber State in the season opener was held without a reception against the Lobos last Saturday.

“Watching them on film, they’ve got a lot of players who can make plays,” said the senior. “We’re going to have a lot of one-on-one match-ups that we’ve got to win.

“Overall, they’ve got a pretty good defense that’s going to be a good challenge for us, but as long as we read our keys and make the right adjustments, we should be fine.”

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