Part Six: Defensive Line
As we learned very clearly last fall, having a strong defensive line makes all the difference for a defense. A good defensive line occupies blockers, lets linebackers run free to make plays, establishes the line of scrimmage so the offense cannot dictate what happens, and can make a huge difference in pressuring the passer. Much of the success the Buffaloes saw on defense last year can be directly attributed to their front three and the havoc they created. So before we look at who is back, let’s do a little refresher about who the Buffs are losing, the position they played, and why they were so important.
Let’s start with the key to a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle position. Nose tackle in this defense requires a huge, powerful, mobile player who can control two gaps with ease. This means that a nose tackle lines up directly across from the center, but instead of going one direction or the other, his job is to dominate the center and prevent the offense from using either of the A gaps. The A gap is the space between the center and the guard, and obviously, there’s one each side of the center. A big powerful nose tackle like Josh Tupou can do this, stopping centers in their tracks, and even defeating double teams, and causing a pile up in the middle of the line that really blows up offensive blocking schemes.
A great nose tackle will very often not have much to show in the way of stats. After all, if there’s nowhere to go in the middle the offense won’t run there. And the point of a nose tackle is occupy at least two and sometimes three blockers on every play. When they are consistently able to do this, there isn’t anyone left to block linebackers and they can rack up the numbers. So with all due respect, anyone who judges a nose tackle by their stats, like tackles and sacks and such, really does not understand a 3-4 defense.
Last year CU had the consummate nose tackle. Tupou brought everything you could want to the position and it made a big difference. So who do the Buffs have this spring to replace him?
Well, to start with, all eyes are going to be on a big JUCO kid who appears to have the same attributes as Tupou, and who is on campus now. Javier Edwards is listed as 6-foot-3, 350 pounds, which curiously enough is almost exactly what Tupou measured in at this time a year ago just before returning to the CU locker room. What is interesting about Edwards is that it appears from film that he may be even more athletic than Tupou. But the question will be his strength and power. Tupou spent most of last year absolutely bullying centers and guards. If Edwards can do that consistently then the Buffs will not lose anything in the middle of their defense. It should be fun to watch Edwards face off with Gerrad Kough and Tim Lynott this spring. He will have his work cut out for him with Drew Wilson this spring getting in shape and getting used to this altitude, but it sure looks like CU found its replacement for Tupou.
Also in the mix at nose tackle this spring are a trio of returning players who bring different attributes to the position. Jase Franke got the most playing time as an underclassman and returns for his fourth year as a Buff looking to prove that he’s more than just a third and long type guy on the defensive line. But with only 76 plays and 11 tackles in 2016 he’s got a long way to go in that regard, and what he needs more than anything else is size and strength. Franke is listed at 6-foot-3, 260 going into spring and that is just not big enough to be a regular contributor at nose tackle, and he’s not as athletic as other guys his size like Tim Coleman, so he really needs to make strides this off season to be a guy who plays more next year.
Brett Tonz and Lyle Tuiloma are the other two returnees at nose tackle this spring, and both are somewhat of a mystery after two fall campaigns with the Buffs. Tonz played in 10 games last fall, primarily on special teams with only 16 plays on the defensive line. Listed at 6-foot-3, 285, Tonz is the rare player who is actually larger than listed, with 6-foot-4, 300 being a realistic size. So he brings substantially more size than Franke, but the question mark is still power and athleticism. Tonz appeared to be doing well last spring but it did not translate to playing time last fall, so this is a big spring for him, and the third year in the program should be when most guys really show what they can do.
Tuiloma is the guy who is built like a traditional nose tackle and also has the athleticism to be something special at the position, but so far he has not shown enough to see the field, with even less playing time last year than Tonz. But at 6-foot-3, 310 he is clearly built in the mold of a 3-4 nose tackle. The problem it seems, in the words of position coach Jim Jeffcoat, is that the lights have yet to come on for Tuiloma. That’s a phrase that can mean a lot of things to a coach, from saying that a kid does not understand his plays and responsibilities, to sometimes meaning that a kid just doesn’t understand the work ethic required at this level. It’s too soon to say exactly what Jeffcoat means when he says this about Tuiloma, but this spring would be a good time for Lyle to flip the switch. He’s got all the tools to be great. Now he has to figure out how to put it together.
While nose tackles are called on to slug it out with centers and guards and create pileups in the middle, the other two defensive line positions in this defense are asked to do more and make plays. While it depends who you ask whether they should be called defensive ends or defensive tackles, the bottom line is that these guys line up anywhere from head up on guards to the inside shoulder of tight ends and they have to be very athletic. Let’s start with the position manned so well the last two years by Jordan Carrell, what we will call the three technique.
A three technique guy is generally going to be more athletic than and not as big as a nose tackle. The three technique, as a general rule, will line up on the outside shoulder of a guard and will be asked to be explosive, get through a gap, and make plays in the backfield. Carrell was excellent at that, and while he had a mysterious tendency to not wrap up, he was very often found in the backfield making first contact on ball carriers. And at 6-foot-3, 305 last season he was the perfect size for the position.
The final spot on the defensive line, what we’ll call the five technique, as a general rule lines up on the outside shoulder of an offensive tackle. So he’s a little wider out than the other two, and to some degree may play in space a bit more. But he’s also often going up against offensive tackles, who in the modern game have grown to be enormous man mountains, often 6-foot-6 or taller, and usually in the 310 or bigger weight range. So guys at the five technique generally need something that the other two positions don’t necessarily need: length. Length in football terms means both height and arm length, and Samson Kafovalu was a perfect example. At 6-foot-5, 305 he had the size to match up with offensive tackles, but he also had the height and arm length to beat them at their own game.
So who is going to fill these two positions for the Buffs with last year’s three outstanding starters moving on to the next level?
Well, there are three guys participating in spring ball this year who appear to be the favorites to earn the starting nods, and one of them has actually started on the CU defensive line for a full year. Let’s start with him. Leo Jackson was a full time starter two years ago, starting 10 games and playing 586 snaps from scrimmage, the second-most by any defensive lineman. Last year his playing time fell off with three 5th year seniors ahead of him, but he still started one game and played 254 snaps from scrimmage, with his one start and best game coming against one of the best offensive lines in the conference at USC. At 6-foot-3, 280 Jackson is built like a three-technique, but he’s shown the ability to play either of the defensive end positions. It would be great if he could follow Carrell’s footsteps and get to 300 pounds for his fifth year while keeping his athleticism, but even if he doesn’t, Leo Jackson has already proven that he is a good Pac 12 caliber defensive tackle who is tough and gets the job done.
But he’s got his work cut out for him this spring if he’s going to beat out the other two favorites to play at defensive end, Frank Umu and Chris Mulumba. Umu is a giant young man with impressive athleticism. As a 280 pound freshman he demonstrated explosiveness and agility, and I’ve personally seen him dunk a basketball and “dunk” a football over the goalpost crossbar. In the last year under Wilson he’s grown into a 6-foot-4, 310 pound monster who was generally the first guy mentioned by the starting offensive line as the toughest guy to block on the scout team. Umu is CU’s secret weapon the next three years, just waiting to be unleashed on the Pac 12. He got his feet wet as a redshirt freshman, seeing action in nine games, primarily on special teams, but also seeing 18 snaps on the defensive line. This spring, with three starters gone, will be his first real chance to show what he can do. At his size he could play either the 3 or the 5 but he’s best suited more inside and the 3 is where he will get his first look.
Also fighting it out for a starting spot this spring is JUCO transfer Chris Mulumba, and when I say he’s ready to fight it out, I mean it. Mulumba was a three-time Finnish national judo champion from 2009-11, a Scandinavian champion in 2010 and holds a black belt in the discipline. Aside from wrestling I can’t think of any sport more perfectly designed for developing defensive linemen than judo, and Mulumba was elite in the sport. But wait, did I mention wrestling, because Mulumba was also a state champion wrestler in Finland in 2009. This young man is an elite athlete, and he’s done it in sports which require toughness, balance, leverage, and hands, all things which are critical on the defensive line. But what about his football experience? There’s no doubt that he’s raw in the sport, but his film at JUCO shows good pad level, quick feet, excellent hands, and a relentless approach to the game. At 6-foot-4, 280 coming in, and with spring and summer to work with Wilson on size and strength, and Jeffcoat on technique, Mulumba is one of the most intriguing prospects on this Buff team. He has two years to play two, so time is of the essence for him, and at 24 years old, with a year in the Finnish Army behind him, this young man brings a level of physical and emotional maturity that can only help him and this team succeed.
Those are the three guys most people will be watching at the defensive end position, but they are by no means the only guys who will participate this spring, and they are not the only ones with something to prove. Coleman has quietly put in quite a bit of playing time the last three years, with 150 snaps from scrimmage as a redshirt freshman, 75 as a sophomore, and 166 as a junior. And if you think those don’t sound like big numbers, the thing to know about Coleman is that he produced more statistics - tackles, pressures, and such - per play from scrimmage than any other lineman. In other words, when he does play, he makes plays. So why doesn’t he play more? Well, at 6-foot-3, 250 he simply does not have the size to be an every down lineman in the Pac 12. And while his athleticism is excellent for a defensive lineman, it’s not quite what it needs to be to stand up and play outside linebacker. So he’s a guy who can run and make plays on the defensive line but you have to be strategic in how you use him. Hopefully in year two under Wilson he can add some size while keeping his athleticism, but either way he is a valuable depth and strategy piece on our defensive line.
Michael Mathewes is similar to Coleman in not having the size to really compete as a lineman in a 3-4 in the Pac 12, and he doesn’t have the sheer speed that Coleman has, so his route to playing time isn’t as obvious. At 6-foot-4, 260 he has more size than Coleman, but he’s not as fast, and he doesn’t seem to have the frame to add much more weight to what he already has. Unless he can find a way to add size and power, or get quicker and faster, Mathewes is likely to be no more than a spot player adding depth, and this spring will be critical for him to show something or younger players will pass him up.
Eddy Lopez is a guy who certainly looks like a Pac 12 defensive lineman at 6-foor-3, 310, and really has a perfect body for either nose or the three technique. Unfortunately he seems to have regressed with each passing year until now there are even rumors that he might move to offensive guard. This spring is also critical to him to avoid being passed by younger players. Two years ago Lopez appeared to be the future on the CU defensive line. As a true freshman in 2014 he played in 11 games, with 123 snaps from scrimmage, and 10 tackles (five solo), with one quarterback chase-down and near-sack. The following spring he looked even better, even getting a sack in the spring game. But since then he’s done nothing and did not even see the field last season. It’s safe to say that this spring may be his last shot on the defensive line.
As for those younger players I keep mentioning, there will be two of them in spring ball, one returning and one a new face, but both of them tailor made for the five technique in a 3-4 defense. Terriek Roberts came to CU as a bit of a project on the defensive line, but at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds with nice athleticism, he certainly has the body, the length, and the athleticism to make an impact on the defensive side. He was another guy often mentioned as doing very well on the scout team last fall, and the key for him this spring is going to be the weight room. He needs to keep adding quality size and power to his long lanky frame. This spring will be Roberts' chance to show that he belongs on the defensive line and not at offensive tackle as some believe. Spring is when young guys get more attention from position coaches, and between that and the extra bowl practices during the season, Roberts should show significant improvement this spring.
The other youngster that most people can’t wait to see this spring would ordinarily still be in high school for one more semester, but Dante Sparaco is anything but ordinary. His journey from quarterback hopeful to early enrollee on the defensive line has taken plenty of twists, but the one thing that can’t be denied is that this young man is a natural for the five technique. At 6-foot-5 he has the length and size to take on offensive tackles, and he has the frame to easily get himself to 300 or more over the course of his career. Sparaco's first real exposure on the defensive line came at a CU summer camp a couple of years ago and he was a natural. At that time he had never played the position and he stepped in and looked like he had done it his entire life. For his senior year of high school he went to IMG Academy in Florida, a school loaded with talent, and he not only earned a starting spot at defensive end, he clearly showed his ability week in and week out against some of the top talent in the country.
Now he is back in Colorado, working with Wilson and his new teammates, it is going to be very exciting to see what he does this spring and how fast he can play his way into the mix on the CU defensive line. Given that he should still be in high school, it’s only fair not to expect too much this spring, but if you’ve ever seen Sparaco up close in person, you will probably agree that if any kid is physically ready at this young age, it’s definitely him. He’s rumored to already be over 280 and working with Wilson will only improve that. He is the future on the CU defensive line and it will be fun to see that future this spring.
Again, as with the offensive line, there is room for optimism about the CU defensive line this spring. There are questions to be answered, three starters to be replaced, and depth must be found, but there are certainly some promising bodies for Jeffcoat to work with, and say what you will about the big man but he is a good coach when it comes to developing his players. That ability will definitely be put to the test this spring.