Part Eight: Defensive Back
It is hard to dispute the fact the secondary was the strongest and most talented unit on the field for the Buffs last season. After all, when three out of four starters get invited to the NFL combine, that’s a heck of a strong group. Everyone knew what kind of playmakers Chidobe Awuzie and Tedric Thompson were before the season even started, but it was the development of Ahkello Witherspoon into a true lock down corner that really made the secondary lethal. So what happens now? Is the cupboard bare with three no longer on campus?
Not by a long shot. The CU secondary next year returns a lot of talent, and it is fair to say that at least one, and possibly more, of the young men returning could have even more talent than the Buffs they replace. So let’s take a look at the guys tasked to follow a very tough act.
And the obvious place to start is at safety with the one official returning starter, Afolabi Laguda. I say returning official starter because in reality, depending on how you look at it, there are three returning starters in this secondary, or at least three returning players with significant starting experience. But we’ll come back to that. First, though, let’s start with Laguda, and if there was an enforcer in the CU secondary last year it was him. Believe it or not "Fo," as he is often called, was second on the team in total tackles with 80, and many of those were of the bone jarring variety. Laguda started all 13 games for the Buffs and was in on 792 plays from scrimmage last year and he has already become one of the vocal leaders on the 2017 CU team. Laguda could be one of the better safeties in the conference next year and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could get a combine invite a year from now.
Now, do you remember when I said that in actuality there were three returning starters in this secondary? Well, another one of those joins Laguda at safety in Ryan Moeller. Moeller is the local boy success story who went from a walk on to starting two games as a redshirt freshman, seven in 2016 and nine last year. He has also become the most versatile player on the entire CU defense. When Derek McCartney went out against Michigan it was Moeller that coaches turned to for the rest of the year in a hybrid nickel back/outside linebacker role, and he filled that role admirably. This spring he will likely return to his more natural role at safety where he should form a potent tandem with Laguda. Moeller is another guy who can deliver hits, and at 6-foot-1, 215-pounds, he brings the lumber when he does.
Backing those two up this spring will be two other guys who have seen their share of playing time the last few years. In fact, one was the hero of last year’s Washington State game. When Laguda was ejected for targeting, it fell to Nick Fisher to take his place against one of the best passing offenses in the conference. He answered that call by doing no less than being named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for his performance. Fisher never redshirted as he played in all 13 games of his true freshman year, so like so many others recently in the CU secondary, he was thrown into the fire young, and so far he’s done pretty well. This spring we should begin to find out if he’s the real deal or if he was a one game wonder. So far, based on two seasons as a Buff he sure looks like the real deal and it will be interesting to see if he takes the next step and challenges for a starting position.
And Fisher won’t be the only one to challenge at safety this spring. Evan White returns after a year-long suspension. For those who don’t remember, White started three games as a true freshman in 2014, and came out of spring drills the following year No. 1 at free safety. His future was bright and people had huge expectations for him. But the wheels came off and he ended up sitting out until this semester when he worked his way back into the good graces of the coaching staff. White is a big time athlete and a big defensive back. He is 6-foot-2, 200-pounds, and in high school boasted career bests of 11.03 in the 100-meter dash, 22.01 in the 200 and 50.0 in the 400 during track season. This young man can flat out run and he’ll hit you. He’s going to need to work off some rust but it will be interesting to see if he returns to the playing form that got him three starts as a true freshman.
Rounding out the returnee depth are two players who have yet to show much in a Buff uniform, Jaisen Sanchez and Kyle Trego. Sanchez lost his entire season last year with a torn ACL in spring, so he will need to show that he can return from that injury. But even before the injury he had yet to show that he was someone who could make an impact at this level. Trego came in as a JUCO transfer last year but did not see any playing time in 2016 and it is doubtful that he will change that situation this spring or next fall. It is likely that these two Buffs have already been recruited over.
And of those new recruits, Isaiah Lewis, is already on campus and will get his first snaps in a CU helmet this spring. As a freshman who should still be in high school most people won’t expect much from Lewis yet, but at 6-foot-0, 195-pounds, he already has the size to play safety at this level. Now he’ll have to show he has the athletic ability.
There is both talent and depth at the safety positions this spring in Boulder, but what about out near the sidelines, where guys get put on an island and are asked to shut fast wide receivers hoping to make highlight reels? What about the CU cornerbacks? Can they withstand the loss of two of the best we’ve seen at CU in a long time? The answer here is a resounding yes.
And it all starts with the last of the “returning starters” in this secondary, and quite frankly, possibly the most talented player in last year’s secondary, Isaiah Oliver. Wait, how can anyone say that a guy is more talented than guys who started ahead of him and are headed to the NFL? Well, for one thing experience counts for a lot in this game and Awuzie and Witherspoon had plenty of it. But what counts for even more is flat out athleticism, and Oliver arguably brings more of it to the field than any other CU player. To begin with, he competed as a freshman in the decathlon during track season, and in just his second meet, earned All-Pac-12 honors by finishing seventh at the Pac-12 Championships. Think about that for a second... a true freshman who was not even recruited as a track athlete finishes seventh in the conference championships in the decathlon in only his second meet at this level. For those who do not follow track, the decathlon consists of 10 different events, and the winner of the Olympic decathlon is traditionally given the title of the “World’s Greatest Athlete."
You want a truly gifted athlete in the secondary? Isaiah Oliver is your man. But he’s not just a player who can run and throw things. Oliver is a truly gifted football player, and he has the length to go with that athleticism that allows him to make truly spectacular plays at cornerback. Just ask Washington State last year. Or you could ask UCLA, who watched him go 68 yards for a touchdown on a punt return, the first punt return for a touchdown for CU since 2005. Or how about Stanford, which saw their last gasp at victory against the Buffs last year snuffed out by an Oliver interception.
So yeah, it’s not hyperbole at all to suggest that Oliver could very well be better at cornerback next year than the two Buffs headed to the combine this spring. The question is, who will start opposite him? And there’s plenty of talent there as well, but not a lot of experience. The most obvious candidate is the guy who actually played last year as a true freshman. Anthony Julmisse got off to a red hot start last year with a fumble recovery in the opener against CSU, and followed that up with his first interception the following week against Idaho State. He saw 53 snaps from scrimmage, had a handful of plays on offense, and was the Buffs' primary kickoff returner in his freshman year. But it will be at cornerback that Julmisse makes his name as a Buff and he will be a good one. At 6-foot-1, he is another in a line of long lanky corners that Mike MacIntyre loves. All he lacks at this point is experience, which he will get plenty of this spring going against a very good CU receiving corps.
Joining Julmisse at cornerback this spring will be two of his classmates from last year’s recruiting class, Trey Udoffia and Ronnie Blackmon, as well as a member of this year’s class in JUCO transfer Dante Wigley. All three were very highly regarded recruits and all three will have an excellent chance to earn playing time next fall by showing something this spring. Wigley comes to CU by a roundabout route, having started his college career at Georgia Tech, where he redshirted as a freshman. He transferred to and played his sophomore year at Holmes Community College, where he played well enough to be rated the No. 4 JUCO cornerback prospect in the country. At 6-foot-1, 190-pounds, he is another tall cornerback with good size who should match up well against the big physical receivers he will see this spring. The big thing for him this spring will be to show that he can play at the Pac-12 level, but with one season of Power 5 football as a freshman it should not be a very big adjustment. The old saying is that you don’t bring in JUCOs to sit on the bench, so expect Wigley to get a long look this spring.
This spring will also be the first real look for Udoffia and Blackman. Udoffia was named first-team all-state on defense as a senior in California, and at 6-foot-0, he brings more good size to the cornerback position. Blackmon comes from the opposite corner of the United States as he was also an all state selection on defense as a senior, but in Georgia. He was rated among the top 50 cornerback prospects in the nation heading into his senior year, and after the season participated in the 2015 Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in Daytona Beach where he had two interceptions for the National Team. At 5-foot-10 Blackmon is shorter than the usual MacIntyre cornerback recruit but he makes up for it with athleticism and technique. Both Udoffia and Blackmon or the type of talent that CU used to bring in regularly, and they are two more reasons why it’s fair to think that the future of the CU secondary could be every bit as bright as last season.
All things considered it is really pretty amazing that Colorado could return this much talent and this much actual playing experience in the secondary after losing three starters who will all go to the NFL combine. In part it is a tribute to this staff’s ability to find and recruit players that other teams missed, and in part it is a tribute to MacIntyre’s abilities as a defensive and defensive backs coach. But however you look at it, the sky is not falling in the CU secondary this spring.
For all the heat defensive line coach Jim Jeffcoat has taken from fans in recent years, you would think he couldn’t coach a lick, but nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that Jeffcoat has proven to be a good coach with regard to developing players on the defensive line. His players play with good technique, great intensity, and great effort. Some may say he had plenty of talent to work with, but lots of coaches out there don’t produce anything with outstanding talent. Anyone followed UCLA or Notre Dame recently? Jeffcoat is a very good coach and the Buffs are lucky to have him.
D.J. Elliot comes to CU from Kentucky and before that Florida State to replace the "Pepsi drinker" at defensive coordinator. Elliot spent four years as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Kentucky with admittedly mixed results. But he does have a track record of developing NFL caliber linebackers, having coached eight players who were drafted in the NFL, including a pair of first round picks. Elliot has very clearly had some success at Kentucky and Florida State, both in developing individual players and in helping develop defenses with varying rates of success. Is he a home run hire like Jim Leavitt was thought to be two years ago? Well, no, but he’s a solid hire with a very good coaching pedigree, and he will be working for a very good defensive coach in his own right in MacIntyre. So it remains to be seen what Elliot will do at CU, but there are reasons for optimism and he has a reputation as a first rate recruiter, which is always welcome.
ShaDon Brown comes to coach the CU secondary after doing the same last year at Army. The Black Knights' secondary was one of the top units in the nation last season with Brown coaching its cornerbacks. The cadets ranked sixth in the nation in passing defense at 170.2 yards per game, were 11th in interceptions with 17 and ranked 17th with a pass efficiency defense of 115.12. And let’s be blunt here, Army simply does not have the best athletes in the world on its football team, so Brown must have been doing something right. But there’s no getting around the fact that Brown is young in his career and two years ago was coaching at Wofford College. But there aren’t many coaches in America with a better reputation for developing defensive backs than MacIntyre, so if he sees something in Brown that’s probably good enough.
And let’s also not pretend that MacIntyre won’t be hip deep in working with the new defensive staff this spring. The bottom line here is that in terms of talent on defense, this team is looking pretty good at most positions. How that talent gets developed and comes together is anyone’s guess. A lot was lost from last year both on the field and on the sidelines. There are going to be bumps in the road, at the very least, but there are reasons to believe there will be a smooth ride before all is said and done.