If there was a weak spot on the Buffs' defense in 2016, it was at linebacker, but it couldn’t have been all that weak on a defense that finished in the top 20 nationally. The combination of Rick Gamboa and Addison Gillam at “Mike” and Kenneth Olugbode at the “Jack” linebacker position worked out to be a pretty solid lineup for the Buffs at inside linebacker. And while the potent combination of Derek McCartney and Jimmie Gilbert at outside linebacker did not last beyond the first half at Michigan, the defense was able to compensate for the loss of McCartney by tweaking the scheme somewhat and using guys like N.J. Falo and Terran Hasselbach in strategic situations.
Unfortunately for CU's defense in 2017, three of those listed above are gone, as Gilbert and Olugbode take their skills to the NFL to see if they can make a living there. And Gillam has hung up his cleats and moved on from football. And a fourth, McCartney, has a question mark next to his name until he shows that he can come back without any lingering problems with the knee that was injured.
So what did we learn this spring? Well, we learned what is left on the inside is, admittedly, very thin. While the Buffs don’t have any proven depth there, they do appear to have two quality starters. And we learned what is left on the outside has the coaching staff planning to stay with the schemes the defense used last year on the outside after McCartney went down.
At inside linebacker, there wasn’t a whole lot to be learned this spring as the Buffs only had three scholarship players. The coaching staff began spring by trying to add a fourth, but the experiment with N.J. Falo at inside linebacker did not pan out and he returned to his more natural position on the outside. That left Rick Gamboa, Drew Lewis, and Akil Jones.
Rick Gamboa had a strong spring and really started to take over a leadership position on the defense and on the team. That is a natural progression for a player who started both years as an underclassman. Gamboa is stepping into the role nicely. Evidence of his leadership this spring comes in the form of his election as team captain and by the fact he was awarded the Eddie Crowder Award for outstanding leadership along with running back Phillip Lindsay. Gamboa also solidified his standing as a good Pac-12 Mike linebacker.
Gamboa knows the defense in a very deep, detailed way. And after two seasons of Pac-12 play he also has a good feel for the opponents the Buffs play. If Gamboa stays healthy the next two years and has two more seasons like 2016, when he had 79 tackles, he would finish his career just outside the top 10 tacklers of all-time for CU. But if he goes back to his freshman year number of 96 tackles, which seems likely since he won’t be sharing the position anymore, he has a real shot at finishing among the top five. As long as Gamboa stays healthy, the Buffs will be solid at Mike linebacker.
A similar statement appears to be true at Jack linebacker coming out of spring. If Drew Lewis stays healthy, the Buffs should be okay at Jack as well. Last year Olugbode had a superb season at Jack so losing him and his four years worth of playing experience is no small matter. Lewis does not come into this season proven in Pac-12 play the way Gamboa does. But Lewis is both bigger and more athletic than Olugbode so he at least starts out with a solid foundation. In spot play last season, his instincts at the position appeared to be solid, and Lewis had a good spring playing with the first-team defense. How that translates to real time play remains to be seen, but we learned enough this spring to feel good about Lewis and his development.
Beyond that, things get thin. Many people have high expectations for Akil Jones but so far he has not met those expectations completely. He finished spring ball as “a solid backup” in the words of CU coaches, and while that is actually pretty good for a redshirt freshman, it is less than the immediate impact player that many were hoping for. The key for Jones moving forward is going to be work ethic. By most accounts he was not in the best shape for spring ball this year and that has to change. There’s no question Jones has the size and skills to be a very good player for the Buffs, but he won’t make it there without the kind of work ethic that made the departing seniors great. Just imagine what Jones could become if he completely buys into Drew Wilson's program.
The very simple fact is that a true freshman, maybe more than one, will play this fall, though it may not be very much if everyone stays healthy. Last year the Buffs made it through the whole season with Gamboa, Gillam and Olugbode getting almost all the snaps. But that’s kind of unusual at a position as physical as inside linebacker. So the youngsters better come in ready to roll this summer.
Moving to the outside, there were more bodies this spring, but not a lot more answers than at inside linebacker. The first thing to note about outside linebacker is CU will likely start this season the same way it finished last season by playing just one outside linebacker most of the time and having five defensive backs on the field. Ryan Moeller and Evan White will serve in the role of setting the edge opposite a true outside linebacker.
But first, the big question that could not be answered this spring was the status of Derek McCartney and his surgically repaired knee. If “D-Mac” comes back at or close to the same form in which he started last season, then he is an honors candidate and an NFL Draft prospect, and he is the cornerstone of a rebuilt defense. McCartney is a high level outside linebacker, combining size with outstanding athleticism in a way that makes him a force against both the pass and the run. But there is really no way to know how he will look until the pads go on in fall. All indications right now are that his recovery and rehab are going great, but you never really know until the hitting starts.
In McCartney’s absence there were a lot more reps available this spring for younger guys, with N.J. Falo and Terran Hasselbach leading a pack that also included Michael Matthewes, Shamar Hamilton, Sam Bennion, Pookie Maka, and Dante Sparaco. As it currently stands, it appears the Buffs' coaches feel more comfortable having Moeller or White on the field with McCartney instead of having another true outside linebacker on the field. That may change in the fall as the season wears on, but the message right now is no one in this group has stood out enough to force a change.
N.J. Falo is the clear number two after McCartney, but he is smaller and not noticeably more athletic. And Falo simply has not proven to be a difference maker on the field yet. It’s difficult to find exactly the right adjective to describe Falo’s play thus far, but perhaps “solid” or “decent” would suffice. Like Jones, his production so far has just not lived up to expectations, even though he has played substantially more. It is probably fair to use the term “solid backup” for Falo at this point as well, but so far he has not proven to be truly dynamic in either the run or pass games. The Buffs certainly hope he breaks through to the next level this summer and proves to be a true compliment to McCartney at outside linebacker.
Terran Hasselbach is closer to McCartney’s bulk and athleticism and has had moments where he flashes potential, but so far has not proven that he is more than a situational player at outside linebacker. Shamar Hamilton came in this spring from the Junior College ranks and he is still in the process of learning the defense, while adjusting to the size and speed at the Pac-12 level. Everyone else at the position right now is either an experiment in some way, or very young, or both.
Michael Matthewes moved to outside linebacker this spring from defensive end and had some decent moments playing without a hand on the ground. But he is a “tweener” in a 3-4 defense and it remains to be seen if he can overcome that and provide quality depth. Sam Bennion is another player who was recruited to be a 4-3 defensive end but is now playing outside linebacker in CU's 3-4. Pookie Maka is a youngster that might have a bright future, but when will his output on the field catch up to his potential?
Finally, Dante Sparaco joined CU's outside linebacker group as an early enrollee and he was solid during his first spring with the Buffs. He already looks like an upperclassman, which makes you wonder if his future is at defensive end. But right now he brings a potent mix of size, athleticism and a knack for making plays to the outside linebacker position.
So what have we learned this spring at linebacker?
- Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis should be solid starters at inside linebacker but behind them at this point there are only question marks.
- If Derek McCartney comes back full speed and Lewis lives up to the unbelievable testing numbers he put up in strength and conditioning testing this spring, with Gamboa's continued maturity, the Buffs could actually be better at linebacker than they were last fall. It is a big "if," but not outside the realm of possibility.
- Akil Jones has real ability but he needs to pair it with a top notch work ethic.
- A true freshman is going to play this year at inside linebacker. My guess is Carson Wells earns early playing time, but Jonathan Van Diest and Nate Landman are going to be heard from as well.
- There are a lot of players stacked up behind McCartney but so far none of them have proven they are ready to be a Pac-12 starter. That being said, competition will be fierce for playing time at outside linebacker and that always tends to make everyone better.
- Linebacker, both inside and outside, continues to be a high recruiting priority for the Buffs.
- Spring MVP at Linebacker: Tie between Drew Lewis and Rick Gamboa, who really stepped up his leadership and who continues to show that he is a high level Pac-12 player. Lewis stepped up and really won the Jack position, not by default, but by showing that he too can potentially be a high level inside linebacker.