Spring Preview — Defensive Line

Some good news/bad news has met the Colorado defensive linemen in the weeks leading up to spring practices. One player won't miss spring ball as it was earlier thought, and another can't go after suffering an injury. But whoever is or isn't on the field when practices start April 2, it doesn't change the goals of learning a new system and becoming a more physical unit.

Colorado is changing to a 4-3 defensive alignment under the watch of new defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. Last season, Colorado managed just 19 sacks, 14 of which were made by the down linemen. Eventually, Hankwitz expects the defensive front to become adept at various pressure packages in the new scheme, but, he said, first things first.

"We really want to focus on fundamental concepts, being fundamentally sound before we move into our pressures and the zone blitzes, so there's going to be some adjustment time," he said.

Hampering the switch to the new alignment is the loss of senior inside lineman Brandon Dabdoub, who tore his right pectoral muscle while lifting weights in early March. A team doctor said the injury will take four months to heal, which means the 6-1, 290-pound Dabdoub will be out until July.

On the bright side, that means more reps in practice for the other five interior linemen. Junior Vaka Manupuna (6-1, 275) and junior walk-on Nick Clement (6-2, 265) are listed behind Dabdoub at nose tackle.

Manupuna had the best camp of his career in August, and followed that up by seeing action in all 12 games in 2003, including starts against Kansas State and Oklahoma. Dabdoub's injury will also give Clement the opportunity to prove he deserves to be in Wilson's rotation.

Penciled in to start at defensive tackle is senior Matt McChesney (6-4, 285), the most experienced interior linemen on the defensive front. McChesney had 26 tackles a year ago. He'll be backed up by senior McKenzie Tilmon (6-4, 305) and sophomore Marcus Jones (6-5, 290).

On the outside, junior James Garee (6-5, 255) and redshirt freshman Chadd Evans (6-4, 265) will battle at the position vacated by Gabe Nyenhuis.

"He's bigger and stronger, and he's had a heck of an offseason in the weightroom," defensive line coach Chris Wilson said of Garee, who led the Buffs with four sacks in 2003.

It will be interesting to see the development of juco transfer sophomore Abraham Wright (6-3, 235) at the other defensive end spot. Wright has been enrolled and working out all semester, and Wilson said he expected the former NEO A&M player to help bolster CU's pass rush immediately.

Hankwitz will coach the position, as well as the new buff linebacker (outside linebacker) position. Vying for a playing time with Wright is sophomore Alex Ligon (6-4, 240), a former high school linebacker who had a decent season in 2003 in his first collegiate action. Ligon had three sacks in just 250 plays from scrimmage last year. Newcomer Alonzo Barrett (6-3, 240) will also play the position.

Some good news at the defensive end spot is that senior Marques Harris (6-2, 235), who was given a medical redshirt season after suffering a broken leg in 2003, will be able to participate in spring practice — possibly as early as Week 2.

Wilson explained some of the different mindset he wants his players to develop in the new scheme.

"We're going to get to the point where we're a traditional run/pass team up front," he said. "We had fun the past two years, but we were a pass/run team. We played the pass first; everything was vertical. What we're going to do now is get in tighter alignments, tighter on the offensive linemen. It's going to force us to be more aggressive, and put us in attack mode because of the proximity."

Wilson said another focus will be in toughening up on the defensive front.

"I want to be the most physical unit on this team. That's our goal," he said. "We're going to get to the point where we're talked about as the most physical position on Colorado's team. That's where you win games, up front. That's going to be big for us this spring."

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