Spring Preview — Defensive Back

One of the units that the new defensive alignment and new defensive philosophy will affect the most is the secondary. Colorado will play with four defensive backs, instead of five as they did a year ago. But Colorado must still use the spring to develop some depth in the defensive backfield, particularly at safety. CU defensive backs coach Vance Joseph talked to BSN about who he expects to step forward in the next few weeks and make a case for playing time.

Heading into spring drills, junior J.J. Billingsley (5-11, 185) is slated No. 1 at free safety, while sophomore Dominique Brooks (6-2, 195) is penciled in to start at strong safety. Brooks played several games at free last season as a true freshman, while Billingsley played much of the past two seasons at weak safety, a position that no longer exists in CU's 4-3 defense. But Joseph said that most of the safeties the past two years were trained to play all safety positions in the CU defense.

"It's very similar to what they did last year. Just different verbiage," Joseph said.

Still, Joseph said both safety positions will require some new technique, and the coach expects there to be a learning curve.

"(Our goal is) to learn the new system and get efficient at it, and then go into two-a-days and get better at it," he said.

Another critical goal for the spring session is to develop some depth at safety, where only Billingsley and Brooks have significant playing time. One of the candidates to earn his way into the rotation is redshirt freshman Chris Russell (6-3, 195), who will start off backing up at strong safety.

"He's a very talented kid," Joseph said. "I'm hoping he learns enough to where he can help us. Right now he's a back up to Dominique Brooks, but physically, he's got the talent to be a starter. His deal is going to be learning and showing he can tackle in the alley. Those strong safeties have got to learn what to do, and that's going to be my job, teaching them what to do. That's a very crucial position."

Redshirt freshman Lionel Harris (6-1, 195) and sophomore walk-on Chad Cusworth (6-0, 205) will also be in the mix at strong safety.

Behind Billingsley (who is the team's returning tackling leader with 94 in 2003), Joseph expects junior walk-on Tom Hubbard (6-5, 210) and sophomore Tyrone Henderson (6-0, 180) to compete for a backup spot.

"My goal is to find at least two or three more guys to step in and be quality players," Joseph said. "Hopefully, that'll be Chris Russell, Tyrone Henderson and Tommy Hubbard."

While depth at safety is a concern, Joseph said he's got five guys who can play the two cornerback positions. Both players currently No. 1 on the depth chart — sophomores Sammy Joseph (6-1, 180) and Terrence Wheatley (6-0, 165) — played quite a bit in 2003; Joseph started every game, while Wheatley played in six contests, starting twice.

Vance Joseph knows what to expect out of those two, and said the Buffs are getting an added bonus with the return of sophomore Gerett Burl (5-10, 160). Burl was suspended from the team last semester for violating team rules and missed the season. But before that, he spent the entire spring 2003 running with the first team defense, as then-senior incumbent starter Phil Jackson was sidelined with an injury.

Another corner to keep an eye on is junior Vance Washington (5-9, 180), who's battled shoulder problems in the past, but who's still been a big contributor on special teams. He could see playing time on defense this season.

"He's finally healthy, and his shoulders are really strong," Joseph said. "He's a kid who runs a 4.4."

And Joseph expects sophomore Lorenzo Sims (5-11, 185), a player who bounced between corner and safety last season, to settle in and be in the mix at cornerback.

"I'm hoping Lorenzo Sims comes on and has a big spring," Joseph said. "He's capable of that."

Joseph explained that the new system should benefit a player like Sims, who has good football instincts, but isn't ready to be a lockdown corner quite yet.

"He's definitely going to be better in this system because it's a zone first, man second system," Joseph said.

Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz also pointed out that the new system will help mask the secondary better.

"We can play more four-deep secondary, give us more disguise, more flexibility in our coverage," he said.

Talk about this in the Ralphie's Den MESSAGE BOARD

BuffStampede Top Stories