Spring Review: Defensive Line

It's safe to say the initial phase of moving to Mike Hankwitz' 4-3 defense was a success. One consistent throughout the spring practices was that the defensive players, especially the front seven, said they felt like they were in better position to make plays than the last couple seasons. Inside, we break down some specifics about the Colorado defensive line.

The Buffs' most experienced defensive interior lineman, Brandon Dabdoub, missed the entire spring session when he tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights in March. The good news is that it gave the opportunity for junior Vaka Manupuna to gain valuable reps, and Manupuna earned the team's most improved defensive player award.

Playing the nose tackle, defensive line coach Chris Wilson said he counts Manupuna as one of the starters on the interior, along with Dabdoub and tackle Matt McChesney. Dabdoub is expected back at full strength by August camp.

While Manupuna may not be the one making plays this fall the nose tackle will be counted on to occupy two offensive linemen on nearly every play in the 4-3 defense, a switch from the 4-2-5, in which the interior defensive linemen usually played straight up on the two offensive guards.

Senior McKenzie Tilmon comes out of spring backing up at nose tackle, but that may change once Dabdoub comes back in August.

McChesney also had a good spring, and led the Buffs in tackles (9) in the team's second major spring scrimmage. He had two tackles for loss and a sack in that scrum as well.

Staying clear of injuries is going to be a huge key for the inside players on the line in 2004, as CU drops off in terms of experience after McChesney, Dabdoub and Manupuna. Sophomore Marcus Jones has developed a Division I body (he's 6-5, 290 pounds), but it's still unclear how he'll produce once the whistle blows if he's called upon. Tilmon made some plays during the spring scrimmages, but lacked the consistency to push Manupuna or McChesney for starting duties. 6-2, 265-pound junior walkon Nick Clement is the only other interior defensive lineman on the roster. It's conceivable that end James Garee could move inside if injuries forced the situation.

The need to recruit and develop the interior players is high as Dabdoub, McChesney and Tilmon are scheduled to exhaust their eligibility after this coming season.

Garee had another good spring, and continues to solidify himself as one of the team's best, and most relentless practice players. No one is going to outwork the 6-5, 255-pounder. The challenge for Garee -- who was scheduled for post-spring ankle surgery, but who is expected to by healthy in August -- will be to make that pay off this fall during games. Redshirt freshman Chadd Evans was one of the pleasant surprised on the defensive line, as he was effective in the spring scrimmages backing up Garee at the rush end spot.

On the other side, sophomores Alex Ligon and Abraham Wright seemed to benefit from the new defensive look. Ligon is listed ahead of Wright on the post-spring depth chart, but both will see a lot of reps in August. Wright looks like the quickest linemen getting upfield, and tight end Joe Klopfenstein -- who goes up against him each day in practice -- said the juco transfer is a physical player. Wright is the kind of player who will make some big plays early in the fall, but will need to find consistency in the run defense to earn a starting job over Ligon.

Unfortunately, just when it looked like Marques Harris was poised to come back from his devastating leg injury in 2004 and find himself in a defensive scheme that finally utilized his impressive talents, his status with the team is in jeopardy. He was suspended two weeks prior to the spring game, and CU officials have declined to comment on the reasons for his suspension other than to say it's because of violating team rules.

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