Linebackers Could Surprise in 2004

During Tuesday's Media Day, head coach Gary Barnett was asked which Colorado player he thought would have the best chance of rising up and taking the Big 12 by surprise. He thought for a long moment before replying, "There are too many guys that I'm really high on to say who it's going to be." Some of the players he was thinking about are most likely among the linebackers. Here is an in-depth interview with CU's linebackers. Plus, who does Lawrence Vickers think the hardest hitter on the D is?

As a unit, perhaps no group has the chance to jump up and surprise people with their quality of play in 2004 as much as the linebackers. Though the competition will continue throughout camp for the first-string duties, if the team were to line up today, juniors Brian Iwuh (buff) and Akarika Dawn (will), and sophomore Thaddaeus Washington (mike) would start.

Barnett summed up the unit's M.O.: "I think we're going to be pretty talented there, but we just don't have much experience. We like the way they look. And it looks like we're three-deep."

Iwuh is making the move to the new buff linebacker in CU's new 4-3 scheme after playing safety his first two seasons. Dawn, likewise, played safety as a true freshman, then made the move to linebacker last year, starting two games. Washington started one game in 2003. Chris Hollis (2) and Walter Boye-Doe (3) also were in on the first play in a handful of games last year. Joe Sanders and Ben Carpenter will compete at buff linebacker, John Martin is on the depth chart at mike, and Jason Ackermann is definitely in the mix at will.

After almost being de-emphasized in the team's defense the past several years — especially the past two — it looks as though the group will be a focal point in the CU defense now.

Check out this trend: A defensive back has led the team in tackles the past four seasons, and six out of the past nine. That's in stark contrast to the last time Mike Hankwitz was defensive coordinator at CU. From 1988 through 1994, only one time (S Bruce Young, 1988) did a defensive back even make it into the top 3 in total tackles.

"I don't think the defensive backs should be making all the tackles," Iwuh said. "If they are making all the plays that means (the other team) is making too many yards. I think it should be the D-line and linebackers. (The coaches) are putting us in the position to make plays, and it's our business to make plays."

Washington agreed.

"The 4-3 is a linebackers' defense," Washington said. "It's for us to make plays; it gives us an opportunity to do things that we love to do — make tackles. I'm just glad that we have that opportunity."

The new defense should feature Iwuh, and play into his abilities. Anytime you asked a player which of his teammates was looking good in practice in spring or over the summer, Iwuh's name came up. Iwuh spent the offseason putting on weight and adding to his strength. He's currently carrying 220 pounds and has raised his bench press max to 350 pounds.

"It gives me a chance to run more than I did last year," Iwuh said of his new position. "I have a real good chance to chase down plays and play in the open field."

While Dawn made the move to linebacker last year, he's primed to live up to expectations that followed him when, like Iwuh, he showed enough ability to play as a true freshman in 2002. He spent last season and the spring getting accustomed to his duties at linebacker.

"As linebackers we set everything in motion," Dawn said. "One of the biggest things for me is to have everybody in their right position before we start. Because everything is pretty much predicated on what we say and what we do."

Washington, meanwhile, showed onlookers that he's prepared to do what it takes to make plays in pass defense situations in the spring, when he picked off two passes in scrimmages. He's been working to shed the reputation that said he's good in run support, but lacks the sideline-to-sideline speed to play every down in the Big 12.

"I'm very confident in doing both (pass and run defense)," Washington said. "I know I have to do both to be successful and help out my team."

The trio certainly share a linebacker's mentality. Asked what he likes most about playing football, Dawn said, "Breaking somebody down. And not just from a physical standpoint. Making somebody not want to play no more. That's the biggest part of ball — making somebody want to stop playing; beating them to the point where they second guess playing football ever again.

"That happens to everybody, whether they admit it or not. When you get to the point where you second guess playing, all you want to do is quit playing and go home."

Iwuh also said he enjoys getting in a good lick on an opponent.

"It makes you feel good when you hit somebody and you know they don't want no more," he said.

Which brings us to the topic of biggest hitter. For that we bring in someone who should know. Junior running back Lawrence Vickers goes up against the CU defense every day in practice. Here's what he had to say when asked who the team's most fierce hitter is.

"It's a tie," Vickers said, perhaps practicing for a post-football career as a politician. "Thaddaeus Washington and Brian Iwuh.

"Thaddaeus is The Truth. But I remember in the spring, they had to pull Iwuh out of practice one time. He knocked Sam Wilder out of practice. Then they threw the ball to Joe Klopfenstein and Iwuh knocked him out of practice. So they had to pull him to the sidelines.

"Not to say the other players can't hit, but Thaddaeus and Iwuh, you pretty much know they're coming for real."

Soon the entire CU linebacking corps will have the opportunity to show the rest of the Big 12 they're coming for real.

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