Spring Preview: Defensive Backs

Fifteen spring practices will allow defensive backs coach Craig Bray time for teaching, not just preparing for games. That and the fact he expects more heated competition has Bray excited about the prospects for an improved unit. Inside, a look at the CU secondary.

Coach: Craig Bray
Players: A.J. Anderson, Dominique Brooks, Gerett Burl, Reggie Foster, Tyrone Henderson, Tom Hubbard, Corey Reid, Stephone Robinson, Charlie Sherman, Lorenzo Sims, Ryan Walters, Vance Washington, Terry Wilson

When Craig Bray took over the defensive backs coaching job last summer, he expected the safety positions to be solid, and the team's young cornerbacks to struggle. The opposite happened.

"It turned out that our corner position became a lot more productive, and the safety position, we never did," Bray said last week. "The only production we really got was when Tommy Hubbard was playing. Going into the season he wasn't really in the mix. That's a credit to him.

"If there's one guy coming back that you'd have to say, ‘That guy has a spot at the safety spot on Day 1,' it's Tommy because of his production."

Hubbard started five games last fall and had an interception at Kansas. He ended the season with two picks in the Houston Bowl, which earned him defensive MVP honors for that game. But Hubbard was the only safety on the CU roster that had an interception in 2004. That's not good enough for Bray.

"When you play a safety in the kind of coverages that we play, you ought to have your hands on a lot of balls," he said.

While they enter spring No.'s 1 and 2 on the depth chart at strong safety, Tyrone Henderson and Dominique Brooks (who had 19 starts out of a possible 22 between them last season) need to improve in April, or lose playing time. That's because of the emergence of a couple of youngsters.

"Both the young safeties, Charlie Sherman and Ryan Walters, are going to be in the mix," Bray said. "I think one of those guys could become the starter. That in itself is exciting because I think they are going to compete."

Sherman and Walters looked good in practice late in the year, particularly in the sessions leading up to the Houston Bowl.

While Hubbard is penciled in at free safety, Bray said the distinction between free and strong is not that great in the CU defense.

"Last year we did a lot of mirror in regards to responsibility," he said. "So frees played the same thing that the strongs did. It was kind of a mirror situation."

While J.J. Billingsley — the Buffs' most accomplished defensive back — is not in school this semester, newcomer Reggie Foster will be in the mix at safety.

Overall, Bray said he wants his safeties to play a more physical brand of football, and he's looking to put the best playmakers onto the field. He thinks because of the younger players, the level of competition in practice will rise, creating some better players.

"I'm just trying to establish safeties," Bray said. "Whether they're free or strong, I think the most important thing is that they can play."

The two healthy starters at cornerback, Gerett Burl and Lorenzo Sims, will be difficult to unseat this spring.

Sims is the only defensive back to start every game for Colorado last fall, and he led the team with five interceptions and 11 passes broken up (PBU). While he didn't get a pick in '04, Burl had 10 PBUs. The one negative about the cornerback situation this spring is that Terrence Wheatley is out with a wrist injury.

"I was excited about getting a spring with him because I think he's a true Big 12 guy," Bray said. "His development over the season was excellent. I was looking forward to taking him to another level."

The positive for the entire unit is that, unlike during August camp when the season loomed and players had to get used to their new coach's way of operating, April will provide Bray more time for teaching. One of the cornerbacks Bray thinks will benefit the most from the 15 spring practices is Stephone Robinson, who converted to the position from wide receiver in August.

"I think Stephone is the one guy returning that's going to have a chance to compete to get more playing time (at cornerback)," Bray said. "He just came in so late that we didn't have a chance to develop him from a standpoint of understanding what it takes to play there."

Of course, redshirt-freshmen Corey Reid and Terry Wilson, and junior Vance Washington, would like to make the coach eat his words this spring. That would be fine with Bray, as competition is the name of the game in the coming weeks. And the time for teaching and competition is what has him hopeful for better things to come.

"All in all I think we're going to be much improved," Bray said. "I'll be disappointed in myself if we're not."

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