Secondary 'Work in Progress'

Midway through Colorado's spring practices, secondary coach Greg Brown has a different tone in his voice than he did a year ago. Talking to him, you get the feeling he's turned up the heat on his players. Now that everyone knows each other and has been through a season together, expectations have been raised.

It's not so much in the words Greg Brown says — "We're making progress. We're just adding one brick at a time to the building" — but in the way he says it.

Brown isn't so eager to praise as he was last year. It feels like he's drawing a tougher line.

The truth of it is, Brown is trying to coach a group into shape that lost three key players to graduation. Besides returning cornerback Terrence Wheatley and safety Ryan Walters, the players along the last line of defense at CU are somewhat green.

"It's a work in progress and it's going up slowly and surely," Brown said.

Though he's been held out of contact this spring after offseason wrist surgery, barring something unforeseen, one cornerback spot is Wheatley's to lose. The senior has the opportunity to be one of the better secondary players in the Big 12 in 2007.

The other spot is up for grabs, though. One player, junior Gardner McKay, is in the thick of the competition.

"I'm just trying to step up my game, trying to earn a spot and prove to the coaches I'm ready to play this year," McKay said following Monday's practice.

McKay was highly regarded coming out of Crenshaw High in Inglewood, Calif., and played as a true freshman in 2005. Last year, a high-ankle sprain in the first game took him out for three games. After that, he found himself in the doghouse. He's fighting to get out now.

Coaches have told him they want to see him play "with a different mentality than I did last year. I'm up for it," he said. "I'm up to the challenge. I'm trying to get out here and focus. This is my job out here."

McKay has not been able to put on much weight since he got to CU. He's still in the 160-165 range. Brown said he wants McKay to prove he can be physical. It's a message he's delivered to McKay.

"Gardner can cover," Brown said. "He needs to show our whole team and staff that you can depend on him making a tackle out there in the open field."

Competing with McKay are junior Ben Burney and redshirt-freshmen Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith. Burney played free safety last year, but coaches wanted to get a look at him at corner this spring.

"He's got the speed, he uses his hands well at the line of scrimmage, and he's a smart guy," Brown said. "He's done a nice job."

The two younger players are working to get up to speed, however. Brown said it's paramount that they develop between now and September.

"They're just pups," Greg Brown said of Jalil Brown and Smith. "They don't know how to play yet, but they each bring something to the table. They have something in common in that they're both big kids, they both can run. They both need to step it up for us to be a complete secondary. We think they can, it's just going to take time. They're going to make their share of mistakes. But you look out there and it's nice to see two kids who are over 6 feet playing corner."

Meanwhile, Monday was Walters' first day back at full speed since he had a mild concussion on March 17. There are no questions about Walters' abilities — he's a physical player who's adapted well to playing the quarterback-like position on the defense. But he's been injury prone.

Senior Lionel Harris got some starting experience last fall — his first real playing time of his career — when Walters went down with an injury. He's been running with the first team defense in practice this spring. Brown said he wants to see more consistency from Harris.

The pleasant surprise of the group has been D.J. Dykes, the safety who transferred to Colorado from Idaho last year.

"D.J. Dykes has done a nice job," Brown said. "He's shown something out here this spring. He's a big kid, he's smart and he makes plays."

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