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CU@Game CU At The Game: 2015 Grades – Defense

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    2015 Grades – Defense




    With Colorado’s 4-9, 1-8 record now relegated to the history books, and with (some) of the emotion of yet another close season-ending loss to Utah subsiding, it’s time to take a look at how the different units on the team performed this fall.

    The standard applied looks not only at the raw numbers produced, but how those numbers match up with the expectations we had for those units when the season opened in September.

    2015 Grades – Offense” can be found here “2015 Grades – Special Teams and Coaches” will be posted next weekend …





    Defensive Line



    At the outset of the 2015 campaign, there at least appeared to be some safety in numbers along the Colorado defensive line. The Buffs had no fewer than 22 defensive lineman on the roster when Fall Camp opened, more than enough bodies to help improve on a run defense which had ranked 102nd in the nation in 2014.

    How bad were the Buffs in 2014?

    It would not be a surprise, with the national ranking of 102nd, that Colorado was last in the Pac-12 in rush defense. What was a surprise was the gap between the Buffs and the rest of the league. Arizona was 11th in the conference in 2014 … but 68th in the nation.

    That, dear friends, is a gap.

    When two potential starters – Josh Tupou (suspension) and Tyler Henington (ankle) – were lost for the season before the opening kickoff, sheer numbers did not appear to be a sufficient reason to believe that the Buffs would improve in 2015. “Most of the time, you go into the fall camp, you’re looking at maybe one (hole to fill) … or you have a pretty good idea of your second team”, said first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. “We don’t know our first team yet.”

    Over the course of the 2015 season, Colorado utilized seven different starting lineups along the defensive line, and, for the most part, improved. Rushing yardage allowed dipped, but, more importantly, the Buffs moved from dead last in the Pac-12 in rush defense – and by a wide margin – up to ninth.

    The Buffs also moved up from 86th in the nation in sacks in 2014 to 69th in 2015. Again, not an earth-shattering improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.

    With the loss of Tupou and Henington, junior college transfer Jordan Carrell was called upon to carry a greater load at defensive tackle … and he delivered. Carrell finished the season with 52 tackles, including a sack, seven tackles for loss and 11 quarterback pressures. Not great numbers, but with a lack of experience at defensive tackle, Carrell was, to borrow a baseball parlance, an “innings filler”. Carrell was on the field for 82.6% of CU’s defensive snaps this season, the sixth-highest percentage for any Buff defensive lineman over the past 22 seasons.

    Justin Solis led the true defensive lineman (with Derek McCartney listed as a linebacker) with 53 tackles, just head of Carrell. Solis, though, was the only senior along the line, which bodes well for the Buffs in 2016.

    “You have to have that (depth),” Leavitt said in August. “We’re trying to create it right now and that has a lot do with what we decide to do, how we load it up, how we do it. Where I can find some depth and create as much as I can. It’s not an easy process. It’s a lot of work.”

    The work is paying off.

    Grade … B.





    Linebackers



    The Colorado linebacker corps had a dilemma opposite of the defensive line heading into the 2015 season. Whereas the line had plenty of depth but little proven talent, the linebackers had proven talent but precious little depth.

    Addison Gillam had come out of nowhere to be a freshman All-American in 2013, but had been slowed by injuries in 2014. In his place, Kenneth Olugbode had stepped in to lead the team in tackles during the 2014 campaign.

    Both players returned in 2015, giving Buff fans reason for optimism about CU’s linebacker play.

    Unfortunately, however, Gillam was injured in the second game of the season, and did not return the rest of the year. Olugbode was also hurt during the season, missing two full games and significant parts of several others.

    Into the fray stepped Rick Gamboa. The freshman led the team in tackles, with 96 (58 unassisted), the second-highest total ever by a Buff freshman (behind only Gillam’s 119 tackles in 2013). Also on the field for the majority of the defensive snaps was sophomore Derek McCartney, who finished third in tackles by the linebackers, finishing with 70 tackles (Olugbode had 80).

    Still, even with the developing young talent, the Buff linebackers were once again exposed. Opponents consistently were able to successfully exploit the Buffs’ lack of experience and depth at linebacker to keep drives alive.

    While 2015 was another season of growing pains, the 2016 season is setting up well. Addison Gillam, for one, is anxious to prove that he was not a one-hit wonder in 2013. “I’m feeling good, excited to get back out there,” said Gillam, who expects to use this past season as a redshirt year, giving him two more to play. “It was a hard year, but I think it’ll be worth it in the long run.”

    A hard year, but worth it in the long run.

    Unfortunately, we’ve heard that line before.

    Grade … C+.





    Defensive secondary





    Welcome to the Rodney Dangerfield unit of the Colorado football team.

    The Buffs’ secondary has been much maligned over most of the past decade … and with good reason.

    In 2015, the Colorado defense gave up 218.2 yards per game passing … 59th in the nation.

    Not great, until you consider CU’s national rankings in pass defense over the past few seasons … 2010: 110th … 2011; 97th … 2012: 97th … 2013: 102nd … 2014: 100th.

    And do we need to be reminded about the interception total?

    Colorado finished the 2014 season with a grand total of three interceptions. All by Tedric Thompson. All in the first five games of the season. The Buffs finished ahead of only one school in the FBS interceptions (Buffalo, which finished with two).

    In 2015, the Buffs finished with 14 interceptions, good enough for 27th in the nation.

    True enough, Colorado gave up its share of “explosion” plays over the course of the season, with seven pass plays going for over 40 yards. But that total was almost half of the 13 explosion pass plays surrendered in 2014.

    … and, from the Dave Plati obscure stats pile … Colorado was one of the nation’s leaders in the number of players with a pass-broken-up. The Buffs had 17 players register a PBU in 2015, tied for ninth in the country …

    By almost any measure, then, the Colorado secondary improved significantly in 2015. There will significant attrition in the unit, with stalwarts Ken Crawley and Jered Bell graduating, but there will also be experienced talent, led by Chidobe Awuzie and Tedric Thompson, returning.

    For once, the Colorado defensive backfield deserves – and had earned – some respect.

    Grade … A-.





    Overall



    Jim Leavitt knew what he was getting into when he took over the reins of the Colorado defense. “We’re not going to be the best defense in the country this fall,” Leavitt said this past August. “But hopefully we stop the bleeding and hopefully we can move to a better direction where guys feel some confidence, because I don’t think they’ve felt a lot of confidence around here. It’s been a while. A long while.”

    It has been a long while.

    Colorado gave up 27.5 points per game in 2015, the ultimate yardstick for a defense. In the annals of college football, that is not that great a total, with the Buffs finishing 71st in the nation in that category.

    However, considering where the Buffs were coming from, it was a significant achievement. The 27.5 points per game was the lowest for a Colorado defense since 2006; the national ranking inside the top 75 also a first in a decade. In 2014, the Buffs gave up 39.0 points per game, 116th in the country.

    And the Buffs did it without Tupou, Henington, and Gillam.

    “We’re not as talented as what you would like”, Leavitt said during fall camp. “However, when I went to Kansas State, we had the No. 1 defense in the nation and not one of those guys got drafted. There’s a lot more to it. We do have guys that play hard and want to do well. I’m encouraged.”

    So am I.

    Grade … B+.

    —–

    Stuart
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