Colorado's move to a 3-4 base defense doesn't mean the Butkus Award is headed back to Boulder.

At least not yet.

Although the coaching staff has inherited some potentially great linebackers -- juniors Jon Major and Doug Rippy fit Brian Cabral's mold -- the depth in the program isn't anywhere near where Jon Embree wants it.

The Buffs are several recruiting classes away from creating the type of competition witnessed at CU practices back in the glory days.

"We're not where I'd like to be from that standpoint. When I'm comfortable with our depth is when we have great scout teams," CU's first-year head coach said when asked about the 2011 linebackers as a whole. "When you have a Chad Brown, who you know is going to be a great player, or a Greg Jones on your scout team ... that allows you to have better quality practices, it allows you to do more things from a physical stand point. I'm not knocking the guys now, I just feel when we get to that point, that's part of the deal of building a program."

Colorado junior linebacker Jon Major, right, was having an All-Big 12 season last year according to head coach Jon Embree before Major suffered an injury.
Colorado junior linebacker Jon Major, right, was having an All-Big 12 season last year according to head coach Jon Embree before Major suffered an injury. Embree said Major also has improved his pass coverage skills during the offseason. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

If the Buffs stay healthy, defensive coordinator Greg Brown is confident the scheme will work well in the Pac-12 this season.

Josh Hartigan, coming off a seven-sack season at defensive end, will move to "Jack" linebacker. Senior David Goldberg and freshman Juda Parker should see plenty of action rotating in at the new position.

"(Hartigan) has such speed and quickness, he can really get that pressure on the quarterback, which is really what we need," Major said. "It's going to help our pass defense and help us in third-down situations and in turnovers."

Rippy appears to be poised for a breakout season. The 6-3, 230-pound junior is the starting "Mike" linebacker.

"We're looking for great things out of Doug Rippy," Brown said. "He's everything that you want -- he's big, he can run, he's tough, he's smart, and he's a leader."

Derrick Webb will start next to Rippy inside at the "Will" linebacker. The sophomore beat out senior Patrick Mahnke during fall camp.

Major plays the "Sam" position, which is the other outside linebacker spot opposite Hartigan. Embree said the junior, who was having an All-Big 12 2010 season until suffering an injury, has improved his pass coverage skills during the offseason.

The players in the front seven really seem to have responded to new defensive line coaches Mike Tuiasosopo and Kanavis McGhee.

"Tui and Kanavis are getting those guys off the ball and converting from run to pass rush moves and all that," Embree said. "I expect those guys to do a good job getting after the quarterback."

Tuiasosopo was on the Arizona staff last season with Brown. The Wildcats were third in the Pac-10 in total defense behind Cal and Stanford.

McGhee and Alfred Williams dominated the line of scrimmage together to lead CU to the 1990 national championship.

"(Brown) is awesome. He's such a mastermind and such a hard-working coach. (The 3-4) is really going to allow us to be successful and make some plays," Major said. "(McGhee) comes from the greatest team in CU history. Trying to bring back that team's atmosphere and attitude and translate it to the future era is definitely huge."

CU also has one of the best assistant coaches in the country, Cabral, focusing on the inside linebackers.

The only concern is how young reserves like Parker, Brady Daigh, Liloa Nobriga K.T. Tu'umalo and Lowell Williams will respond on Saturdays this fall. You get the feeling Embree would rather see them giving Tyler Hansen a good look in practice than having to experience a baptism by fire.

But with a difficult 13-game schedule and no byes, it could be all linebackers on deck in the 3-4.

"Anytime we talk about CU defense, it's a staff decision. That obviously includes the head coach. Jon has had a great deal of success as a defensive coach, too," Brown said. "As a staff we're excited that the 3-4 offered some versatility for us. We've got some guys that are smart, tough and bring different things to the table.

"One of the things we like about them is we have a group of guys that can think of on their feet. They can blitz and they can cover. That's just hugely important for us."