With Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis both back for their senior year, no team in the Pac-12 returns as much production at inside linebacker as the Colorado Buffaloes.
It's the added depth to that position that really makes the Buffs feel comfortable, however.
CU completed spring practices on Friday, and inside linebackers coach Ross Els came away from that final session with a much better feeling about his position group than he had in November.
"We have four guys that can step on the field and play," Els said. "Last fall, we played two guys the majority of the time, which was way too many snaps, but we didn't feel like the other guys were quite ready to step on the field."
To complement the experience of Gamboa and Lewis, the Buffs are encouraged by the continued development of sophomores Akil Jones and Nate Landman.
"That's going to take a lot of pressure off of Drew Lewis and Rick Gamboa, which is huge," Els said. "Not only for injury situations, but to keep them fresh throughout the year. I do like where we are with those four, but we have a long way to go to be ready for Pac-12 play."
Last season, Gamboa played a team-high 847 defensive snaps, while Lewis was second with 821. Lewis led the team with 119 tackles while adding two sacks and eight quarterback pressures. Gamboa had 117 tackles, with a team-high 10 third-down stops and seven pass breakups.
Toward the end of the season, however, fatigue set in, especially for Lewis. Luckily for the Buffs, Landman was ready to step in at that point. A true freshman last season, he played just 20 snaps in the first 10 games combined, but was on the field for 59 plays in the last two games.
"We had to replace Drew late in the year with Nate because his body was just beat up and he couldn't hit in there like he needed to," Els said.
Landman was impressive in his short time on the field, with 17 tackles and eight third-down stops in just 79 snaps, doing most of his work against the run. This spring, Landman made strides in becoming a more complete linebacker.
"It's little bit of everything," Els said when asked of the next step Landman must take. "It's reads, it's understanding what everyone else does. The other day, we threw Nate in at the other inside linebacker position and his first reaction was, 'I'm not quite sure what I'm doing.' Well, he better know, because that guy is going to be doing the opposite of what you do, so you need to know what each guy is doing."
Els said Landman is "OK" in pass coverage and is sometimes too aggressive against the run to where he could get caught out of place on play-action.
"But, the old saying is, 'It's a lot easier to say whoa than giddy-up,'" Els said. "I'd much rather have a guy that's aggressive that you have to teach."
Els added that Landman's effort and focus are "tremendous," and said he's impressed with how Landman can hit a gap, but then move to the next one to make a play.
"He's the guy in the linebacker corps that you notice can hit things right away," Els said. "We know he can thump. He just has to be a more well-rounded linebacker, but he'll get there."
Jones, meanwhile, earned the Greg Biekert Award, given to the teams' most improved linebacker in spring. Jones played 22 snaps last year, with five tackles.
"He's come back this spring on fire," head coach Mike MacIntyre said.
Spring wound up being big for Lewis, too.
As talented as he is, Lewis often relied on Gamboa last season. Gamboa is widely praised for his knowledge of the entire defense and his ability to almost be like a coach on the field. At times this spring, the Buffs purposely took Gamboa off the field to force Lewis, Jones and Landman to get closer to Gamboa's level of knowing the entire defense.
"I think it needed to be a step, and it was," Els said. "Every team in the country is going to say the same thing: 'Our returning players are smarter than what they were before,' and Drew is certainly one of those guys."
Lewis isn't the only one, as the Buffs now feel confident in several linebackers.
"I'd love to be able to play four guys," Els said, "and right now we feel we can do that."