As far as senior linebacker Rick Gamboa is concerned, it's defense that wins championships.
By that standard, the Colorado Buffaloes were almost as far from a Pac-12 Conference championship last year as Fairview or Boulder High. Other than the occasional pass breakup from defensive backs Evan Worthington and Isaiah Oliver, who later was a second-round draft pick of the Atlanta Falcons, Buffs fans often were better off getting a drink refill or taking a restroom break when CU's defense hit the field.
Few are expecting the Buffs' defense to suddenly morph into one of the powers of the Pac-12, like the unit that helped lead CU to the 2016 South Division title. Yet with a handful of newcomers — particularly defensive ends Mustafa Johnson and Israel Antwine, along with safety/Buff Back Davion Taylor — the Buffs are expecting to show marked improvement on defense this fall.
However, for those who experienced last year's frustrations, the goal of putting a better defensive product on the field in 2018 has been a personal one. That unit will get its first test Friday night in the season opener against Colorado State, a team that struggled in its opening loss at home against Hawaii but, nonetheless, saw its new quarterback — KJ Carta-Samuels — throw for a school-record 537 yards.
"We all believe that defense wins championships," Gamboa said. "So for us to reach our goals that we want to reach as a team, we know we have to have a good defense. There's going to be games where the offense struggles, the defense struggles, and the other side of the ball is going to have to pick up. We know that as a team. I think just as a defense, the more takeaways we get, the more stops we get, the least amount of points we give up, that gives the offense a great opportunity to score points."
There was little for the Buffs' defenders to hang their collective hats on last season. CU finished ninth in the league in total defense (450.6 yards per game), ninth in pass defense (242.6) and 10th in rush defense (208.0). While a dropoff from the senior-heavy group of 2016 was expected, the 2017 CU defense rarely struck fear into the opposition. The Buffs' sack total dropped from 36 in 2016 to 22 last year, and the 2017 Buffs had fewer overall takeaways (14) than the 2016 Buffs had interceptions (15).
For players like Gamboa, nose tackle Javier Edwards and linebacker Drew Lewis, those numbers not only were unacceptable, but they became a driving force throughout the offseason.
"We're very motivated," Edwards said. "Last year we didn't know as much and still were in a learning process. Now, there's no excuses. We know what to do. We know what to expect. We can relax and just play football. People said we were young and hadn't started any games. But now there's no excuses. We have to prove ourselves because we're a defense that gets talked down a lot. We have to prove the world wrong."
Lewis and fellow linebacker Jacob Callier perhaps exemplify the struggles the CU defense displayed against the run last year. While they were among the few Buffs defenders who made opposing quarterbacks nervous — Lewis and Callier posted the top two quarterback pressure totals on the team — they were unable to replicate that success against the run. Lewis says bringing a more rounded game to the gridiron this fall has been a priority throughout the offseason.
"That was one major thing for me, to get better at the run game," Lewis said. "I take it as serious as I can, and when we don't perform well I kind of put it on myself for being the reason why we don't do too well. I definitely want to improve on the inside runs."