The Colorado defense is sure to open spring football with some confidence next month, and rightfully so.

For the second year in a row, however, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt anticipates the summer being more critical for the development of his defense.

"Will the summer be huge like last summer? Yeah. I already know it," Leavitt said.

That's not to say spring football, which begins March 4, won't be important, but Leavitt knows that several players the Buffs might count on in this fall won't be available during the spring.

"We're not going to have Addison (Gillam) and we're not going to have Drew (Lewis), and both of those guys are going to compete at inside backer," Leavitt said.

Gillam will be nursing a knee injury this spring, but Lewis won't arrive until summer after signing a letter of intent earlier this month.

The Buffs also won't have senior defensive tackle Josh Tupou, who was suspended last summer, but expected to return this summer. And they'll still be waiting on a few true freshmen — in particular, defensive backs Ca'Ron Baham, Ronnie Blackmon and Trey Udoffia, as well as linebacker Pookie Maka — to arrive.

Despite the limitations, Leavitt is eager to begin his second season at CU. He hit the ground running last year, as he was hired less than two weeks before the start of spring practices.

Coaches and players had very little time to adjust to Leavitt, and he had very little time to learn about them.


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"Quite honestly, I didn't think (spring) was near as productive as it could have been," he said. "I knew that after the first and second practice. The summer I knew was going to be my shot."

Over the summer, Leavitt had valuable one-on-one teaching time with players, and he found time to connect with his fellow coaches.

"I wanted to listen the best I could and try to work together to do some things," he said of his fellow coaches. "The players understand when coaches are together on things and they understand when coaches aren't. It's very, very important."

Learning on the fly even during the season, CU improvement dramatically. After giving up 39.0 points per game in 2014, the Buffs allowed just 27.5 last year.

CU certainly had its share of struggles, but Leavitt came away from the season feeling good about the progress.

"We did do some better things on defense," he said. "That's pretty easy to see."

If nothing else, the 2015 season gave CU's defenders some confidence they haven't had in years.

"They're going to walk out there this spring feeling like they're pretty good, and that's OK," Leavitt said.

It's OK, as long as the players come into spring ready to crank it up a notch or two.

"We all know that if we play like we played last year, then we're not going to get enough wins to get it done," Leavitt said. "We have to play better."

Leavitt said the Buffs need better play out of their linebackers. That'll be tough without Gillam and Lewis, as the Buffs will have just three inside linebackers available this spring - returning starters Kenneth Olugbode and Rick Gamboa as well as Ryan Severson.

The Buffs are also looking to get more pressure on the quarterback without blitzing.

Leavitt is hoping sophomore NJ Falo can develop into a terror as an outside linebacker, while also looking for better play from Jimmie Gilbert, Derek McCartney and others at that spot.

Up front, Leavitt wants to see returning linemen Jordan Carrell, Leo Jackson III and Samson Kafovalu step up this spring, as well as redshirt freshmen Brett Tonz, Lyle Tuiloma and Frank Umu.

In the secondary, the Buffs will give nickel back Chidobe Awuzie a look at cornerback as they try to replace departed senior Ken Crawley.

Summer may wind up being more important, but it'll take a complete, solid offseason for the Buffs to move forward defensively.

"You know what you've got and you know what guys can do," Leavitt said of the difference from last year to this year. "That part is good.

"I think they're getting more comfortable and confident in what they're doing and what they're trying to do. But we're not doing it good enough and we have to coach it better. But that goes without saying."

Brian Howell: howellb@dailycamera.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.