In a career as a defensive coach that dates back to 1978, Jim Leavitt has been fortunate enough to mentor some of the best in the business.
Figuring prominently at the top of that list are Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, All-Pro linebackers that thrived under Leavitt's tutelage during his pre-University of Colorado stint as the linebackers coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Cautiously, Leavitt has started lumping sophomore middle linebacker Rick Gamboa into Willis-Bowman territory. Leavitt is quick to clarify Gamboa has a long way to go to match the skills of a pair of players that helped lead the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII. Yet when it comes to processing information, taking concepts from the classroom and film room and putting them into play on the field, Leavitt believes Gamboa already is as good as it gets.
"He's very sharp. A great, coachable guy," Leavitt said. "He has a lot of talent and he's very sharp. He knows our defense well. He corrects me when I'm wrong. He's really good at that. He was sharp from day one. You could tell he's a heady ball player.
"He's as sharp of a thinker that, honestly, I've ever had. And I've had some of the best in the world. He might not be right up there with Willis and Bowman yet, but mentally he's very good. He knows this system well."
As a redshirt freshman a year ago, Gamboa was pressed into service when Addison Gillam went down with a knee injury in the second week of the season, a setback that ultimately cost Gillam the remainder of the year.
Gamboa stepped in and played a key role in the resurgence of CU's defense, starting the final 11 games and finishing as the Buffaloes' leader with 96 total tackles. His 58 solo tackles tied for second on the squad, trailing only cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (78). Gamboa reached double-figures in tackles four times, with a career-best of 12 at Washington State.
Gamboa became just the second freshman in the history of the CU program to lead the Buffs in tackles, joining a club Gillam started as a true freshman in 2013. Though Gillam has returned in 2016 following two injury-plagued seasons, Gamboa received the starting nod in the opener last week against Colorado State.
Gamboa finished with five tackles and played the second-most snaps among the linebacker crew (48). With a year of experience under his belt and the shrewd football mind Leavitt raves about, Gamboa expects to an even bigger season this year.
"I feel a lot more prepared," Gamboa said. "Last season gave me a lot of confidence. Just being out there helped me see things, helped the game slow down for me. When I got out there at first last year everything was moving pretty fast. This year everything is moving slow. I'm reading my keys faster and getting to the ball faster."
Gamboa and the Buffs' defense turned in a strong debut to the 2016 season, holding Colorado State to 225 total yards while forcing four turnovers. The challenge this week will to repeat that inspired effort against an Idaho State club that comes to Folsom Field as a heavy underdog.
"Being in the system for a whole year, instead of thinking now we're just reacting," Gamboa said. "This year we have so much depth, if guys are tired we can sub out and the play doesn't drop from the ones to twos. Everyone is playing at a high level. You just want to play as good as the guy next to you, and you don't want to let him down."