If the Colorado football team is to be a contender in the Pac-12 this season, the Buffaloes know their defense has to be stellar once again.
To do that, the Buffs have to figure out how to rebuild a defensive line that lost all three starters to graduation. That could make Leo Jackson III one of the most important players on the team this year.
A senior, Jackson was the top reserve on the defensive front last season, when the Buffs went 10-4 and won the Pac-12 South division. With last year's starters — Jordan Carrell, Samson Kafovalu and Josh Tupou — now training for a shot at the NFL, the Buffs need somebody to step up.
It could all start with Jackson.
"I expect him to be the leader of the group," defensive line coach Jim Jeffcoat said. "If he's playing at a high level, he's going to pull some other guys along."
Jackson played all 14 games last season, registering 16 tackles in 254 snaps during the regular season. In 2015 — his first season at CU after transferring from Foothill College in California — Jackson started 10 games racked up 33 tackles and two sacks.
"It helps tremendously," he said of his experience, "because I don't really get flustered too much because I've already been in the position."
At 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, Jackson is smaller than all of last year's starters, but said he's in better shape and has more muscle than he did in the past.
"I'm a lot stronger and a lot more agile," said Jackson, who has been practicing at left defensive end.
Jackson has had a productive spring for the Buffs, which is what Jeffcoat expected.
"My expectation for him is high because he's been around me, he understands he's started," Jeffcoat said. "He understands the technique and he's doing really good at it."
Jackson isn't only focused on his performance, however. He's eager to help the entire front line be stout once again.
"(The goal) is just to pick up where they left off, but also to be better," Jackson said. "We don't have the huge guys on the line like we did last year, so now it's more utilizing (technique) and knowing where we need to go and what the offense is doing."
In addition to Jackson, the Buffs are hoping for a big season from senior Timothy Coleman, who is even smaller than Jackson, at 6-3, 255. A converted outside linebacker, Coleman had 12 tackles and a sack in a limited role last season.
Junior college transfers Javier Edwards and Chris Mulumba will be counted on, as well.
Edwards is a potential replacement for Tupou at nose tackle. While still working into shape, the 6-foot-3, 350-pound Edwards has impressed his teammates and coaches.
"He's a special talent," Jeffcoat said. "He gets better and better each day. It really means a lot to him, and that's what I like. Every day he goes out there, he wants to get better. He spends extra time on conditioning; he spends extra time in the meeting room. He comes up and asks me questions and they're really good questions. I think he's got a chance to be a special player."
Juniors Jase Franke and Eddy Lopez and sophomores Lyle Tuiloma and Frank Umu are in the mix, as well.
Overall, it's a competitive group that pushes Jackson every day.
"I'm excited because I love competition," Jackson said. "I think it brings out the best in people. You also find out who can play and who can't play and who needs more work. I love competition. I don't like anything to be a sure thing."
With three new starters on the defensive line, nothing is a sure thing, but as the Buffs go into their final week of spring drills, Jeffcoat is encouraged.
"I like this group and I think this group's got a chance to be really good," he said. "From the end of spring ball to the start of fall camp is going to determine how good and how hard they work. That's going to be crucial.
"We have talent; it's just inexperienced."
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.