Colorado football fans have yet to get much of a look at the players that will man the middle of the Buffaloes' defense.
Head coach Mike MacIntyre has seen enough, however, to feel confident that CU will once again get quality play from its inside linebackers.
Led by junior Rick Gamboa, who has racked up 175 tackles over the past two years, CU's inside linebackers are talented, but mostly unproven.
"I feel good about all those guys," MacIntyre said. "If our linebackers stay healthy, Rick Gamboa can make plays and Drew Lewis and Akil (Jones) can run like the wind. We just have to find some other guys to help us on special teams and fill in for injuries and be ready to go."
As the Buffs (10-4, 8-1 Pac-12 last year) try to sustain the success they had last year, they've got some big holes to fill at inside and outside linebacker.
While Gamboa is back, the Buffs lost Kenneth Olugbode (37 starts and 299 career tackles) and Addison Gillam (24 starts and 270 career tackles) on the inside this offseason. Replacing that talent and experience won't be easy.
New defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot has been impressed with Drew Lewis and Akil Jones, however, and believes both bring a lot of speed and athleticism to inside linebacker.
On the outside, the Buffs lost the best pass rusher they've had in a decade, with Jimmie Gilbert graduating. Gilbert had 20 career sacks, including 10.5 last year, and he started 27 games in his career.
On the plus side, senior Derek McCartney — who started 22 games from 2014-15 — is back after missing the final 11 games of last year with a torn ACL, and he's got the ability to rack up some sacks. He has 9.5 in his career and had 16 quarterback hurries in 2015.
Junior N.J. Falo could also play inside linebacker if needed, but finished the spring at outside linebacker, where he will provide some help in the pass rush.
BuffZone.com is previewing each position group for the Buffaloes. In this installment, we take a look at the linebackers.
Returnees: Sam Bennion (Fr., 6-5, 230); Ellis Carroll (Fr., 6-1, 230; walk-on); N.J. Falo (Jr., 6-2, 235); Rick Gamboa (Jr., 6-0, 230); Terran Hasselbach (Jr., 6-1, 240); Trent Headley (Sr., 6-2, 225; walk-on); Akil Jones (Fr., 6-0, 220); Drew Lewis (Jr., 6-2, 230); Michael Mathewes (Jr., 6-4, 255); Derek McCartney (Sr., 6-3, 240); Bryan Meek (Sr., 6-0, 210; walk-on); Jacob Stoltenberg (Fr., 6-0, 245; walk-on).
Additions: Jacob Callier (Fr., 6-2, 245); Shamar Hamilton (Jr., 6-5, 230); Nate Landman (Fr., 6-3, 210); Chase Newman (Fr., 6-2, 210); Sebastian Olver (Fr., 6-5, 250); Darrion Pyos (So., 6-2, 210; walk-on); Dante Sparaco (Fr., 6-5, 250); Ethan Todd (Fr., 6-2, 220; walk-on); Jonathan Van Diest (Fr., 6-1, 235); Carson Wells (Fr., 6-4, 230).
Losses: Jimmie Gilbert (graduated); Addison Gillam (graduated, elected to forego final season of eligibility); Aaron Howard (graduated); Pookie Maka (left team); Kenneth Olugbode (graduated); Deaysean Rippy (graduated); Ryan Severson (graduated); Christian Shaver (left team); Travis Talianko (graduated)
2016 recap: CU had exceptional talent and good depth at their linebacker spots last year. On the inside, Kenneth Olugbode made big-time plays all over the field and posted the most tackles (130) by a Buff in nine years. Rick Gamboa and Addison Gillam split time at the other inside position and both had great moments. They combined for 145 tackles and Gillam had four sacks. Drew Lewis played sparingly, but recorded eight tackles and a sack in only 46 snaps. On the outside, Jimmie Gilbert had 10.5 sacks (the most by a Buff in 10 years) and added 16 pressures and 22 third-down stops. Derek McCartney was off to a good start before an ACL tear in Week 3 ended his season. N.J. Falo, Terran Hasselbach and Christian Shaver provided some good depth off the bench.
2017 outlook: While depth at inside linebacker was a strength last year, it's certainly a concern going into this year. Gamboa is the only inside backer with much experience, but he has started 25 consecutive games and led the team in tackles in 2015 before finishing second last year. He doesn't have great side-to-side speed, but is a heady player who is often around the ball. Lewis, who began his career at Washington, looks like he could be a big-time play-maker in the middle of the defense. He had a good spring and figures to start next to Gamboa. Jones has great potential, but has yet to play a college game. CU will need a true freshman (either Landman, Van Diest or Wells) to step up and provide some depth. The Buffs have no shortage of options at outside linebacker, but finding someone to provide the pass rush that Gilbert did will be tough. McCartney could be the man to do that. He's got 9.5 sacks in his career and has the size and ability to be a force on the edge. Falo also has flashed some pass rushing skills in his limited time during his career. The Buffs typically play with just one outside linebacker, so there may not be a lot of playing time after McCartney and Falo, but Hasselbach brings quality depth, and Sparaco had a good spring after enrolling early. Others, including Bennion and Hamilton, will push for playing time this fall. Olver looks to be a grayshirt candidate at this point, meaning he may not enroll until January.