When new Colorado linebackers coach Ross Els first approached Akil Jones about learning both inside backer positions, Jones was hesitant.

"I want to focus a lot on Mike (backer), but when he told me I want you to play Jack too, I was like, 'OK, this is a lot that's going to be on my plate,'" Jones said.

With the Sept. 1 season opener against Colorado State around the corner, however, the redshirt freshman is growing more comfortable each week.

"It just means I have to put in more time for it," he said of learning both positions. "Right now, I'm working and I feel like I'm getting better every day. Soon I'll be able to play both positions without even thinking."

That would be huge for the Buffs, who will go into the season with very little experience at inside linebacker.

Aside from junior Rick Gamboa, a third-year starter with 1,218 career snaps to his credit, the rest of the inside linebackers have played a grand total of 46 snaps at the Division I level — all by junior Drew Lewis.

While Gamboa and Lewis are expected to start, Els and the CU staff are working hard every day to prepare the rest of the crew, including Jones.


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"I'm glad we don't play this Saturday," Els said this week. "We've got a ways to go."

Gamboa — often recognized by players and coaches on offense and defense as one of the smartest players on the team — is rock solid at Mike backer. Beyond that, the Buffs are a major work in progress. Even Lewis, who is expected to start at Jack, isn't quite ready.

"Sometimes he relies on Rick a little bit too much," Els said. "When he gets it down mentally, though, he's a phenomenal athlete."

Gamboa and Lewis have shown the potential to be a very good starting duo, while Jones is one of several young linebackers working to get themselves ready to contribute.

Els, hired in the spring, has already seen a much-improved Jones this fall.

"He's had to learn double what he had to learn when he first got here, and he's really handled it well," Els said. "He's another kid who is a really good athlete, but intelligence-wise, he's really picked up from where he left off in the spring."

While hesitant at first, Jones said he's embraced the opportunity to learn both inside positions.

"That's a great thing that Els has taught me," Jones said. "He said, 'Don't just learn one position. Learn all of them so you know what's going on, so you can be a leader and control the whole field.' That's what I'm focusing on.

"I just feel I'm getting better at it each and every day."

Jones said he relies heavily on Gamboa and Lewis, who are both in their fourth seasons of college football.

"I look up to both of them actually," Jones said. "Hopefully this year I can get thrown in the mix with them."

Also in the mix is a trio of true freshmen that will be called upon at some point. Nate Landman, Jonathan Van Diest and Carson Wells are all vying for playing time at inside linebacker. (Wells is also working at outside linebacker). Like Jones, the freshmen trio is learning both inside positions.

"Those three guys are rotating in and taking even reps, so we'll see who the next guy is," Els said. "To be honest, there is no one that really is ahead of the other. All three will play this year. Load them up on special teams and find out who is going to be the next backer."

Els said Wells is the heaviest and strongest of the three freshmen, while Van Diest "has quicker feet than the other two," and Landman "has the knack" and understands blocking schemes and reads better.

Jones, who usually plays with the No. 2 defense, said he probably plays next to Landman more than the others, but agreed with Els that there's not much separation.

"They all specialize in something," Jones said. "I think they're way beyond where I was my freshman year. I actually like to see that because we're always taking steps forward and we're never going to be taking a step backwards."

While the group isn't where it wants to be by Sept. 1, the Buffs are encouraged by the forward progress.

"I love the way they're playing and they're going to be — all of them — a really good core," Els said. "It's my job to get them going in the right direction."

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.