BOULDER — Despite a season that felt like a 12-game roller coaster ride on defense, Colorado coordinator D.J. Eliot came away from the campaign confident that the foundation has been set for a better 2018.
"We had our ups and downs; some things good, some things bad," Eliot said. "We got a lot of new players some game experience and reps, and I'm excited about next year."
The Buffaloes (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12) missed out on a bowl game for the ninth time in the last 10 years, in part because of the struggles on defense.
CU allowed 28.2 points per game (ranking 76th nationally) and 450.6 yards per game (110th). It was a significant drop-off from CU's 10-4 season in 2016, when the defense allowed just 21.7 points per game (20th nationally) and 342.5 yards per game (19th).
Hired in January, Eliot had a tough task in trying to keep the success of last year going, however, simply because of the people no longer in Boulder:
• Eight starters from the 2016 defense graduated, with many of them going into the NFL.
• Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt left for Oregon, taking cornerbacks coach Charles Clark with him. Safeties coach Joe Tumpkin was fired after allegations of domestic violence were brought against him.
• Four players that would have been starters or significant contributors in 2017 were lost, as well. Linebacker Addison Gillam decided to skip his senior year and walk away from football, while three others - linebacker N.J. Falo, cornerback Anthony Julmisse and defensive lineman Frank Umu — were all dismissed from the team for various reasons. Eliot spent all spring and summer planning on Falo, Julmisse and Umu being key players on the defense.
All of the departures made the 2017 season a big rebuilding job on defense, with some of the Buffs getting their first taste of Division I football.
"We got a lot of guys that hadn't played before, we got them an opportunity to play underneath the lights and sometimes make mistakes and learn from those mistakes," Eliot said. "Also to have some success in doing some things and have something to build on for next year."
Of the 20 players that were on the field for 100 snaps or more this year, the Buffs are set to return 13 of them in 2018. That includes the top three tacklers — linebackers Drew Lewis and Rick Gamboa and safety Evan Worthington.
Eliot is especially hopeful that the experience of this season will help players such as defensive lineman Javier Edwards and Chris Mulumba and cornerback Dante Wigley. All three of them joined the Buffs in January as junior college transfers and became starters.
"You usually see big improvement with junior college players from the first year to the second," Eliot said.
Outside of experience, the Buffs have to improve their tackling, which was awful at times, especially late in the year against big running backs, such as Arizona State's Demario Richard, USC's Ronald Jones II and Utah's Zack Moss.
"We need to emphasize on when we're playing those big backs of tackling low and getting them to the ground and gang tackling," Eliot said. "I think we'll see some improvements when we play those type of running backs next year."
Eliot said the struggles with tackling were a combination of strength and technique, both of which need improvement.
"We're definitely going to get stronger and bigger," Eliot said. "Those guys are going to get stronger and bigger and better at being physical. We're also going to get another year underneath our belt of proper tackling technique."
The Buffs will also aim to get better at forcing turnovers and generating sacks.
After recording 36 sacks in 2016, the Buffs had only 19 this year (101st nationally). They forced just 14 turnovers (98th) after getting 26 a year ago.
"We always emphasize it," Eliot said. "We weren't able to make the plays this year and that's always disappointing. We'll go back like we do with everything we do on defense and look at how we're coaching and look at the opportunities that were missed."
Eliot's first task in getting the defense to improve, however, is to look at himself and how he can get better going into his second season in Boulder.
"I do that every year, whether we had a good year or a bad year," he said. "Every year I try to see what I can do better, as all coaches do, and try to improve for next year.
"There's a lot of things I could have done better, but there's a lot of things I could have done better every year. I'm going to sit down and evaluate what we need to do. There's a lot of things every person can do better. Even if you win 10 games, there's still plenty of plays out there that can be made."