Of all the talent that the Colorado football team lost from its defense after the 2016 season, it may have been Jimmie Gilbert that the Buffaloes missed the most.
"A glaring miss for us last year was we didn't get the 13 sacks out of Jimmie Gilbert and all the pressures and hurries," head coach Mike MacIntyre said earlier this month.
Certainly, the Buffaloes missed the three NFL defensive backs they had in 2016, as well as others, but without Gilbert, CU's pass rush took a drastic dive in 2017.
CU ranked 30th nationally with 2.57 sacks per game in 2016. Last year, the Buffs dipped to 102nd, with 1.58 sacks per game, and five of their 19 sacks came in Week 2 against Texas State.
Spring practices are set to begin on Friday, and a top priority for the Buffs is to develop more of a threat from its outside linebackers. To do that, the Buffs will turn to a familiar face that's back in the fold, a dynamic newcomer from the junior college ranks and a lot of unproven, but talented youth.
"It's a good group," said defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who coaches the outside linebackers. "I'm looking forward to working with them."
The key to CU's improvement could be the return of Nu'umoto Falo, a junior who played at CU in 2015 and 2016, but was dismissed from the team last summer. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Falo is determined to be a force on the edge.
"It helps us tremendously," Eliot said."He's played a lot of football here, he has good strength and he's a good player. He's going to bring some toughness and some maturity to that position."
Davion Taylor brings a different dynamic, as well. A transfer from Coahoma (Miss.) Community College, he is likely to play the Buff back position, which is a safety/outside linebacker hybrid. He'll split his time between working with the safeties and outside linebackers and has the speed and strength to be an asset as a rusher.
"He's extremely fast, he's really smart, he's a hard worker and he has great size for the position and strength," Eliot said. "We're just going to have to continue to develop him as a technician, but as an athlete he's tremendous."
Outside of Falo and Taylor, the Buffs have a lot of talented youth to work with this spring, led by true sophomores Jacob Callier and Dante Sparaco.
Callier flashed his talent last year as a pass-rush specialist. He played just 196 snaps, but had a sack and led the team with 11 quarterback pressures.
The Buffs are looking for Callier to take on a bigger role this year as he learns more of the defense. CU recognized his pass-rush ability last summer and made the decision to teach him one package: the nickel package.
"That allowed him to execute every call within that package," Eliot said. "This offseason we're teaching him the nickel and the base package, so he can be able to play on both schemes."
While Callier is more of a pass-rush specialist, Sparaco is much bigger and more of an asset against the run. Both will be looking to take the next step in their development this spring.
Big things are also expected from redshirt freshman Carson Wells, another talented player from the 2017 recruiting class.
Lack of depth forced CU to practice Wells at inside linebacker during August camp before they decided he was better on the outside. Playing on the outside, Wells impressed Eliot last season with his work on scout team.
"I like the tools that he has as an outside backer," Eliot said. "This spring is going to be critical for him on his development as a player, but I really like the athleticism that he brings to the table."
Junior Shamar Hamilton, who missed last season with a torn ACL, and sophomore Sam Bennion give the Buffs some depth this spring. In the summer, they'll add junior college transfer Alex Tchangam and freshman Joshka Gustav.
With all that talent, Eliot is hoping the Buffs have the pieces in place to make life tougher on quarterbacks in 2018.
"The objective for us is to affect the quarterback," he said. "You affect the quarterback with bats, hits and sacks. Sometimes it's more important to hit him or knock the ball down than it is to sack him because he's affected for the rest of the game. We're going to emphasize that this spring.
"I'm excited to see what those guys can do."