Driving down a mountain road while returning from a summer getaway with the family, Colorado defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot spoke with a little more confidence than he did a year ago.

One year into his job of running the Buffaloes' defense, Eliot's comfortable in Boulder and more familiar with the players he has to work with this fall.

"I feel better than last year," Eliot said. "We have a group of guys that got a lot of experience last year and I think we have a lot of talented guys who are either newcomers because they're junior college guys or because they redshirted last year."

Quite often, there is an emphasis on players getting better from year to year, but coaches do too, and Eliot's progress in his second year with the Buffaloes could be crucial for the defense.

"I like to think I get better every year," he said. "I like to think that I improve as a coordinator every year, and every year you have different challenges."

The challenge Eliot took on a year ago was a big one, trying to fill the shoes of Jim Leavitt, who left CU for Oregon after the 2016 season.

Leavitt was revered by CU fans for the job he did in just two seasons. In 2014, before he arrived, the Buffs ranked 119th nationally in scoring defense. In 2016, the Buffs ranked 20th.

Leavitt did a great job, but it certainly helped that he had a defense loaded with experience and talent. Going into 2016, CU's defenders had 236 career starts among them. Six players were going into their third seasons as starters in 2016.


Filling Leavitt's shoes was only part of the challenge. Eight full-time starters — four that were taken in the NFL draft — and 10 significant contributors from 2016 had to be replaced.

Eliot took over a defense that had just 104 combined starts going into 2017. They slipped to 74th in scoring defense.

This year, there's 105 career starts among the defense, but seven players got at least seven starts in 2017.

"I feel better in the fact that we have some guys that got some paying time last year that are coming back as starters," Eliot said.

That list includes defensive linemen Javier Edwards and Chris Mulumba, cornerbacks Trey Udoffia and Dante Wigley, safety Evan Worthington and linebacker Drew Lewis.

"Those names there are guys who had never played before and were basically starters for us at times last year," Eliot said. "I feel really good about their experience and their improvement from the end of the season and through spring ball."

Eliot's experience could pay dividends, as well.

While he has been in coaching for nearly 20 years, the 2017 season was his first in the Pac-12, which was much different from his previous job at Kentucky.

"The Pac-12, I think, has very good offenses that run up tempo and get a lot of plays off, so you have to be able to defend that on defense," Eliot said. "The SEC was more of a power style of offense, where they had big backs and big O-linemen and they could run you over. They didn't really get that many plays off, so you didn't have to defend as many plays."

The biggest difference, however, came at quarterback.

"I had never played such a good group of quarterbacks before in one conference," he said. "I knew what I was getting into and I knew those quarterbacks were going to be good. Once I got to see them live, I was more impressed than I anticipated on how good those quarterbacks were. That was a challenge trying to stop those guys."

Many of those top quarterbacks from last year — USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen, Washington State's Luke Falk — are now in the NFL, but the Pac-12 is still loaded with talented passers.

"Going into this year, I have a better feel for the Pac-12," he said. "Even though we have some new coaches (around the Pac-12) ... they may have a different style of offense, but it's still going to be the same type of athletes and the same type of league it's been for quite a while now."

Eliot also has a better feel for his own roster, and the Buffs have a better feel for him as a coach.

"I would definitely say he's gotten better with communicating with us as a team, as a defense," Gamboa said. "(He will do) anything he can do to help this defense and help this team be better. When a coach comes with that mentality, it definitely brings that out of everybody."

Ultimately, Eliot said the keys for better defense will be producing more turnovers and creating more tackles behind the line of scrimmage. His comfort and experience at CU could help to boost those numbers.

"I'm excited about it," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."

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