Drew Lewis had the type of breakout year he was hoping for in 2017, when he led the Colorado football team with 119 tackles.

From his position at inside linebacker, Lewis was a disruptive force against the run, but also rushing the passer, with two sacks, eight quarterback pressures and a whole lot of passes altered because of his speed and athleticism.

While those numbers suggest that he and fellow senior Rick Gamboa (117 tackles) could be a dynamic duo in the middle of the field this year, the Buffs are doing what's best for the overall defense and moving Lewis to the outside.

"I've always watched our outside linebackers do a great amount of work and now it's my time to actually go do it myself," Lewis said. "I feel I've got a good understanding of it. Sometimes those (pulling guards) are some big boys, so you have to get your pads low and hit them hard. That's the only difference."

As good as Lewis and Gamboa were together, the CU defense struggled as a unit in 2017, giving up 28.2 points (ranking 74th nationally) and 450.6 yards (109th) per game. The Buffs were 108th against the run, yielding 208.0 yards per game.

Moving Lewis to the outside not only puts a dynamic athlete on the edge, it makes room for true sophomore Nate Landman to play more inside.


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"We've trained (Lewis) now where he can be an inside or outside backer, so that we can always try to make sure we have the best 11 on the field," coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Depending on the situation, depending on the (opponent), he'll be able to play either/or."

Splitting time between inside and outside, Lewis may not rack up the same type of tackle numbers he had a year ago, but he said he's enjoying the change.

Colorado defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson is one of several young players that will see playing time in 2018
Colorado defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson is one of several young players that will see playing time in 2018 (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

"It's going well," he said. "I feel I'm able to just jump right back into it (on the inside) like nothing ever happened. I don't want to say I'm mastering these positions, but I think I'm getting a good understanding of them. The biggest thing I'm working on right now is reading the offense from a different perspective."

Finding a way to get Gamboa, Lewis and Landman on the field together could be huge for the CU defense, but the Buffs will rely on a host of players.

Senior safeties Evan Worthington and Nick Fisher are a solid duo in the back of the defense, while the Buffs have a handful of talented cornerbacks that are vying for playing time. Junior college transfer Davion Taylor brings exceptional talent to the Buff back spot.

Up front, the Buffs have a mix of veterans and youth and believe they can be better as a unit in the trenches.

"We definitely have more speed," Eliot said. "I think we've got some guys in the right spots, and there's definitely certain positions that we'll be better at. I'm excited to see how they play next Friday (against Colorado State).

"I think the guys have the right mindset and the right approach to the game and we're ready to play someone else."

Between the veterans and the newcomers, the Buffs have talent on defense, and Lewis said he's interested to see the results on game day.

"I'm seeing a lot of guys give a lot of effort," he said. "We see guys flying to the ball. That kind of stuff is going to carry over to Saturday and that's going to change the game for sure.

"I'm so excited. I'm eager to see how we're going to look compared to last year."

A quick look at each position on the CU defense:

Linemen: An area that really struggled last year, the Buffs return two starters (senior nose tackle Javier Edwards and senior end Chris Mulumba) two other major contributors (senior Jase Franke and junior Lyle Tuiloma) - all of which have reportedly improved. The talk of preseason camp, however, has been the newcomers: sophomore junior college transfer Mustafa Johnson, redshirt freshman Terrance Lang and true freshman Israel Antwine. As a group, they should be better than last year.

Outside linebackers: Moving Drew Lewis to the outside makes this spot a bit more intriguing. CU typically only plays one OLB at a time, and while Lewis will get plenty of snaps, the Buffs also like sophomore Jacob Callier, junior Nu'umotu Falo and redshirt freshman Carson Wells.

Buff back: Junior college transfer Davion Taylor may have some adjusting to do as he plays his first year of Division I football, but he's got the ideal size, strength and speed for this position. Safeties Kyle Trego, Daniel Talley and Ray Robinson could play here, as well.

Inside linebackers: Lewis and fellow senior Rick Gamboa are returning starters and very good inside. The emergence of true sophomore Nate Landman, however, makes this group even more interesting. Landman is a true playmaker and has star potential. Between the three, the Buffs are in great shape. The depth is pretty good, too, as sophomore Akil Jones and redshirt freshmen Jon Van Diest and Chase Newman have all had good offseasons.

Cornerbacks: Junior Dante Wigley and sophomore Trey Udoffia are returning starters, but both are fighting for starting jobs. JUCO transfer Delrick Abrams Jr. is a long, athletic corner, and freshman Chris Miller has great potential. Another JUCO transfer, Mehki Blackmon, had a great camp, too. All five are likely to play at some point. At nickel. Ronnie Blackmon had a great camp.

Safeties: Seniors Nick Fisher and Evan Worthington form a talented duo to anchor the defense. If healthy, they'll be on the field a lot for the Buffs. Depth is a concern here, but true freshman Hasaan Hypolite and converted receiver/corner Derrion Rakestraw played well in camp. JUCO transfer Aaron Maddox could fit here (or nickel), as well, while Isaiah Lewis and Trego are also options.

Snapshot: CU defense

Assistant coaches

D.J. Eliot (2nd season): Coordinator/OLB

ShaDon Brown (2nd season): Safeties

Ross Els (2nd season): Inside linebackers

Ashley Ambrose (1st season): Cornerbacks

Kwahn Drake (1st season): Defensive line

Five to watch

DL Israel Antwine, Fr.: Nobody on the defense line got more attention in preseason camp, as he displayed tremendous strength and a mean streak.

ILB Nate Landman, So.: He's already gained a reputation in practice for behind hard-hitter with a nose for the football.

LB Drew Lewis, Sr.: The top tackler a year ago on the inside, he was moved to outside in camp. With his athleticism, he could help in both areas this year.

CB Trey Udoffia, So.: Several corners are vying for starting roles, but Udoffia has experience was the most consistent in camp when healthy.

FS Evan Worthington, Sr.: Arguably the best overall player on the team, he can cover, play the run and be a leader in the back of the defense.

2017 Statistics

Rankings Avg. Pac-12 National

Scoring 28.2 6 74

Total defense 450.6 9 109

Rushing 208.0 10 108

Passing 242.6 9 94

Passing efficiency 125.7 6 54

Sacks 19 11 102

3rd-down % 42.2 7 93

Red zone scoring 85.1 6 81

Top returning individuals

Tackles

LB Drew Lewis: 119 total (49 solo)

LB Rick Gamboa: 117 total (45 solo)

S Evan Worthington: 86 total (66 solo)

Sacks

LB Drew Lewis: 2

5 players tied with 1 each

Interceptions

S Evan Worthington: 3

S Nick Fisher: 1

CB Trey Udoffia: 1

Numbers to know

4.65 — Tackle rate for linebacker Nate Landman (one tackle per 4.65 snaps) in 2017. Of the 21 players on the team with 75-plus snaps played, that was by far the best rate. Drew Lewis was second, at 6.9.

5 — Pac-12 teams that rushed for at least 250 yards against the Buffs last season. CU allowed an average of 261.7 rushing yards in the last seven games.

10 — Touchdown-saving tackles by safety Evan Worthington last year. Nobody else on the team had more than four.

14 — Turnovers caused by the CU defense last year. It's the second-lowest total for a CU team since stats were first recorded in 1946 (lowest: 11 in 2014).

292 — Career tackles for senior linebacker Rick Gamboa. Just 15 players in CU history have hit the 300 mark and only seven had at least 350.

Projected depth chart

PosFirst teamSecond team

DE Chris Mulumba, Sr., 6-2, 290 Israel Antwine, Fr., 6-4, 315

NT Javier Edwards, Sr., 6-3, 335 Lyle Tuiloma, Jr., 6-3, 310

LE Mustafa Johnson, So., 6-2, 290 Terrance Lang, Fr., 6-7, 275

OLB Drew Lewis, Sr., 6-2, 225 Jacob Callier, So., 6-2, 240

BUFF Davion Taylor, , Jr., 6-2, 220 Kyle Trego, Sr., 6-0, 195

ILB Rick Gamboa, Sr., 6-0, 230 Akil Jones, So., 6-0, 230

ILB Nate Landman, So., 6-3, 220 Jon Van Diest, Fr., 6-1, 230

CB Delrick Abrams Jr., Jr., 6-3, 185 Chris Miller, Fr., 6-0, 190

CB Trey Udoffia, So., 6-0, 185 Dante Wigley, Jr., 6-1, 195

FS Evan Worthington, Sr., 6-2, 210 Hasaan Hypolite, Fr., 5-11, 200

SS Nick Fisher, Sr., 6-0, 190 Derrion Rakestraw, So., 6-2, 190

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