Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado nickel back Chidobe Azuzie, left, was arguably CU’s best player this year, and an All-Pac-12 caliber defender.

Better D

This was Colorado’s best season on defense since joining the Pac-12. A look at how the Buffs have ranked among the Pac-12 in scoring defense and total defense (yards allowed) since 2011:

2015: Scoring – 6th; Total: 6th

2014: Scoring – 11th; Total: 11th

2013: Scoring – 11th; Total: 11th

2012: Scoring – 12th; Total: 11th

2011: Scoring – 12th; Total: 10th

With a bottle of Pepsi in one hand and a suitcase in the other, Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt walked off the field at Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday with a measure of pride.

No, he wasn’t pleased with CU’s 20-14 loss in the season finale, but he knew his defense needed to step up that day and it did.

“I’m proud of the effort,” he said after concluding his first season on the CU coaching staff. “We knew we were going to have to play well. Quarterback-wise we were in a tough situation (on offense), and I thought they played good.

“Overall, I’m really proud of them this year. We’ve shown some resiliency. We’ll get better with most of those guys back. There’s something there.”

Yes, there is.

For the first time in years, the Buffaloes (4-9, 1-8 Pac-12) go into the offseason feeling relatively good about their defense.

“This defense is definitely going to be in the top of the Pac-12 for next year,” sixth-year senior safety Jered Bell said. “I have no doubt in my mind about that.”

Bell won’t be here to see it but played a significant role in CU taking a giant leap this year.

The Buffs finished the season ranking sixth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (27.5 points per game) and sixth in total defense (416.9 yards per game).

“I don’t know if we’ve finished in the top half statistically in scoring defense here for a long time,” Leavitt said.

Not since joining the Pac-12 anyway. In four previous Pac-12 seasons, CU had never ranked higher than 10th in either category.

This is the first time since 2006 that CU yielded less than 28 points per game, and it’s the lowest yardage total they’ve allowed since 2010. Last year, the Buffs allowed 39.0 points and 461.0 yards per game.

“Leavitt came in and he’s done a tremendous job,” Bell said. “We have young players really buying into the program, buying into the scheme and it fits our personnel. We’re out there playing hard.”

Leavitt expected some growing pains this year, and there certainly were. The Buffs got torched at times by Oregon, Arizona State and Arizona in the first three Pac-12 games. In fact, through the 38-31 loss to Arizona on Oct. 17, the Buffs had allowed 36-plus points in 12 consecutive conference games, dating back to last season.

From that point on, though, the defense got tougher. During the last six games of the season, just two opponents — UCLA and Stanford — scored more than 27 points against the Buffs.

The Buffs got better on defense this year despite losing inside linebacker Addison Gillam to a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 and free safety Ryan Moeller to a season-ending injury (from an auto accident) after Week 7. They also played two games in the middle of the year without their other starting inside linebacker, Kenneth Olugbode.

They got solid efforts from junior college transfers Jordan Carrell and Leo Jackson III on the defensive line. Redshirt freshman Rick Gamboa stepped in for Gillam and led the team in tackles. When healthy, Olugbode played well, too, as did outside linebacker Derek McCartney and others.

The strength of the team, though, was the secondary, as the Buffs had the Pac-12’s third-ranked passing defense. They also ranked third in the conference with 14 interceptions after picking off just three passes a year ago.

Nickel back Chidobe Awuzie was arguably CU’s best player this year, and an All-Pac-12 caliber defender. Strong safety Tedric Thompson was right there with him.

More than anything, though, what makes Leavitt excited for next year is what he saw in Salt Lake City.

“They fought,” he said. “They fought, and that is the essence of building a defense, and building a program. You have to fight, you have to have passion for the game. That, on the defensive side, I saw.”

Plenty of fighters will be back, too.

Only three significant contributors on defense — Bell, cornerback Kenneth Crawley and defensive tackle Justin Solis — will graduate. The Buffs are also expecting to get Gillam and Moeller back in the fold and they are excited about the potential of their true freshmen. In particular, linebackers NJ Falo and Grant Watanabe and cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver and Nick Fisher played well when given opportunities.

“I think we’re going in the right direction toward next year, and Leavitt has completely turned this defense around,” Thompson said.

Well, not completely.

Leavitt finished the season pleased with the progress but not nearly satisfied.

“I told Kenneth (Olugbode) he has about a day off and then we’ve got to go to work,” Leavitt said. “I think we have a real chance (to be good on defense).

“We have to play better defense and we will.”

Brian Howell:, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.