• Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Isaiah Oliver makes an interception down field during the University of Colorado football spring game at Folsom Field in Boulder on April 9.

  • Mark Leffingwell / Staff Photographer

    Defensive back Andrew Bergner runs sprints during CU football practice on Feb. 16.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Ahkello Witherspoon (23) celebrates his interception with Isaiah Oliver during the first quarter of the Oct. 3, game at Folsom Field.



Pass defense

Last season, Colorado ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, as opposing passers registered a combined quarterback rating of just 123.8 – the lowest number against the Buffs in a decade. Here’s a look at CU’s top five seasons in pass efficiency defense since 2001:

Year: Opponent QB rating

2002: 111.1

2001: 111.7

2005: 118.5

2015: 123.8

2009: 124.1

Johnny Huntley III has yet to go through an official practice as a Colorado football player, but the freshman receiver already knows that being in Boulder is going to make him a better player.

As far as he’s concerned, going against CU’s talented defensive backs will benefit all the receivers.

“The one I want to go against is Chido Awuzie,” Huntley said earlier this summer before leaving his home in Florida to join the Buffs. “I’ve seen him play and he’s pretty good. I know if I go against him, I’ll be able to get better.”

While Huntley might enjoy the test of competing with Awuzie in practice, it’ll be no picnic for CU opponents.

Earlier this week, Awuzie was named to the watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, separate honors given to the nation’s top defensive players. Last year, he was a second-team All-Pac-12 performer, making him the first CU defender to earn first- or second-team honors since the Buffs joined the conference in 2011.

A senior, Awuzie is the leader of a talented group of cornerbacks that CU features this season. Fellow senior Ahkello Witherspoon and sophomore Isaiah Oliver are also all-conference caliber corners who hope to help the Buffs once again rank among the best pass defenses in the conference. Behind that group is a set of talented, but young, corners that could help the Buffs, as well.

“Talent-wise, we are there,” Awuzie said, “but, we’re still trying to work out some kinks as a team, and just build a better bond.”

Before the start of preseason camp in August, Buffzone.com will take a look at each position group for the Buffaloes. In this installment, we take a look at the cornerbacks.

Position: Cornerbacks

Returnees: Chidobe Awuzie (Sr., 6-0, 205); Andrew Bergner (Jr., 5-11, 175; walk-on); Lucas Cooper (So., 5-10, 185, walk-on); Isaiah Oliver (So., 6-1, 190); Ahkello Witherspoon (Sr., 6-3, 195)

Additions: Ca’Ron Baham (Fr., 6-0, 190); Ronnie Blackmon (Fr., 5-10, 180); Trey Udoffia (Fr., 6-0, 185)

Losses: Ken Crawley (graduated); John Walker (graduated; transferred to North Dakota); Yuri Wright (graduated)

2015 recap: CU ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, as opposing quarterbacks had a rating of just 123.8. That was the best performance by a CU pass defense since 2005. Awuzie played most of the year at nickel, and combined with Crawley and Witherspoon in doing a nice job of locking down receivers. Crawley often lined up against the opposition’s best receiver. He gave up the most touchdowns and had some costly penalties, but was solid overall (leading the team in pass breakups and third-down stops). Witherspoon had a good year, too, but was inconsistent. Oliver was the only other corner who played a significant amount of snaps and he made a nice first impression as a true freshman.

2016 outlook: CU will miss Crawley, who was a four-year starter and signed with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints after going undrafted in the spring. The Buffs may actually be better at this position, though. There’s a chance that Awuzie will move from nickel to corner. Either way, he’s one of the top defenders in the Pac-12. Going into the fall, safety Afolabi Laguda is atop the depth chart at nickel, with Awuzie and Oliver as the top corners. Oliver is an exceptional athlete who also competed in the decathlon for the track team in the spring. Whether he starts or not, Witherspoon will see a lot of the field, too. If he can become more reliable from play to play, he gives CU potentially three elite corners. The Buffs have three talented true freshmen (Baham, Blackmon and Udoffia) coming in and will likely need at least one of them to play this fall. Projecting which one plays is tough, however, because coaches need to see how they adapt on the field and in the meeting room before finding one that stands out. If the veterans stay healthy, though, the freshman trio could spend most of this season learning. Sophomore Nick Fisher worked more at safety in the spring and is in the competition at nickel, but he’ll compete at corner, too. He’s currently listed second on the depth chart at strong safety and at corner. As walk-ons, Bergner and Cooper have a tough hill to climb to play, but coaches like how both have progressed and the depth they provide.

Brian Howell: howellb@dailycamera.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.