Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
During its first season with coordinator Jim Leavitt, the Colorado defense showed marked improvement in 2015.
The Buffaloes still have a long way to go, though, and finding a better pass rush is one of the keys to them taking another step forward.
“We have to find some guys to get to the quarterback because I probably pressured more (with blitzes) than I really wanted to, but I had to,” Leavitt said.
Last season, the Buffs registered just 28 sacks in 13 games, ranking near the bottom of the Pac-12. It’s been a while since CU had much of a pass rush, with 2011 being the last time the Buffs had more than 30 sacks.
To generate more, the Buffs will look to their veteran defensive ends/outside linebackers to play better.
Senior Jimmie Gilbert had a team-high six sacks last year, while junior Derek McCartney had five. They’ll lead what the Buffs hope is a better group.
McCartney missed much of the spring with health issues, but head coach Mike MacIntyre felt Gilbert had “gone to a different level” with his pass-rush ability. That’s good news for a defense that needs it.
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 outside linebackers.
Position: Outside linebackers
Returnees: N.J. Falo (So., 6-2, 225); Jimmie Gilbert (Sr., 6-5, 235); Terran Hasselbach (So., 6-1, 240); Michael Mathewes (So., 6-4, 260); Derek McCartney (Jr., 6-3, 250); Deaysean Rippy (Sr., 6-2, 235); Trent Headley (Jr., 6-2, 230; walk-on); Aaron Howard (Sr., 6-1, 225; walk-on).
Additions: Sam Bennion (Fr., 6-5, 230); Pookie Maka (Fr., 6-3, 210); Terriek Roberts (Fr., 6-6, 255); Griffin Hansen (So., 6-3, 230; walk-on).
Losses: Hunter Shaw (graduated; walk-on)
2015 recap: Overall, this was a group that had a tough time getting to the quarterback with regularity. They registered just eight sacks in the last five games. McCartney was the best rusher on the team, with five sacks and a team-high 16 quarterback pressures. Gilbert led the team with six sacks, but had just four pressures. For both players, it was a solid season as they adjusted to the 3-4 defense brought to Boulder by Jim Leavitt. Falo started the year at inside linebacker, but moved to the outside later in the year and began to play better. Mathewes and Hasselbach got a little bit of a playing time last year; not enough to make an impact, but enough to give them experience going into this year. Jaleel Awini and Tim Coleman also played a bit on the outside, but Awini is now on offense, and Coleman has moved inside to the defensive line.
2016 outlook: The Buffs certainly don’t lack experience with the top duo of Gilbert and McCartney. Gilbert has played in 37 games during his career, while McCartney has played in 24. While the Buffs run a base 3-4 defense, they often will play with a nickel package and use just one outside linebacker. When they did last year, it was often McCartney on the field (McCartney played 68.3 percent of the snaps, while Gilbert played 41.5 percent). McCartney has shown to be the more complete player of the two, in terms of generating a pass rush and also being stout against the run. Gilbert made a lot of improvement over the spring, however, and hopes to be on the field more than he was last year. Falo’s status is still up in the air because he’s still suspended because of an off-the-field incident in the spring, but the Buffs are hoping he’ll be ready to play by the start of the fall camp. If he is ready, he could really bolster this group. He has started to flourish as an outside backer and improved as a pass rusher over the spring. If last year was an indication, the Buffs won’t have a lot of snaps to go around to the others (barring injuries), but Hasselbach, Mathewes and even Howard have shown flashes when given a chance to play. Rippy is determined to make an impact in his final college season. Bennion could be an intriguing option. He joined the Buffs in January after serving a two-year LDS mission. Maka and Roberts are hoping to battle for playing time, too.
Brian Howell: email@example.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.