Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
In the corner of the end zone, Ahkello Witherspoon turned and locked his eyes on the football floating in his direction.
The Colorado senior leaped and snagged it out of the air, pulling it in for an interception that sealed a monumental victory for the Buffaloes at Oregon.
Witherspoon’s pick is a play that stands out in a season filled with highlights, but it was really just one of many sensational plays made by the Colorado secondary this season. CU’s defensive backs have played a significant role in the resurgence of the Buffs (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12), who will visit Stanford (4-2, 2-2) on Saturday.
“I think we’re just experienced,” Witherspoon said. “We trust our technique and trust what our coaches are telling us every week. We really just go out there and try to apply what we do in practice and turn it over into the game on Saturdays.”
Two years ago, the Buffs ranked 116th nationally in pass efficiency defense. They were shredded for 35 touchdowns through the air that season. Last year, the Buffs improved, but still ranked 56th and surrendered 24 touchdowns.
This season, the Buffs rank eighth and they’ve allowed just eight touchdowns.
“Most of the time this year I’ve thought that they are better than some the (defensive backs) that we’ve played against on Saturdays,” said CU quarterback Sefo Liufau, who has practiced against the Buffs’ secondary for four years. “I’ve seen those guys grow a lot.”
There are several reasons for the growth.
Head coach Mike MacIntyre believes the Buffs’ talented group of receivers has made the secondary better in practice — and vice versa. The improved play of the Buffs’ defensive line has certainly helped, too, as they’ve put more pressure on quarterbacks than in years past.
More than anything, though, it’s the fact that this group has developed a work ethic to match its talent.
“Each and every game they attack as a new one and they come ready to play each day,” CU cornerbacks coach Charles Clark said. “Sometimes last year I had to try to find different ways to motivate them. This year, they’re motivating themselves.”
The motivation stems from a desire to win and the tight bond they have as a secondary group and as a team, in general.
“Down in and down out you really want to play for your brother,” Witherspoon said.
CU’s secondary is a collection of quality individual talent led by senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the best in the country. Witherspoon is possibly playing his way into the 2017 NFL draft, too.
Another senior, safety Tedric Thompson, is an NFL prospect, as well, while junior safeties Ryan Moeller and Afolabi Laguda and sophomore cornerback Isaiah Oliver have been exceptional, as well.
“I feel like everybody is really coming into their own,” Awuzie said. “We call ourselves ‘Money Gang.’ A lot us are seniors and this is a very big season for us individually and as a team. We really took it serious this offseason to really help this team. We want to win.”
Led by Awuzie and Witherspoon, the defensive backs have taken their game to a new level by making more plays with fewer mistakes.
This season, 18.5 percent of passes thrown by the opposition have been either intercepted or knocked down by the Buffs. They rank second nationally with 44 passes defended. That’s a significant jump from the 2015, when 15 percent of throws were defended, and in 2014, when that number was only at 12 percent.
In addition, the Buffs have been flagged for pass interference just once this season (Thompson, just moments before Witherspoon’s pick against Oregon), compared to 11 times in 2015 and 10 times in 2014.
“I think that speaks to our experience and being comfortable in the position when you’re not usually comfortable,” Witherspoon said. “Understanding how to respond if you do get beat at one point and not panic, and just learn how to finish a play.”
Ken Crawley — now with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints — was the most flagged corner the Buffs had the previous two years, but Witherspoon wasn’t far behind last year.
This season, Witherspoon has become one of the most consistent cover corners in the Pac-12.
Clark said Witherspoon and the others have improved at finishing plays because they’ve learned how to avoid panic, even if they get beat.
“Those guys have really taken it to heart,” Clark said. “I stay on them a lot in practice and they carry that over from practice to games and they’ve been successful with it.”
Awuzie has been one of the most technically-sound defenders the Buffs have had in years and said the ability to lean on technique has been invaluable for everybody.
“Nothing can really stop technique,” he said. “Athleticism is good and all, but once you have great technique, it really just lets you play free. Overall, our technique has been really helping us.”
With exceptional talent, sound technique and a strong work ethic, the CU secondary is now among the nation’s best.
“We always want to be No. 1 in everything we do and we feel like we’ve worked hard enough that we can put ourselves in that position to be No. 1,” Awuzie said. “We’re going to keep striving for that.”