Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff photographer
In December, as the Colorado football team was preparing to play in the Valero Alamo Bowl, junior safety Afolabi Laguda expressed his confidence in the Buffaloes’ ability to sustain their success in 2017.
“People think just because we have a group of seniors (leading the way in 2016) that young guys can’t step up (next season),” Laguda said, “but that’s what leadership does. You mold your young guys to be those leaders. That’s about growth. That’s what a program is. That’s what (head coach Mike MacIntyre) has built.”
That will be put to the test in 2017, as CU’s defense will have a vastly different look than it did this past season.
The overhaul of the defense took another turn on Friday when it was announced that safeties coach Joe Tumpkin has resigned. CU asked Tumpkin to resign as he is expected to face criminal charges of domestic violence.
Tumpkin’s departure means that in addition to losing eight senior starters from last year’s defense, which ranked in the top 20 nationally in points and yards allowed, the Buffs will have three new coaches on that side of the ball.
The only full-time defensive coach returning next season is Jim Jeffcoat, who coaches the line. Former coordinator Jim Leavitt and cornerbacks coach Charles Clark left the Buffs for similar jobs at Oregon in the past several weeks.
Maintaining a top-20 defense with that type of turnover will be a challenge, but it’s one that new coordinator D.J. Eliot is eager to tackle.
“Challenges are something I’ve always taken on and the challenges at Kentucky were quite a bit,” said Eliot, who was hired by CU last week after four seasons at Kentucky. “But we were able to get over that hump and take a team that was 2-10 and four years later win seven games. I’m excited for this challenge of coaching some less experienced players to try to build off the success that they had last year.”
This past season, the Buffs relied heavily on their experience to post the best defensive season they’ve had in years. CU allowed just 21.7 points per game, its best number since 1998.
The Buffs’ entire starting defensive line (Jordan Carrell, Samson Kafovalu and Josh Tupou) graduated, as did 75 percent of the starting secondary (Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon). Linebackers Jimmie Gilbert and Kenneth Olugbode also graduated.
Seven of those eight seniors earned some sort of postseason individual all-conference or All-American honor.
While the departed seniors leave huge holes to fill, the Buffs do believe they have talented players to fill those holes. And, they won’t be entirely inexperienced.
Laguda is one of several seniors-to-be that played significant roles this past season. He started all 14 games at safety and finished fourth on the team in tackles.
Linebackers Addison Gillam and Derek McCartney and safety Ryan Moeller will also be seniors that have started during their careers. Junior Rick Gamboa has been a two-year starter at linebacker and junior Isaiah Oliver is a returning starter at corner.
Other players, such as linebackers NJ Falo, Terran Hasselbach and Drew Lewis, linemen Timothy Coleman, Jase Franke and Leo Jackson III, and cornerback Anthony Julmisse saw playing time this past season, but could be in line for bigger roles.
“I think we have a group of kids that have been a part of this program for four years and that are going to contribute a lot more this year than they have in the past, and I think they’re hungry to do that,” Eliot said.
What could determine CU’s success, however, is how the newcomers – players and coaches – and inexperienced veterans perform. CU has yet to replace Clark and Tumpkin, but hope to have both spots filled soon.
Eliot said having so many newcomers could be a positive for the Buffs.
“I can tell you that the new coaches and the less experienced players are all going to be hungry to prove themselves,” he said. “I’m hungry as the defensive coordinator to take on the challenge to get the less-experienced players reps and coached up to be successful.”
The first order of business is replacing Clark and Tumpkin, but once the Buffs do that, Eliot hopes the defense will start to come together throughout the offseason.
“I’m excited about getting our new coaches in here and enabling them to use their talents to improve these inexperienced players,” he said.
“I’m excited about building on what they did last year with these kids.”