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Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
D.J. Eliot isn’t exactly trying to learn a whole new language, but it sometimes feels that way to Colorado’s new defensive coordinator.
Hired by CU last month, Eliot will employ the same 3-4 defensive scheme that the Buffaloes have used over the past two years.
It’s also the same scheme Eliot ran at Kentucky the past four years, but the terminology is much different.
CU, which begins spring practices on Wednesday, must replace eight senior starters from last year, as well as three assistant coaches. With all of that turnover, Eliot felt it would make the transition easier for the players if he adopted their terminology.
“Sometimes it’s been hard,” he said. “It’s kind of like learning a new language, but I think it’s easier to teach one guy than to teach 50. It’ll be fine. I’m already, I’d say, about 50 percent fluent. By the end of the spring, I expect to be 100 percent fluent.”
Learning the language of CU’s defense may actually be an easy task compared to the job Eliot has in keeping the Buffs among the top defensive units in the Pac-12.
Counting the postseason, CU ranked third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (allowing 21.7 points per game) and second in total defense (342.5 yards per game). The Buffs were led by those eight seniors, several of which could be collecting NFL paychecks by the fall.
During the spring, CU will begin the process of filling the holes left by those seniors who are no longer here, but Eliot believes there’s plenty of talent with which to work in Boulder.
“There’s more guys with experience than I realized when I took the job,” he said.
CU, in fact, returns six players on defense that have started at least 11 games in their career, and another — cornerback Isaiah Oliver — who was essentially like a starter last year because of how often the Buffs were in nickel packages.
Inside linebacker Rick Gamboa and safety Afolabi Laguda started every game last season. Gamboa, in fact, has started 25 consecutive games.
Safety Ryan Moeller started 10 games last year and has 19 career starts under his belt, while inside linebacker Addison Gillam and outside linebacker Derek McCartney each have 24 career starts. Defensive lineman Leo Jackson III has 11 career starts.
In addition to that group, CU returns several others with playing experience, and the Buffs have a host of young players and junior college transfers ready to fight for playing time.
“I want to find out who are going to be the guys that we can count on,” Eliot said of his goal for spring ball. “Who are going to be the guys that if we put them in the fire or underneath the lights that they are going to respond and they’re going to make plays?
“I also want to make sure that we come out spring ball fundamentally sound and that we come out confident in knowing what we’re doing within our base defense.”
Especially with the turnover on defense, Eliot realizes the Buffs won’t figure it all out this spring, but he said this can be a solid foundation for a successful season.
“It’s going to be a group of guys that maybe haven’t played a lot in games, but they definitely can get a lot accomplished this spring from a fundamental and from an execution standpoint,” he said.
Since being hired about a month ago, Eliot has spent a lot of time studying film from last year, learning the personnel, observing players in workouts and, of course, studying the language of the defense.
Now comes the fun part.
“I’m always itching to get on the field,” he said. “What I enjoy the most about this job is practice. I enjoy being out on the practice field, trying to develop, trying to make somebody a better player, trying to make a defense a better defense.
“The challenge is part of the excitement, too, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Brian Howell: email@example.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.