Consider spring workouts as an extended getting-to-know you session for the Colorado Buffaloes’ defense.
While the schemes and signals may be the same, the faces on display Saturday during the Buffs’ annual spring game at Folsom Field were vastly different than the ones that helped set the pace during a solid season-long defensive performance that culminated with the Pac-12 Conference South Division title.
First and foremost among those changes was the first public dress rehearsal for new defensive coordinator DJ Eliot, the former Kentucky defensive coordinator tasked with filling the sizable hole left behind when Jim Leavitt bolted Boulder for Oregon.
Since spring drills began on Feb. 22, CU’s new defensive leader says his charges have made impressive strides in terms of getting on the same page.
“I think we’re right on track,” Eliot said. “We had a smooth transition. I ran the same defense at Kentucky, I just had to learn new terminology. I knew what the problems were within the system and the adjustments, so it made a smooth transition for me as a coordinator.
“We had a lot of newcomers this spring and we were able to help those guys become better players. But we also had some players that had some experience, and I think they played well this spring and they became better players, too. We had some guys that aren’t listed as starters but had a bunch of game experience. I think those guys heading into next year are going to be critical to our success. I’m confident we’re headed in the right direction.”
Eliot inherits a group that made swift and significant strides in two seasons under Leavitt, finishing the 2016 season ranked 24th nationally in yards allowed per game and 13th in overall pass defense.
In addition to a new cast that will include three new starters on the defensive line and three more in the secondary, the Buffs’ defense also has spent the spring getting accustomed to two other new defensive assistants in ShaDon Brown (defensive backs) and Ross Els (inside linebackers).
“From Day 1 to now has been huge. Extremely critical,” safety Afolabi Laguda said. “We definitely had to get our feel for each other. Coach Eliot is going to leave his imprint on the 2017 defense. He’s our guy and we’re going to rock with him. It’s just a great feel to get the ball rolling. We’ve still got a lot of pieces to fit and we have to find ourselves an identity. Once we do that, the sky is the limit with this team.”
Saturday’s carefully scripted scrimmage, which featured situational drives and play-calling best described as vanilla, hardly provided the best litmus test for Eliot’s first two months on the job. Eliot cited defensive back Isaiah Oliver, linebacker Rick Gamboa, and two players trying to plug the gaps on the defensive line — Jase Franke and Lyle Tuiloma — as some of the defensive standouts through spring workouts.
“We’re taking on the challenge of continuing to build off what they did last year with new people,” Eliot said. “Not only new players, but new coaches. I’m excited about the challenge and enjoy being here. It’s an opportunity I’m embracing.”