Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Andy Cross / The Denver Post
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
It was just two years ago that Jim Leavitt went into his first season as Colorado’s defensive coordinator clinging to hope that the Buffaloes could “stop the bleeding.”
Taking over a defense that had been one of the most porous in the country for nearly a decade, Leavitt helped to transform the Buffs into one of the nation’s top 20 units in only two seasons.
Now, it’s D.J. Eliot going into his first season as CU’s defensive coordinator. Hired from Kentucky in January, Eliot doesn’t have to stop any bleeding; instead, his task is to try to keep the momentum going.
Two weeks ago, the Buffs completed their first spring under Eliot and, by all accounts, it went well.
While CU lost eight starters and three coaches — including Leavitt, who turned his success in Boulder into a lucrative contract at Oregon — Eliot doesn’t face many of the issues Leavitt did two years ago.
In addition to helping the Buffs transition from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 in 2015, Leavitt spent much of that offseason trying to figure out his starting lineup and, perhaps most importantly, aiming to instill some measure of confidence into a group that had been beaten up for years.
“I don’t think they’ve felt a lot of confidence around here,” Leavitt said during the summer of 2015. “It’s been a while. A long while.”
Eliot doesn’t have to worry about confidence. The Buffs finished 20th in the country in scoring defense last season — their first top-20 finish since 1991 — and the returning players have a bit of a swagger to them that nobody had going into 2015.
It has also helped that Eliot will run the same scheme the veteran players are used to running, including the same terminology. That’s already made for a smoother transition, especially as veterans have been able to teach younger players.
With the scheme and confidence in place, the Buffs focused on improvement during the spring.
“We got a good understanding of our base defense with the new players and the new coaches and I think that our veteran players even kind of grew and went to the next level, not only as players, but also as leaders,” Eliot said. “I feel confident that at the end of the spring we know more who we are and I think that our players that didn’t have a lot of experience, they’ve got a lot of reps now in the base scheme.
“They’re going to continue to grow from what they did this spring.”
Plenty of competition will take place during fall camp in August, and the Buffs will need several players to step up in order to remain among the top defenses in the Pac-12, but here are five that could be the biggest difference makers this season.
1. Cornerback Isaiah Oliver, Jr.: CU’s third corner last season, Oliver is a sensational athlete who could be one of the best in the Pac-12 this year. When asked if anyone surprised him this spring, Eliot quickly mentioned Oliver. “He’s a really good player,” Eliot said. “He’s very impressive with his coverage skills and his effort and his toughness. I’ve been very pleased with him.”
2. Nose tackle Javier Edwards, Jr.: A junior college transfer who arrived in January, Edwards has the ability to be a monster up front. He needs to get in better shape before the season but is off to a great start. He reported at 385 pounds, was down to 363 near the end of spring drills and hopes to get to 345, where he can be more effective. “He has the ability to be a great nose guard in a 3-4,” Eliot said. “Sometimes coming from junior college, it takes a while to get used to the scheme and techniques, but he picked up on it pretty quick.”
3. Inside linebacker Rick Gamboa, Jr.: Thrown into the fire as a freshman two years ago, Gamboa is now a veteran and one of the top leaders on defense. Including the Valero Alamo Bowl in December, he has started 25 consecutive games and has already racked up 175 tackles in his career. Given CU’s lack of experience at this position, Gamboa’s play will be huge. “Rick has the experience to go with the good play,” Eliot said. “I feel really good about him.”
4. Outside linebacker Derek McCartney, Sr.: CU recorded 36 quarterback sacks last year, it’s most since 1995 (37), but most the players responsible for those sacks are gone, including Jimmie Gilbert, who had 10.5. McCartney, who played just two-plus games before tearing his ACL last year, could be the main man to step up. McCartney, who did not participate in spring drills, thrived in his one full season in the 3-4, recording 70 tackles, five sacks and 16 hurries in 2015.
5. Safety Afolabi Laguda, Sr.: He played more snaps on defense last year (792) than anyone coming back, and racked up 80 tackles and six pass breakups. Known as “Fo” by teammates and coaches, Laguda has received plenty of praise from Eliot this spring, not only for his play on the field, but for his leadership on and off the field. Laguda is heavily motivated to keep the train rolling on defense, and it has shown in his play.
Led by that group and others, Eliot believes the pieces are in place to have another successful season on defense.
“I think we have some good personnel and we have some good leaders, and I think if we stay on track and continue to make progress and head in the right direction this offseason that we can definitely do some good things on defense and build off of last year’s success,” he said.