Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado linebacker Derek McCartney comes into this year with 9.5 career sacks.

For everybody involved with the Colorado football program, last season’s vault to the top of the Pac-12 South division was a remarkable journey.

For outside linebacker Derek McCartney, it was fun, but not nearly as fun as it could have been. He tore the ACL in his right knee during the third game and was a spectator for the final 11 games of the season for the Buffs (10-4, 8-1 Pac-12).

“It was real bittersweet,” McCartney said. “It was tough just to have to sit out for all the wins, but obviously they are my teammates and I was super excited for them. Just seeing the success of the team was awesome for me.”

It’s the type of success that McCartney hopes to be a part of this next season. Now a senior, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound McCartney is healthy and expected to be a major contributor to the defense once again.

“I’m very excited,” McCartney said. “It’s been a long time since I got to play, so it’ll be awesome to get back out there.”

The Buffs need him after losing eight starters and nine major contributors from last year’s defense, which ranked among the top 20 in the country. One of the biggest losses was Jimmie Gilbert, who had 10.5 sacks for a good CU pass rush.

With Gilbert leading the way, CU generated 36 sacks — its best total since having 37 in 1995. Players responsible for 31.5 of those sacks are gone.

McCartney comes into this year with 9.5 career sacks (none last year), including a team-high 4.5 in 2014. CU head coach Mike MacIntyre believes McCartney could be the man to fill Gilbert’s shoes.

“Hopefully Derek McCartney coming back will be able to take Jimmie’s spot in that area, because he’s had sacks and I think if he would have stayed healthy last year he would have had seven or eight,” MacIntyre said. “Hopefully now he can get into double digits.

“Last year going in, he had some opportunities to do it, and hopefully being healthy the while time — and playing 14 games helps you get more sacks too. He’s a guy that can be a staple for us and really help us.”

That’s McCartney’s plan, and despite sitting out most of last year, he feels like he can be a better player.

“I feel like I got better at communicating to my teammates, what I’m seeing and what we should be seeing,” he said. “I’ve been able to see different things and I’m able to help out my teammates a little bit more. It’s harder to do when I’m doing it vs. just watching. I can really help out a little bit more than I expected.”

Physically, McCartney feels good, too. He’s 10 pounds lighter than last year, but feels stronger.

“I got a lot stronger last year and it helped me out in the games I played in,” he said. “Now I have to keep building off that strength, and now I’m a little leaner, so I like that.”

McCartney is also excited to work under new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who was hired in February. Eliot also coaches outside linebackers.

“I like him. He’s a lot of fun,” McCartney said. “He’s a real technical coach, and I think that’s really helpful for a lot of us right now. We learned a good scheme (the past two years) and now we’re learning a lot of technique and it’s been really helpful for us.”

McCartney is certainly hoping for a great season individually. More important, however, is to keep the Buffs on the winning track, and he can’t wait to do his part.

“I’m definitely very determined,” he said. “We’re not going to shy away from anybody. It’s going to be a really fun year again. I’m just really excited for what we’re doing this year and what we can do.”

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