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Spring football should be a bit more comfortable for Colorado linebackers coach Ross Els than it was a year ago.
“Yeah, considering I showed up on day two of practice last year,” Els said with a laugh.
A year ago, Els was hired by CU just as spring drills were starting and he hit the ground running with a new group of players.
With this year’s spring drills set to begin Feb. 23, Els is not only comfortable in his surroundings, but familiar with his linebackers. Seniors Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis are both returning starters, making inside linebacker CU’s most experienced position group on defense.
“It’s a good group because we didn’t lose anybody that played significantly, so we’re just a year smarter,” Els said.
That starts with Gamboa, who enters the 2018 season with more career starts (37) than anybody on the roster. He has started each of CU’s last 37 games, dating back to 2015.
Gamboa finished second on the team last year with 117 tackles and he has 292 for his career. The main criticism of the 6-foot, 240-pound Gamboa, however, is that he lacks the speed to make plays sideline-to-sideline. That’s not a concern for Els.
“He’s got the speed to play because he can diagnose the play so quickly,” he said. “Now, is he going to be that flash that goes across the screen? No, but his reaction time is so good because he understands what’s happening quickly.”
Lewis, meanwhile, is arguably the best athlete on the team and has been described as a “freak” athlete by some of his teammates.
In his first year as a starter, Lewis led the team with 119 tackles and was exceptional at rushing the passer, with two sacks and eight pressures. By the end of the season, however, Lewis was losing snaps to freshman Nate Landman.
“Toward the end of the year (Lewis) wasn’t producing as well as we wanted, but he played over 800 snaps,” Els said. “He was getting a little beat up. He probably played too many snaps. And, it was time for Nate. Nate had finally shown in practice, ‘Hey, I’m ready to play.'”
A true freshman last year, Landman played just 20 defensive snaps in the first 10 games, but 59 in the last two, racking up 11 tackles in those two games.
Landman looked like he should have been on the field sooner, but Els said the freshman simply wasn’t ready.
“Everybody says, ‘Boy, Nate Landman did a great job,'” Els said. “Yeah, he was a very good run player. The (pass) coverage issue is what he was lacking last year and that’s why he didn’t play more.
“We put him in the game when we needed to stop the run toward the end of football games and he does that very well. The thing we’re going to get out of him this spring now is to understand is pass responsibilities a little better.”
Landman’s emergence, plus potential of other young players, has Els excited about the possibilities going forward. Redshirt sophomore Akil Jones and redshirt freshmen Chase Newman and Jonathan Van Diest will compete for playing time this season. Van Diest, however, will be out for spring ball after tearing an ACL in November.
Els is hoping Landman and the other young linebackers can take some pressure of Gamboa and Lewis, who led the team with 847 and 821 defensive snaps, respectively.
“I’d love to rotate guys a lot more than w hat we did,” Els said. “Eight hundred-some snaps for Rick and Drew was too many, but we just didn’t have the depth developed. We’ll roll guys in if we can (this year).”
It will certainly help that Els and his linebackers are now familiar with each other.
“It’s another year with the same guys back,” he said. “The meetings go a little smoother and I assume practices will go a little smoother, both from my end and their end.”
College football attendance down
Attendance in major college football dropped dramatically in 2017. On average, there were 1,409 fewer fans at Football Bowl Subdivision games across the country, a decrease of 3.23 percent from 2016.
The figures, released by the NCAA, show the largest decline in attendance since 1983, when there was a drop of 3.5 percent from the previous year.
CU, however, had a slight increase in attendance, averaging 47,056 fans per game — up 447 on average from 2016.
Palmer Ridge High School quarterback Ty Evans, who has verbally committed to CU for the 2019 class, is getting more and more popular on the recruiting trail. On Tuesday, he picked up a scholarship offer from perennial national power Alabama. Since committing to CU last month, Evans has also picked up offers from Michigan and Ole Miss.