Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer
On a personal level, Ross Els is a bit more comfortable than he was a year ago, when he was entering his first season as the inside linebackers coach at Colorado.
Going into his second year, he said, “It’s time to roll.”
“You make transitions (in coaching) and we’re kind of used to that a little bit,” he said. “Being able to understand the scheme better, personally I feel a lot more comfortable. I had not been in a true, 30-front scheme before (last season), so it was new for me.
“I felt bad at times last year because I didn’t know the exact adjustment quick enough and now we’re fine.”
Pairing with Els’ comfort is the fact that CU is loaded with talent and experience at inside linebacker.
Seniors Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis are back after each starting all 12 games in 2017. True sophomore Nate Landman also returns after getting into the action late in the year and showing promise.
There’s also a lot of confidence in redshirt sophomore Akil Jones. Redshirt freshmen Chase Newman and Jonathan Van Diest are looking to make their mark, too.
“We’re a lot better than we were last fall at this time,” Els said. “I noticed that in the spring. We’re a lot more comfortable. All four guys that have been working in with the ones are a lot more comfortable in what they’re doing. They’re playing faster. Are we physical enough yet? Not quite, but I think we will be soon.”
Gamboa and Lewis combined for 236 tackles last year, while each played at least 92.8 percent of the defensive snaps. They played so much, in part, because of the young, inexperienced players behind them.
This year will be different.
“It won’t be, I hope, the Gamboa/Lewis show,” Els said. “It shouldn’t be that way this year. When you play 800 snaps a year, you’re beat up in this league. I need to get Gamboa off the field once in a while, Lewis off the field once in a while, and we have the depth to do that now.”
Exactly how often the Buffs get Gamboa and Lewis off the field will be interesting to watch.
Landman has star potential and has been constantly praised by coaches and teammates — both offensively and defensively — since he got to Boulder a year ago. Now, with a year under his belt, he’s taking his game to another level.
“He’s a physical kid,” Els said. “He was voted the toughest player on the team. When he went into the game at the end of the season last year it was in running situations. He’s getting a lot better in his pass drops and his coverage, which is what he has to do.”
Jones didn’t get as much playing time last year, but Els said he “has made huge jumps, too. Akil is quicker, he’s making decisions, he’s also making checks. We have to make quite a few checks at linebacker and he’s making checks he wasn’t able to make last year.
“We’re not hesitant to put any of those four in a game right now.”
Despite what they’ve accomplished thus far, Gamboa and Lewis have embraced the young talent, Els said.
“I’ve got a great room as far as helping the younger guys out,” he said. “Besides myself and (graduate assistant Dalmin) Gibson, who is helping me with the linebackers, those two older guys are telling them, ‘Hey, this is exactly what it’s going to be like during a game.'”
Eventually, Newman and Van Diest figure to get their shot, too.
Newman “is a physical player,” Els said, and was impressive during the first full-pad practice on Tuesday. Van Diest is healthy again after tearing an ACL in his knee last November.
“Great to get him back playing full speed,” Els said. “He’s getting into a comfort level right now. He’s still got the brace on, so he’s not as quick as what he used to be, but those two (Van Diest and Newman) will be fine.”
Physical freshman Clyde Moore and walk-ons Colby Keister and Jake Yurachek have shown potential, as well.
“The future looks good,” Els said. “We just have to get them to the Pac-12 championship level.”
Els feels better equipped to help them get there, and Van Diest said he’s eager to work with him again this year.
“Even last year it didn’t seem like he was uncomfortable,” Van Diest said. “He’s just such a great coach. He knows what he’s doing, he knows how to coach guys. He knows, based on what type of person you are, how to train you up and coach you up. He’s a great guy. He’s one of my favorite coaches.”
With more comfort from Els and more experience among the players, there’s great potential for the Buffs’ inside linebackers.
“A lot better than it was last year,” Els said. “No question.”