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Few things are more satisfying to football coaches than watching their endlessly repetitive practice drills pay dividends in games.
Colorado defensive coordinator DJ Eliot enjoyed two such moments early in the Buffaloes’ 33-28 win last week at Nebraska.
One year after Eliot’s unit struggled to create turnovers, CU’s takeaways made a huge difference against the Cornhuskers in the down-to-the-wire win on the road. The Buffs are off to a solid start in the turnover department through two games, and as the Buffs continue preparations for Saturday’s home opener against New Hampshire (3 p.m., Pac-12 Mountain), the defense is showing signs of much greater big-play ability than a season ago.
Against Nebraska each of CU’s early fumble recoveries — by newcomers Davion Taylor and Mustafa Johnson — bore striking resemblances to turnover drills the Buffs go through every day at practice. While Eliot says the emphasis on turnovers is no greater than it has been in the past, the repetitive practice routine combined with the addition of a few players showing signs of being ball hawks has the Buffs on pace to possibly top last year’s defensive turnover total by the end of October.
“Davion’s fumble recovery was that drill, too,” Eliot said. “Both of those guys, the guys that knocked it out did what we practice, and the guys that recovered did what we practice. That’s good to see that.”
Last year, the Buffs managed to produce just 14 takeaways in 12 games, recording eight interceptions and six fumble recoveries (one of those occurred on a special teams play). Through two games the CU defense already has produced four turnovers.
Following linebacker Nate Landman’s interception in the opening win against CSU, the Buffs recorded three turnovers at Nebraska, including Landman’s second pick of the young season. Three of those four takeaways have turned into touchdowns for CU, with the lone exception being a missed field goal by James Stefanou following Landman’s Nebraska interception.
“We emphasized it last year too. We just didn’t make it happen,” Eliot said. “But we have emphasized it and we work it every day in practice. The fumbles (at Nebraska) came off of physical tackles. There were two more they called down that we could’ve gotten, too, but those are coming off physical tackles. And the two interceptions have been Nate Landman with good drops and finishing the catch.
“We’re seeing more physical play and we’re knocking the ball out more.”
It perhaps is no coincidence that the owners of the Buffs’ three takeaways — Landman, Johnson, and Taylor — are either newcomers or, in Landman’s case, playing a far more expanded role than last year. Landman’s interception total already is within one of 2017 team leader Evan Worthington, and at plus-2 the Buffs already are well on their way toward improving on last year’s even mark on overall turnover ratio.
The Buffs finished at plus-7 when they won the Pac-12 South Division title in 2016.
“As a defense, we have a lot of goals coming into every game. But one of our goals is three (turnovers),” Landman said. “During camp and even during the spring during practice, we always have takeaway drills where we’re working different scenarios, whether it be balls on the ground, stripping balls, interceptions. The coaches do a great job of implementing that every week. Every day, pretty much. We really this year have taken it up a notch and taken those drills seriously. You can see them come into play.