As the calendar flipped to December last year, Jonathan Van Diest breathed a sigh of relief.
“November was a little weird, because it was like, ‘Oh gosh, it’s this month again,’ but we made it through,” the Colorado sophomore linebacker said recently. “It was a big mental hurdle.”
From 2015-17, Van Diest had three consecutive Novembers that included a serious injury and surgery, including a torn ACL in his left knee during his true freshman season at CU.
Having gone through the 2018 season injury free, Van Diest is now eager for spring practices next month and to begin his fight for a starting job.
“I’m stoked,’ the Cherry Creek High School graduate said. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be so fun. I’ve put in a lot of time with film work, going hard in the weight room and taking care of my body just to be healthy. That’s the main thing for me. If I’m healthy, I know I’ll be OK.”
Van Diest was one of the top in-state prospects coming out Cherry Creek, where he was a four-year starter and two-time first-team All-State selection.
After making 50 career starts at Creek, Van Diest has played just 23 snaps on defense in two years at CU, biding his time behind veterans such as Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis and 2017 classmate Nate Landman.
Sitting out was new for Van Diest, but he said he’s learned “so much” about college football in the past two years.
“A lot of it really comes in patience with the grind,” he said. “It’s not every person that gets to come to college and be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to play the first year.’ It’s learning patience, learning to accept the grind to improve on your skills and weaknesses and just try to get better every day. There’s guys in front of you and behind you, so it’s also fighting just to earn a spot.”
Gamboa and Lewis have now graduated, and with new head coach Mel Tucker and defensive coordinator Tyson Summers coming in this winter, Van Diest knows the opportunity to win a starting spot is there.
“Physically, I feel better than I have in the last couple of years here,” said Van Diest, who is 6-foot-1, 232 pounds. “The football side of it, my IQ has been growing.”
One of the leaders of the 2017 class during the recruiting process, Van Diest believes that being healthy and better prepared mentally will help him assume a leadership role this offseason.
“I feel like I can contribute more to the team instead of just being on the sideline hurt,” he said. “Being able to suffer with guys is a huge thing.”
Of course, Van Diest knows that simply being healthy and better prepared won’t guarantee a spot in the lineup. Competition is ramping up, too.
In addition to Landman, junior Akil Jones and sophomore Chase Newman, Van Diest will have to battle additions to the group. Tucker added some competition to the mix this offseason by signing junior college inside linebackers Jash Allen and Quinn Perry, as well as highly regarded prep recruit Marvin Ham II.
“It’s part of football,” Van Diest said of others coming in. “It’s game on. Everyone knows that. You just have to get ready for that and do what you can, leave it on the table and go with what you’ve got. I’m excited to do that, for sure.”
Defensive lineman Jaunta’vius Johnson, a graduate transfer from Auburn, is hoping to rejoin the Buffs this summer. Johnson briefly enrolled at CU in January, but left school after his wife and baby in Alabama were in a serious car accident. Johnson went home at that time to take care of them. They are doing better now, he said, and he still hopes to play for the Buffs next season. … Daniel Da Prato, who spent the past three years as a director of quality control for CU, is leaving the program to take a similar role at Arkansas.