• Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado linebacker Nate Landman tries to bring down Deion Smith during Friday's practice. Go to BuffZone.com for more photos

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado's Nate Landman was one of the best linebackers in the Pac-12 last season.

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Over the course of the last two years, Nate Landman has progressed from a youngster with potential to a star on the Colorado defense.

Along the way, he had the luxury of learning from veterans Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis. With that duo now graduated, Landman has suddenly become the veteran leader of the Buffaloes at inside linebacker.

“I take it and I love it,” he said of embracing a leadership role. “I love being a leader on the team, being a communicator, helping people line up and knowing where to go, because it actually helps me play faster knowing what everyone else is doing.

“Being a junior and having those two years under my belt has definitely helped me immensely and I’m able to play faster and smarter out there and not only know what I’m doing but what everybody else is doing.”

Landman began making his mark toward the end of his true freshman season in 2017, but exploded last year. He became one of the best linebackers in the Pac-12 while leading the Buffs with 123 tackles, including 13 for loss and four sacks. He also led the team with two interceptions.

Under the direction of new head coach Mel Tucker and defensive coordinator Tyson Summers, the Buffs will have a different look on defense this year, but it’s one that Landman is enjoying so far.

“It’s high velocity, high-paced football,” the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Landman said. “I’m loving it; the team is loving it. So far I think it’s going great. I was definitely rusty the first couple of days getting back into football mode, but I love being out here, I love playing fast, flying around the ball and it definitely suits my type of game.”

Led by Landman and others, CU’s defense was improved last year over 2017, and Landman is aiming to take another step or two this year.

“We really focus on stopping everything,” he said. “It’s highly involved for everybody. It’s not dependent on a certain amount of guys. It’s dependent on all 11 guys. They’re really stressing all 11 to the ball carrier and tackling. We’re probably going to be the best tackling defense and I think our defensive play is going to improve dramatically from last year from the way they’re coaching us up and how they’re making us practice.”

Part of Landman’s development is taking on more of a leadership role. He’s the only inside linebacker on the team with significant game experience, but said he’s been impressed with the work being done by junior Akil Jones and sophomore Jonathan Van Diest this spring.

“Akil is a great player and Jon’s a great player,” Landman said. “I’m helping them make the calls, but they’re also not dependent on me. They make calls, and they help me out. They make me better and I make them better.

“Everybody is working. No one has a job right now, and it’s fun seeing everybody compete. Everybody is competing and Jon and Akil are doing a great job. They’ve taken a step up from last year and I can see that.”

Landman is hoping to take a step up, too, not only with his leadership and communication, but with his pass coverage. To take that step, he is leaning on inside linebackers coach Ross Els, one of just three assistants retained from the previous staff.

“Me and Els have that relationship going back to freshman year,” Landman said. “Even though he didn’t recruit me, we bonded straight away. He’s a great coach. He’s made me become the player I am today. From the first two years, my game is mostly because of him.”

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33