Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
During his first two years with the Colorado football team, inside linebackers coach Ross Els has had talented and experienced starters to put on the field.
Els hasn’t had a lot of depth at the position, however. He’s hoping that will change this year.
“I’ve been saying this for the last two years, but I don’t want to play two backers the whole game,” Els said. “That’s what we’ve had to do because of a lack of depth. Hopefully we can roll guys in so we don’t have to play 80 snaps a game.”
Junior Nate Landman, one of the top inside linebackers in the Pac-12, leads the group and he’s the only one on the team with much experience at the position. Els has been encouraged by the development of the others this spring, however.
Sophomore Jonathan Van Diest and junior Akil Jones have spent the spring splitting time with the No. 1 defense. Sophomore Chase Newman and freshman Ray Robinson have spent some time with the second team. For now, Els said, there’s not a lot of separation among that group, but the talent is evident.
“You take those four guys and throw them into a bucket and we’ll see who is going to be out there most of the fall,” he said.
Add in junior college transfers Jash Allen and Quinn Perry, who arrive this summer, and the Buffs could have several good options at the position.
“I know where we are with these guys (that are participating in spring),” Els said. “With the incoming guys, you hope they can step in, but we’ll wait to see what happens when they get here.”
Landman, meanwhile, has taken his game to a new level. Playing alongside senior leader Rick Gamboa, who has graduated, Landman led the team with 133 tackles last season, with four tackles, 13 tackles for loss and a team-best two interceptions.
“What he’s done now is he’s become the vocal leader,” Els said of Landman. “Not necessarily the rah-rah guy; I think our guys do a good job of that. But, we have to make sure we’re in the right front, in the right coverage, etc. When you have a guy like Gamboa who has been making checks for three years, you need somebody to step in. Gamboa has been a great role model for Nate on how to take on that role. Nate’s embraced it really, really well.”
Adjustments on D
For the players, it’s been an adjustment to the defense led by head coach Mel Tucker and coordinator Tyson Summers. It’s also an adjustment for Els, but he’s been through this many times before in his 30 years of coaching.
As they go through it together, though, Els said there’s good energy.
“They’re all excited,” he said. “We’re all excited about something different. I loved what we had here the last two years and I love this. I think our players are the same way.
“Everything is new. They’ve adjusted well, they’re studying hard, it’s important for them to get it down right and then go play physical.”
Solidifying special teams
In addition to coaching linebackers, Els is the special teams coordinator, and he said there’s been some adjustments there, as well.
“We’re getting there,” he said. “We’re making a number of changes on special teams, both personnel and scheme. The good thing is, our punter is back, our kicker is back, our kickoff guy is back, our holder is back and our snapper is back. That really helps. Even though you are doing a couple new wrinkles, it’s nice to have those five guys.”
Of course, those five — kicker James Stefanou, punter/holder Alex Kinney, kickoff specialist Davis Price, snapper J.T. Bale and holder Josh Goldin — were back last year, too, and injuries hit that area.
With that in mind, Els said, “We have to build depth there with our specialists.”
Els wouldn’t reveal any of the changes on special teams, but said, “The teams are going well and we’re getting plenty of time to work on it. Coach Tuck is letting us do that.”
He added that there are a lot of options for punt and kickoff returners and said, “That could be a by-committee thing.”