CU position preview: Buffs look for inside linebackers to complement Nate Landman

Ten ILBs dot the roster, but game experience is minimal

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Junior Akil Jones, center, is one of several players vying for playing time at inside linebacker this season with the Colorado Buffaloes.
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Colorado goes into this season knowing it has one of the best inside linebackers in the Pac-12 Conference.

What the Buffaloes don’t know, however, is what they’ve got after him.

Leading up to fall camp, which starts Aug. 1, BuffZone.com is previewing each position group for the Buffs. In this installment, the focus is on the inside linebackers.

Junior Nate Landman has become a star for the Buffs. He was one of the best – if not the best – all-around players on the defense a year ago, racking up 123 tackles, four sacks and a team-high two interceptions.

Yet, after two seasons of leaning on the leadership and experience of Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis, who have both graduated, Landman is now the man in the middle of the defense.

“Gamboa has been a great role model for Nate on how to take on that role,” inside linebackers coach Ross Els said in spring. “Nate’s embraced it really, really well.”

Really, Landman doesn’t have a choice. There are 10 other inside linebackers on the roster, including walk-ons, and they’ve combined to play just 77 snaps in a CU uniform. So, while the Buffs need Landman to be great again – or even better – the key to the position is really the emergence of the others. Competition for the other starting spot will be intense during fall camp.

That competition starts with four scholarship players that have been on campus for a while. Junior Akil Jones (40 career snaps) and redshirt sophomores Chase Newman (14 snaps) and Jonathan Van Diest (23 snaps) are all entering at least their third year on campus. Redshirt Ray Robinson, a converted safety, is entering his second.

While Van Diest finished spring atop the depth chart, Els said there wasn’t a lot of separation among the group.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado inside linebackers coach Ross Els is hoping for more depth at the position this season.

“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,” Els said.

Those four will get more competition in camp with the additions of junior college transfers Jash Allen and Quinn Perry and true freshman Marvin Ham II.

Allen and Perry are both juniors who come in highly regarded. Allen was rated the No. 2 JUCO inside linebacker in the 2020 class by 247Sports.com, while Perry was rated No. 6 at his position by ESPN.

“We’re counting on them, but … who knows what they can do?” Els said.

Although Allen and Perry both excelled at the JUCO ranks, they’ll have to prove themselves on the field and quickly learn CU’s defense. After they both arrived on campus last month, Landman said they looked the part.

“They look great,” he said. “I’m excited to see what they can do and how they’re going to help out this team.”

Ham can’t be dismissed as a factor, either, as he was given a four-star rating and listed as the 12th-best inside linebacker recruit in the country by 247Sports.

With Gamboa and Lewis gone, plenty of snaps are available to be filled. Although the Buffs go into camp not knowing who will get the playing time, they aren’t short on options.

Position: Inside linebackers

Returners (2018 statistics)

Akil Jones, Jr., 6-0, 235 (2 tackles in 18 snaps played)

Nate Landman, Jr., 6-3, 230 (123 tackles, 13 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU)

Chase Newman, So., 6-2, 220 (0 tackles in 14 snaps played)

Jonathan Van Diest, So., 6-1, 230 (2 tackles in 23 snaps palyed)

Colby Keiter, So., 6-1, 225 (walk-on; has not played)

Devin Lynch, So., 6-1, 205 (walk-on; has not played)

Additions

Jash Allen, Jr., 6-2, 215 (JUCO transfer)

Marvin Ham II, Fr., 6-2, 220 (true freshman)

Quinn Perry, Jr., 6-2, 240 (JUCO transfer)

Ray Robinson, Fr., 6-1, 225 (redshirted last year)

Losses

Rick Gamboa (graduated; 96 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT)

Drew Lewis (graduated; 66 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 TFL, 1 INT; also played OLB)

2019 outlook: It all starts with Landman, who emerged as a star last season. He’s getting preseason accolades and should be one of the best in the Pac-12. Jones and Van Diest have led the battle for the other starting spot, with Van Diest finishing spring atop the depth chart. He’s finally healthy and ready to take on a lead role. Allen and Perry will make fall camp interesting, however. A former running back, Allen blossomed once he switched to linebacker. Perry is a former rugby standout who began taking football seriously last year and was named MVP of his team at El Camino College. Ham was one of the top prep players in Michigan last year. If healthy, Newman and Robinson will push for playing time, as well.