Getting to the quarterback wasn’t a major problem for the Colorado defense a year ago.
Getting there more often from the outside, however, will be a point of emphasis for the Buffaloes this season.
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 outside linebackers.
CU ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 2.42 sacks per game (29) in 2018 – the team’s second-best per-game average since joining the conference in 2011. Much of that production came from the middle of the field, though, as defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson (8.5 sacks, 16 pressures) and linebacker Nate Landman (4 sacks, 3 pressures) were two of the most productive Buffs.
Of the 29 sacks, only 9.5 came from the outside linebackers. Carson Wells, now a sophomore, had 4.5 sacks, but only one other outsider backer had more than one: Drew Lewis, who has since graduated, with two.
Getting pressure on the quarterback is vital, regardless of where it comes from, but first-year outside linebackers coach Brian Michalowski said it’s important for his group to be productive.
“I think it’s really important for us to generate a pass rush because we’re coming from the outside, we’re collapsing the pocket and we’re having that clock in the quarterback’s head tick down,” Michalowski said. “That makes all the difference.”
Under the direction of Michalowski, first-year head coach Mel Tucker and coordinator Tyson Summers, the Buffs are aiming to be more of a force on the edge of the defense. That starts with trying to make the opponent double-team the Buffs’ rushers.
“When you’re on the edge, it’s largely you against that tackle,” Michalowski said. “They can add the tight end to chip, the running back to chip and I told my guys when they start doing that, that’s the sign of ultimate respect because they know they can’t just go one-on-one. We have to win one-on-one’s off the edge.”
To do that, the Buffs have plenty of options to choose from, including five players with at least one season under their belt at CU.
Seniors Nu’umotu Falo, Alex Tchangam and Davion Taylor will look to step into key roles. Falo and Tchangam played sparingly off the bench last year, but Falo said in the spring that he and the rest of the group have improved this offseason.
“I feel like I’m definitely improving my game every day and every rep,” he said. “Especially with coach Mike being our coach.”
Taylor is projected to start at Star, an outside linebacker/safety hybrid. He will be used in a variety of ways on the defense, but has proven ability to give the Buffs a lift as a pass rusher. He had one sack and 11 pressures (second on the team to Johnson) last year.
Wells had a great freshman year and could be the leader of the outside group. In addition to his 4.5 sacks, he recorded a team-high 13 third-down stops last season.
Callier continues to develop, as well. He had season-ending shoulder surgery after playing the first four games last year but is healthy and expected to help. The Buffs also add junior college transfer Jamar Montgomery, who has impressed coaches so far this summer.
“Jamar gets after it in the weight room and in running and he’s picking up the scheme as much as he can before we start fall camp,” Michalowski said.
True freshmen Joshka Gustav and Alec Pell will compete for playing time, as well, but first need to get up to speed with the college game.
Each player in the group brings a unique skill set, but collectively it’s a unit that Michalowski is excited about.
“We’ve progressed well,” he said. “They’re developing, buying into the program, getting better in the classroom and gaining confidence in what we’re doing, and that all builds trust. That helps us gain momentum going into fall camp. We’re excited to start off with fall camp and see the results of all the work that we’ve put in.
“Their heads are where they need to be, they have the experience and I’m just looking forward to seeing what we can do.”
Position: Outside linebackers
Returners (2018 statistics)
Jacob Callier, So., 6-2, 225 (6 tackles, 1 sack, 3 QB pressures; redshirted after playing 4 games)
Nu’umotu Falo, Sr., 6-2, 240 (4 tackles, 1 TFL)
Davion Taylor, Sr., 6-2, 220 (75 tackles, 1 sacks, 12 TFL, 11 QB pressures, 2 fumble rec.)
Alex Tchangam, Sr., 6-3, 250 (8 tackles, 1 sack)
Carson Wells, So., 6-4, 245 (34 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 6 QB pressures)
Joshka Gustav, Fr., 6-3, 225 (true freshman)
Jamar Montgomery, Jr., 6-2, 235 (JUCO transfer)
Alec Pell, Fr., 6-4, 230 (true freshman
Drew Lewis (graduated; 66 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 TFL, 1 INT; also played ILB)
Shamar Hamilton (no longer with the program)
2019 outlook: The Buffs are not short on experience here, as they’ve got five players back from last year. Taylor is one of the top athletes and playmakers on the defense and he’ll be versatile for the Buffs, including playing off the edge. He recorded 12 tackles for loss (including a sack) last year. Wells shows great potential to be a possible all-conference player during his career, as he’s got a knack for getting to the quarterback. Callier, Falo and Tchangam also bring game experience and hope to be more productive in their roles. Montgomery adds another level of experience, as he played two seasons at Independence (Kan.) Community College, recording six sacks last year. Gustav and Pell add some depth, but could wind up using this season to develop for the future.
Colorado linebacker Jacob Callier led the team with 11 quarterback pressures last season.