Between Tedric Thompson, Afolabi Laguda, Nick Fisher and Evan Worthington, the back end of Colorado’s defense has been manned by experienced veterans for the past several years.
With that group all long gone, the Buffaloes are rebuilding at safety. Yet, while experience is lacking, competition for playing time should be intense.
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 safeties.
“I think there’s a lot of guys that are out to prove themselves,” defensive coordinator/safeties coach Tyson Summers said in the spring. “A lot of guys in that room between the safeties and the Stars that are out to try to improve our defense as a whole and trying to have the ability to play.”
Throughout fall camp, the Buffs will evaluate inexperienced returners and newcomers to figure out who lines up at safety for the Aug. 30 opener against Colorado State in Denver. It’s possible that the two starters have yet to go through a single practice at CU.
Mikial Onu has spent this summer finishing his degree at SMU and plans to join the Buffs for fall camp as a graduate transfer. Head coach Mel Tucker doesn’t bring in graduate transfers to have them sit during their final seasons of college football, so it’s a solid bet that Onu will be on the field a lot.
Onu played in 36 games, with 20 starts, during his career at SMU. He led the Mustangs in tackles (105) in 2017. A year ago, he had 59 tackles and an interception in seven starts. The lone senior among the scholarship safeties, Onu has more Division I game experience than the rest of the group combined and he hopes to solidify the back of the defense.
“There’s not a lot of experience back there, not a lot of people that have played a lot of snaps or started a lot of games and I fortunately have,” Onu said this summer. “So, more than anything it’s a leadership aspect. It’s good to have somebody back there to just calm everybody and say, ‘It’s just football.’”
The other newcomer that could make an immediate impact is true freshman Mark Perry. At 6-feet, 195 pounds, he’s physically ready and there are high hopes for what he can bring to the tackle.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what Mark Perry can do coming in,” Tucker said.
While there is some intrigue about the newcomers, the returners will be battling, as well.
Junior Aaron Maddox, a junior college transfer last year, has missed each of the last two springs with shoulder injuries, but has bulked up this summer and is expected to compete for a starting role. He was in on 15 tackles a year ago despite playing just 108 snaps.
“I didn’t get a chance to see him (in spring), but I’ve heard some good things about him and I’m looking forward to seeing him play,” Tucker said.
Derrion Rakestraw is the most experienced as a safety in a CU uniform. A former receiver and corner, he played in a backup role last year at safety. While he went through some ups and downs, he gained valuable experience with 262 snaps played and his first two career starts. During the spring, Summers praised Rakestraw’s work ethic and said that’s led to him being ahead of others in knowing the defense and communicating on the field.
Nobody in the group has more experience on the field at CU than Trey Udoffia, but all of his experience has come at cornerback. He has played in 20 games, with 10 starts, during the past two seasons, but Tucker and Summers believe he’s a better fit at safety.
“I think Trey has worked really hard,” Summers said. “I think Trey is a natural tackler and a guy that wants to play physical, a guy that is highly competitive. I’ve been pleased with Trey from a physical standpoint and how he’s trying to play and how he’s trying to learn.”
Sophomore Isaiah Lewis, who got time with the starting defense in spring drills, will compete as well.
Summers is hoping the competition among the group pays off with success on game days.
“There’s a lot of competition,” he said. “I think they’re all getting better because of it.”
Returners (2018 statistics)
Aaron Maddox, Jr., 6-1, 205 (15 tackles, 1 TFL)
Derrion Rakestraw, Jr., 6-2, 200 (19 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 INT)
Trey Udoffia, Jr., 6-0, 200 (31 tackles, 3 PBU)
Isaiah Lewis, So., 6-0, 205 (1 tackle in 7 snaps played)
Lucas Cooper, Sr., 5-10, 185 (walk-on; 4 snaps played)
Mikial Onu, Sr., 5-11, 205 (graduate transfer from SMU)
Mark Perry, Fr., 6-0, 195 (true freshman)
Curtis Appleton, So., 6-0, 180 (walk-on; redshirted last year)
Dustin Johnson, Fr., 6-1, 185 (walk-on; redshirted last year)
Ryan Travis, So., 6-0, 200 (walk-on; transfer from Fort Lewis)
Nick Fisher (graduated; 45 tackles, 3 PBU, 1 INT)
Hasaan Hypolite (dismissed from team; transferred to Houston)
Daniel Talley (graduated; 6 tackles, 1 TFL)
Kyle Trego (graduated; 8 tackles)
Evan Worthington (graduated; 48 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL, 6 PBU, 1 INT)
2019 outlook: This position will look a lot different than it has in recent years, with several new faces vying for playing time. Last year, Tucker’s defense at Georgia was among the top 15 in the country and the top two tacklers were both safeties. Much is expected of this position and CU will need a few players to step up this fall. Onu could wind up being the most important addition of the offseason, as he brings experience and leadership to the table. Given that, it would be a surprise if he didn’t start. Perry’s athleticism and potential are off the charts, but he’ll need to get up to speed quickly. Between Lewis, Maddox, Rakestraw and Udoffia, the Buffs need a couple of them to rise up and prove worthy of a starting role. Overall, the potential is there for this group to be solid. Going into the season, however, there is a lot to prove and fall camp will be critical.