Among a defensive line group that features four true freshmen, Colorado coordinator Tyson Summers said he often thinks of nose tackle Jalen Sami as an older player.
Summers then has to remind himself that Sami has yet to play a single snap of college football.
It’s been a long time since Sami has played in a game, but the redshirt freshman is being counted on as a leader in an important position group.
“I feel like I definitely am a leader because of my work ethic and being here two years,” Sami said. “I feel like I can help these new guys come in and just play, because we know the system from spring and we’re still working on it and we want them to have the same expectations as us.”
Sami, from Vista Ridge High School in Colorado Springs, hasn’t played a game since the finale of his senior season, on Nov. 12, 2016. A late bloomer on the recruiting trail, he signed with CU as part of the 2017 class, but didn’t arrive until January of 2018 as a grayshirt. Last year, he suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss the entire season.
Finally, the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder has a chance to not only play, but to be a major contributor.
“I feel extremely confident in myself that I can come in and execute the play and execute what the coaches want,” he said. “I just know I need to perfect my craft and keep going.”
Sami is trying to fill the void left by Javier Edwards, who had a good senior year in 2018 before graduating and moving on to the NFL. The Buffs will look to Sami to provide the same type of stability.
“He’s a massive human being and he’s gotten better and better as we’ve gone since the spring,” head coach Mel Tucker said. “He’s in really good shape, he goes hard every play. He’s very stout, he’s hard to move. He’s a heavy-handed guy and he can bend, so he can play with good pad level and he can maintain good pad level throughout the down.
“It’s very important to have a good, stout, physical defense and it starts inside-out. You have to be really strong up the middle, kind of like baseball. It starts with him.”
The Buffs would like to rotate eight or nine defensive linemen throughout the course of a game. Considering there are only nine on scholarship, that means just about everybody has to be ready.
Sami and ends Mustafa Johnson and Terrance Lang are the projected starters. They’re also the only three on scholarship who were here last season, so Sami takes his role as a leader seriously.
“I feel like the coaching staff looks up to me to look out for the freshmen here because one of them needs to play and they’re going to need to know the defense and have confidence in themselves to play and execute,” Sami said. “I’m just trying to empower them to come along and bring them with us: me, Mustafa and T-Lang.”
Earlier this week, Tucker challenged the defensive line after they had a rough day stopping the run. They’ve responded the past few days.
“Really, for the first time on a consistent basis, I saw our first defensive front really show up in the run game,” Tucker said after Thursday’s practice. “We were able to stop the run on a consistent basis today with our first group and that was really good to see because our foundation defensively, the No. 1 thing is we have to be able to stop the run.”
For Sami, that likely means doing the dirty work and taking on two linemen so that others can make plays. That’s OK with him.
“To know I have to hold it down (in the middle), it gives me a sense of pride that I can’t be moved,” he said. “I have to stay stout in the nose and make sure that guard and center don’t get to my backers.”
Inside linebacker Jonathan Van Diest said he feels “very comfortable” having Sami in front of him.
“He does a phenomenal job,” Van Diest said. “He’s huge and he helps a ton.”
Sami can’t wait to help a ton on game days. He’s worked a long time to get ready for his collegiate debut, Aug. 30 against Colorado State in Denver, and he’s already counting down the days.
“I’m pretty excited,” he said.