After deciding to play his final season of college football at Colorado, Mikial Onu believed he could be a leader for the Buffaloes in the back of their defense.
In the early stages of preseason camp, the graduate transfer from SMU was spending so much time learning the playbook that leadership took a back seat.
During the past few days, however, Onu’s experience has started to pay dividends for the Buffs.
“Mikial is doing real well,” defensive coordinator Tyson Summers said Thursday after practice. “It’s a very different defense than the one he’s been in for the last three years. I think he’s doing a really good job of being able to spend extra time, work at it, ask questions and he’s a very mature kid. That shows in how he practices, it shows in his demeanor on the field.
“He’s really kind of turned into a quiet leader in that group and I think he’s done a really nice job. He’s been running with the (starters) the last couple of days because of the performance that he’s had.”
Onu’s emergence could be vital for the Buffs, who don’t have much experience at safety, yet continue to see daily competition at that spot.
“You have a group of guys that have more reps in this defense, so they’ve been able to adapt and been able to be in communication,” Summers said. “Then you have some guys that are really athletic but at the same time maybe not as far along in the play book as some of the other guys.”
After losing last year’s starters, Nick Fisher and Evan Worthington, to graduation, the Buffs are giving several players opportunities to compete this year, including juniors Aaron Maddox, Derrion Rakestraw and Trey Udoffia, sophomore Isaiah Lewis and true freshman Mark Perry.
“We’re trying to see which ones are going to be the best fit and the guys we can trust to go out there and play and make tackles, erase big plays, create some takeaways and get stops on third down and the red area,” Summers said. “Whoever those two are, that’s who we’re looking to have.”
Battles at DL
The defensive line is going through a similar process. Other than returning starter Mustafa Johnson and key 2018 backup Terrance Lang, nobody else in the group has Division I experience.
The Buffs, however, want to have a solid rotation of eight or nine players up front. To do that, they’ll have to lean on some true freshmen, including Na’im Rodman and Austin Williams.
“We think both of those guys can be really special as we get going,” Summers said.
Running backs coach Darian Hagan is also dealing with a young group. He has six running backs to work with, but there’s virtually no experience among them. For Hagan, it’s quite a change from the past three seasons, when the Buffs were led by Phillip Lindsay (2016-17) and Travon McMillian (2018), who are both now in the NFL.
“You can’t be as harsh,” Hagan said of working with young players. “You can be demanding, but you don’t want to be harsh and things like that, because those guys haven’t been through the fire.”
Hagan knows that feeling and recalled being a true freshman option quarterback at CU in 1988, working with then-quarterbacks coach Gary Barnett.
“Like coach Barnett used to say when he coached me as a freshman, he coached me with ‘kid gloves,’” Hagan said. “You have to make sure you’re saying the right things and doing the right things (with the Buffs’ young running backs) and then they’ll follow you. They know you respect them and love them. You can’t be real harsh on them. You can be demanding and they’ll run through a wall for you.”
Summers said the past two practices have been “really good days” for the Buffs’ defense, with the exception of “a couple things in the red area and a series of team run.” … Senior Davion Taylor, who plays in the Star position, has improved in his pass coverage. “I think he’s been really consistent the last seven or eight practices,” Summers said. “I do think he’s really improved his coverage, improved his eye discipline and really just kind of understanding how to move his body and trust himself.” Summers added that head coach Mel Tucker has been working closely with Taylor to improve his coverage technique.