Any conversation about the top players on the Colorado defense starts with linebacker Nate Landman and lineman Mustafa Johnson, and rightfully so. Johnson and Landman racked up several preseason accolades and they are expected to be among the best in the Pac-12 at their positions.
One of the most disruptive players on the defense, meanwhile, continues quietly going about his business.
“Carson Wells is probably our most underrated player,” head coach Mel Tucker said early in preseason camp. “He does a great job consistently every day.”
Wells, a sophomore outside linebacker from Bushnell, Fla., heard about Tucker’s comments and offered a simple smile when asked about them.
“I still feel like I have something to prove or else I wouldn’t be underrated,” Wells said. “I just want to come out every day and keep trying to prove myself.”
The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is the Buffs’ most talented outside linebacker and he’s looking to build upon a strong freshman season. Last year, Wells played just 46 percent of the defensive snaps, but finished with 34 tackles, 4.5 sacks (second to Johnson’s 8.5), six QB pressures (fourth) and a team-high 13 third-down stops.
“(Last year) definitely caught me up to speed,” Wells said. “It’s way faster than what I was used to. I’m just trying to build on that this year and share my experience with the other guys.”
CU finished with a solid 2.42 sacks per game a year ago, but will turn to a relatively inexperienced group at outside linebacker to generate more pressure and set the edge in the run game.
Aside from Wells, seniors Alex Tchangam (90 snaps played in 2018) and Nu’umotu Falo (41 snaps) and sophomore Jacob Callier (80 snaps) will be counted on to give the Buffs a lift.
“We’ve gotten way better since the (new coaching staff) got here,” Wells said. “We compete every day and try to push each other to get better.”
The key to the group, however, is Wells. He’s already a play-maker, but is still relatively young with a high ceiling.
“I’m just excited about his future because he’s got a ton of experience in front of him and he’s really just been a sponge,” outside linebackers coach Brian Michalowki said. “(On the field) it really doesn’t matter what (the coaches) know; it’s about what your players can understand, what they can execute under pressure on game day. He’s a guy that can go out there and be able to apply what we do in practice and let it show in competition.”
Wells said he has become more of a student of the game this offseason, trying to learn not only his position, but what’s going on around him so that he can help is teammates.
Wells is also adjusting to lining up with his hand in the ground at times, as opposed to almost always using a two-point stance.
“We have to get used to hitting the big dudes like Will (Sherman) and Arlington (Hambright) every day, every play,” said Wells, who used a three-point stance in high school. “Once you get used to it, it’s nice. When you have your hand down, you hit them right away. Everything happens way faster the closer you get to the ball.”
Hand in the ground or not, Wells keeps progressing and could soon garner some attention. Not that he’s too worried about that.
“Football is fun and that’s what I love to do,” he said. “That’s why I’m here. Hopefully we can build on (a solid 2018) this year.”
A quick look at each position on the CU defense:
Linemen: Mustafa Johnson exploded last year after coming to CU as a junior college transfer, compiling 73 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. He’s hoping for even better numbers this year, but he’s got to help bring along a very inexperienced group. Sophomore Terrance Lang, who came off the bench a year ago at end, is the only other lineman on the team to have played in a game. Big things are expected of redshirt freshman Jalen Sami at nose tackle. True freshmen Na’im Rodman and Austin Williams, along with junior college transfers Jeremiah Doss, Janaz Jordan and Va’atofu Sauvao need to step up and provide depth.
Outside linebackers: There’s talent here, but it’s raw. Wells has potential to be one of the best in the Pac-12, but the Buffs need Alex Tchangam to fill a significantly larger role this year. He had a great camp. Senior Nu’umotu Falo and sophomore Jacob Callier both have their strengths – Falo against the run, Callier as a rusher – and will be counted on, as well.
Star back: Senior Davion Taylor has struggled a bit adjusting to more pass coverage than he’s used to, but he has the speed and athleticism to be one of the Buffs’ top players on defense. Freshman safety Mark Perry could help here, as well.
Inside linebackers: Nate Landman (123 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 4 sacks in 2018) is an elite inside linebacker is stepping up as a leader. Sophomore Jonathan Van Diest (23 snaps played) beings the year as the other starter, but junior Akil Jones and junior college transfers Jash Allen and Quinn Perry could see the field, as well.
Cornerbacks: There’s a severe lack of depth and experience here, as three of the seven scholarship corners had never played the position until this month. The top three – senior Delrick Abrams Jr., junior Mekhi Blackmon and sophomore Chris Miller – show great potential, however. Keeping that trio healthy is critical. True freshmen Tarik Luckett and KJ Trujillo could be called upon, as well.
Safeties: Adding SMU graduate transfer Mikial Onu this summer was a major boost for the back of the defense. He started 20 games at SMU and will be a leader for CU. Aaron Maddox won the other starting job coming out of camp, but Derrion Rakestraw and Isaiah Lewis continue to push. Sam Noyer, who switched from quarterback this month, can’t be overlooked. His size (6-4, 220) and athleticism could get him on the field quickly.
SNAPSHOT: CU defense
Projected depth chart
Position First team Second team
DT Mustafa Johnson, Jr., 6-2, 290 Na’im Rodman, Fr., 6-2, 295
NT Jalen Sami, Fr., 6-6, 320 Austin Williams, Fr., 6-5, 320
DE Terrance Lang, So., 6-7, 280 Janaz Jordan, So., 6-4, 305
OLB Alex Tchangam, Sr., 6-3, 245 Jacob Callier, So., 6-3, 225
ILB Nate Landman, Jr., 6-3, 230 Akil Jones, Jr., 6-0, 230
ILB Jonathan Van Diest, So., 6-1, 235 Jash Allen, Jr., 6-2, 230
OLB Carson Wells, So., 6-4, 250 Nu’umotu Falo, Sr., 6-2, 240
STAR Davion Taylor, Sr., 6-2, 225 Mark Perry, Fr., 6-2, 200
CB Mekhi Blackmon, Jr., 6-0, 165 KJ Trujillo, Fr., 6-0, 165
FS Mikial Onu, Sr., 5-11, 205 Isaiah Lewis, So., 6-0, 205
SS Aaron Maddox, Jr., 6-1, 205 Derrion Rakestraw, Jr., 6-2, 200
CB Delrick Abrams Jr., Sr., 6-3, 185 Chris Miller, So., 6-0, 190
Tyson Summers (1st season): Coordinator/Safties
Jimmy Brumbaugh (1st season): Defensive line
Ross Els (3rd season): Inside linebackers
Brian Michalowski (1st season): Outside linebackers
Travares Tillman (1st season): Cornerbacks
Five to watch
CB Mekhi Blackmon, Jr.: He’s got a nose for the football and now that he’s in an expanded role, he could lead this team in interceptions.
DT Mustafa Johnson, Jr.: Among the Pac-12’s best at getting sacks and making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
LB Nate Landman, Jr.: Maybe the best all-around linebacker CU has had in a decade, he is the leader of the defense.
STAR Davion Taylor, Sr.: He will make a lot of plays with his speed and athleticism. Work out the kinks in his pass coverage and he could have an exceptional year.
OLB Carson Wells, So.: After a solid freshman year, Wells is looking to be even better this season. He’s the Buffs’ best edge pass rusher.
Rankings Avg. Pac-12 National
Scoring 27.3 9 70
Total defense 380.3 5 52
Rushing 145.6 6 44
Passing 234.7 7 74
Passing efficiency 130.1 8 64
Sacks 29 5 49
3rd-down % 36.6 4 41
Red zone scoring 83.7 7 76
Top returning individuals
LB Nate Landman: 123 total (61 solo)
STAR Davion Taylor: 75 total (62 solo)
DL Mustafa Johnson: 73 total (53 solo)
DL Mustafa Johnson: 8.5
OLB Carson Wells: 4.5
LB Nate Landman: 4
LB Nate Landman: 2
S Darrion Rakestraw: 1
Numbers to know
15 – Turnovers caused by the CU defense last year. That’s the third-lowest total for a CU team since 1946, and it followed the 2017 season in which the Buffs caused only 14 turnovers.
18.5 – Average second-half points allowed by the Buffs during their season-ending seven-game losing streak last year. They allowed an average of 6.8 second-half points during their season-opening five-game win streak.
43 – Passes defended (intercepted or broken up) by the Buffs last year. Ranking 106th nationally. CU was second in the country with 89 in 2016, fell to 68 in 2017 and then 43 last year.
48 – Combined career starts at CU for the 31 players listed on the depth chart. Half of those 48 come from two players – Mustafa Johnson and Landman, with 12 each.
70.3 – Improvement in average total yards allowed by the Buffs in 2018 (380.3) compared to 2017 (450.6).