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Several players taking advantage of opportunities with CU Buffs defense

Defense has stepped up in last two wins

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado’s Nate Landman and Derrion Rakestraw tackle Stanford’s Cameron Scarlett on Nov. 8.

Whether it’s veterans or freshmen, there’s a common theme among the players that are stepping up on defense for the Colorado football lately.

Opportunity.

Throughout the second half of the season, the Buffs (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12) have shown steady improvement on defense, and that has shown up big time in the last two games.

Along the way, the Buffs have seen a few freshmen – such as nickelback Mark Perry, cornerbacks KJ Trujillo and Tarik Luckett, and defensive lineman Na’im Rodman – work themselves into starting or rotational positions. The Buffs have also had veterans such as linebacker Akil Jones and safety Derrion Rakestraw emerge as starters.

That group of six played a combined 36 snaps in the season opener against Colorado State because they were all slotted behind others on the depth chart. In CU’s 20-14 win against Washington on Saturday, that group played 238 combined snaps – and four were in the starting lineup. All of them figure to play key roles when the Buffs face No. 6 Utah (10-1, 7-1) on Saturday in Salt Lake City (5:44 p.m.; TV: ABC).

In each case, those players are performing better as the season goes along, and it has made the entire defense a better unit.

“When everybody knows what we’re doing, you can play faster and that’s how you make plays,” senior Star backer Davion  Taylor said.

Rakestraw is a testament to that. A junior who came to CU as a receiver before switching to cornerback, and then safety, he’s getting more of an opportunity than ever before in his career. He’s now started eight consecutive games, and it shows.

“I know what I need to work on going into each game and I can just really focus on those things rather than playing time and things like that,” he said of the difference between now and in the past. “Just focus on what I need to work on getting better each week.”

Rakestraw, who played 275 career snaps before this season, has played 544 snaps this year, with 33 tackles, three interceptions, three tackles for loss and five pass breakups.

“I’m just knowing what to do within the defense,” he said. “Knowing where I should be, reading my keys and being able to break on balls and tackling and things like that – just all-around being a good defensive player. I feel like I’m getting better at that.”

With Rakestraw, Jones (who has started the last four games at inside linebacker) and the freshmen getting more comfortable during the second half of the season, it has taken pressure off of the veterans.

In particular inside linebacker Nate Landman, who took on a significant leadership role this season, has benefited. He was guiding many of his teammates early in the season, but is now playing with a bit more freedom because of the emergence of his defensive mates.

“Definitely,” he said. “The defense starts with the D-line and we haven’t had Mustafa (Johnson) as much as we wanted, but that’s given room for guys like Jalen Sami and Terrance Lang to step up. They’ve filled some big shoes. They’ve played great, both of them. The secondary, (Mikial) Onu and Rakestraw, the safety is kind of the quarterback of everything (on defense); they can see everything and they’ve been doing a great job communicating.

“The trust between D-line to linebackers to secondary is huge and that chemistry has continued to grow.”

As it has grown, the defense has enjoyed more success. After allowing 30-plus points in the first nine games, the Buffs have allowed 13 and 14 in the last two, winning both. They held Washington to 238 yards and 32 rushing yards – both season lows for a CU opponent.

“Just keep chopping at the stone, sooner or later it’s going to break,” said Sami, who has recorded 20 tackles at nose tackle. “So that’s what has happened the last two weeks for Stanford and Washington. When you’re making plays, and you’re stopping offenses, it’s fun. That’s what you want on defense, to get the ball to your offensive players and let them play. We’re definitely having fun. It’s becoming easier and we can fly around.”

Notable

During the first nine games, the Buffs allowed 53 plays of 20-plus yards. During the last two, they’ve allowed just five plays of 20-plus yards. … Senior receiver Tony Brown topped the 1,000-yard mark for his time at CU (1,031 receiving yards) last week against Washington. He’s the sixth player mentored by receivers coach Darrin Chiaverini to hit the 1,000-yard mark at CU: Shay Fields, Laviska Shenault, Bryce Bobo, Devin Ross, KD Nixon and Brown. … The Buffs will wear black helmets and pants and white jerseys for the game at Utah.