Under the direction of first-year coordinator Tyson Summers, the Colorado defense was a work in progress this season.
What made Summers pleased at the end of the campaign was that the progress was evident.
CU (5-7, 3-6 Pac-12) wrapped up its season on Nov. 30 with a 45-15 loss to Utah. The final numbers paint a not-so-pretty picture for the defense, as the Buffs ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in yards allowed (441.9 per game) and ninth in points allowed (31.8 per game). It was the first time since 2014 that a CU defense gave up more than 28.2 points per game.
How the Buffs finished the season was more to Summers’ liking.
“I do think that we stressed improvement in what we were trying to do,” Summers said. “I think our staff did a really good job of being able to try to fit the things that we felt like we could do well.”
The improvement showed up statistically.
- First 8 games: 34.9 points and 486.9 yards per game; 6.93 yards per play
- Last 4 games: 25.8 points and 352.0 yards per game; 5.57 yards per play
In November, the Buffs were fifth in the Pac-12 in points allowed.
The change was sparked by Summers and head coach Mel Tucker, a long-time defensive coach who spent the previous three years coordinating the defense at Georgia, coming up with a simplified plan.
“I think the big thing was we had to adjust,” Summers said. “Coach Tucker, as he will always be, was phenomenal in being able to have ideas and pointers. Obviously with a young team like we had, a young defense, it was more about not having more scheme but having less and being better at the basics and being better at fundamentals.”
A simplified defense, as well as game experience, helped CU’s young defense play better.
“That’s why you see guys like KJ Trujillo being able to play better as the season goes on,” Summers said. “I think that’s why you see guys, some of those freshmen … be able to be really consistent and continue to improve.”
Cornerbacks Trujillo and Tarik Luckett, nickel Mark Perry and defensive linemen Na’im Rodman and Austin Williams were all true freshmen who played at least 161 snaps this season.
Up front, redshirt freshman nose tackle Jalen Sami had no experience before the season and sophomore end Terrance Lang had only 263 snaps of experience. That duo combined for 999 snaps this season and were key figures in a run defense that got better as the year went on.
“They both improved so much, and (defensive line coach Jimmy) Brumbaugh has done a tremendous job with those guys,” Summers said.
Perhaps the most improved player on the whole defense was inside linebacker Akil Jones. A junior, he had 18 career defensive snaps before this season and began the year as a backup. He became a starter by midseason and finished fourth on the team with 61 tackles – 31 of those in the last four games.
Talking about Jones, Lang and Sami, Summers said, “Those guys really played well the last quarter of the year. And really, it was the work they had put in prior to that, obviously, to be able to get the improvement we wanted, so I think that’s what showed up.”
Veterans, such as seniors Davion Taylor and Alex Tchangam, juniors Nate Landman and Derrion Rakestraw and sophomore Carson Wells also played better down the stretch.
Looking to the future, the Buffs lose five seniors who played key roles on defense, but players who accounted for 67 percent of the defensive snaps are slated to return.
“There’s a lot to be excited about moving forward to the future,” Summers said. “We’ve got a team that is hungry, a team and a defense, in particular, that’s very hungry to prove they can do it all year. I think we’re in as good a spot as we can be defensively.
“So much of it goes back to, more than anything, the culture (implemented by Tucker). The culture for us on defense right now is in a really good place and it’s because of the culture he’s created within our entire program.”