In losing their best and most experienced defensive lineman to injury for a few games last season, the Colorado Buffaloes appeared to be in some trouble up front.
As it turned out, the Buffs weathered the storm with defensive end Mustafa Johnson on the sidelines with a sore ankle, while young players gained valuable experience.
Defensive line depth was a major concern for the Buffs going into the 2019 season. This year, it could be a position of strength.
Concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus remain, creating uncertainty around the start of the college season. The Buffaloes and head coach Karl Dorrell are still preparing for the 2020 season, however, and over the next couple of weeks, BuffZone will preview each position group at CU. In this second installment, we look at the defensive line, which returns everybody that saw the field in what was a solid 2019 season for the unit.
When previous head coach Mel Tucker was hired at CU in December of 2018, he immediately identified the defensive line as a priority in recruiting.
The building of the defensive front, however, really began under Tucker’s predecessor, Mike MacIntyre. Recruiting defensive linemen was a weakness for much of MacIntyre’s tenure, but in his final two years, he and then-defensive coordinator DJ Eliot brought Johnson, end Terrance Lang and nose tackle Jalen Sami to Boulder.
That trio combined for 31 starts last year and they all return this season as projected starters in a three-man front.
Tucker wasn’t in Boulder very long, but significantly upgraded the depth. His 2019 recruiting class included high school players Na’im Rodman, Austin Williams, Lloyd Murray Jr. and Jayden Simon, as well as junior college transfers Jeremiah Doss and Janaz Jordan.
Before bolting for Michigan State in February, Tucker added junior college transfer Justin Jackson, high school recruit Jordan Berry and Alabama transfer Antonio Alfano to the mix.
Alfano was the headliner of Tucker’s additions. Once rated the No. 1 player in the country for the 2019 class, Alfano left Alabama a month into last season and enrolled at CU in January.
Alfano’s playing status for next season is unknown, however. He would need an NCAA waiver to be eligible – unless a one-time transfer exemption is approved by the Division I council. On top of that, he was suspended indefinitely by Dorrell a month ago for a violation of team rules.
Having Alfano on the field would make the Buffs better up front, as he’s got the potential to be a dominant force.
Even without him, though, the Buffs should be in good shape.
Johnson has been one of the Pac-12’s most disruptive linemen the past two seasons, racking up 102 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.
Lang continues to get better each season and came through last year with a team-high six sacks. Take another step and he could be one of the top pass rushers in the Pac-12. Sami is a solid run stopper in the middle and he’s just a sophomore this year.
Doss, Jordan, Rodman and Williams were all in their first year of Division I football last season and showed improvement throughout the season. They’ll provide good depth again this year. After redshirting, Murray and Simon could get into the mix, as well.
Jackson comes to CU after playing two seasons at Northwest Mississippi Community College. He earned All-MACJC honors last year and will push for a rotational spot this season.
Walk-on Dante Sparaco could be a wild card in the group. Sparaco is a former CU signee who transferred to Montana State and then back to the Buffs last year. He was ineligible to play last year, but seven times he was recognized as one of the Buffs’ scout team players of the week.
Another walk-on, Nico Magri, had a good year on the scout team in 2019, as well. Berry comes in with exceptional size, at 6-foot-4, 330 pounds, but could benefit from a redshirt year.
Before he left CU, Tucker expressed his hope that a deeper, more experienced line could allow the Buffs to be more versatile up front, switching between three-man and four-man fronts. Dorrell sees the same potential in a group that just might be the deepest unit on the CU defense.
Here’s an initial look at the projected defensive line for the 2020 season:
Position: Defensive line
Seniors (2019 statistics): Mustafa Johnson, 6-foot-2, 290 pounds (9 starts, 393 snaps played, 34 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 7 QB pressures).
Juniors: Jeremiah Doss, 6-4, 255 (58 snaps); Justin Jackson, 6-2, 270 (JUCO transfer); Janaz Jordan, 6-4, 305 (2 starts, 217 snaps, 12 tackles); Terrance Lang, 6-7, 280 (11 starts, 588 snaps, 40 tackles, 6 sacks, 12 QB pressures); Nico Magri, 6-3, 280 (walk-on); Dante Sparaco, 6-5, 270 (walk-on).
Sophomores: Na’im Rodman, 6-2, 295 (2 starts, 314 snaps, 11 tackles); Jalen Sami, 6-6, 320 (11 starts, 411 snaps, 25 tackles, 1 sack); Austin Williams, 6-5, 320 (190 snaps, 5 tackles).
Redshirt freshmen: Antonio Alfano, 6-5, 285 (transfer from Alabama); Lloyd Murray Jr., 6-2, 325 (33 snaps, 2 tackles); Jayden Simon, 6-3, 265.
True freshmen: Jordan Berry, 6-2, 330.
Players lost: Va’atofu Sauvao, 6-3, 310 (transferred).