Going into the 2019 season, the Colorado football team knew that any attrition in the secondary would present a problem.
Those problems came up, but the bumps in the road from last year have made the Buffs perhaps better for the future.
Although the fate of the college football season is unknown because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Buffaloes look forward with some confidence because they’ve got more experience and depth in the secondary than a year ago.
“I think there’s a good group of us that are hungry and competitive,” junior defensive back Chris Miller said. “Since we’ve had injuries, everybody’s played, so everybody knows what it feels like to go out there and everybody’s excited to just get back to football.
“It’s going to be a rising competition since everyone has played. I just think that experience is a good thing. We can at least know what we expect to get out of people … and just how we can develop and make ourselves a smarter, wiser group.”
Miller was one of the players hit by the injury bug last year. In fact, he’s dealt with several injuries during his career at CU. A cornerback throughout his time at CU, Miller was limited to four games in 2019 because of a torn ACL.
Another corner, junior Mekhi Blackmon, played only four games because of a shoulder injury.
With those two out for much of the season, the Buffs relied on true freshmen KJ Trujillo (seven starts) and Tarik Luckett (two starts, six games).
“Watching them from when they came in from fall camp (in 2019), they’ve just grown a lot,” Miller said. “KJ works his butt off. He just got to get bigger and everything, but he’s getting there. I believe in both of them and I know that they know what they have to do. Everybody is taking their responsibility a lot more seriously now and that’s what I like to see out of them.”
With the maturation of Luckett and Trujillo, the Buffs have developed some depth at corner. Blackmon returns for his third season at CU, while sophomore Dylan Thomas is back after spending last season converting from receiver. Nigel Bethel Jr., who sat out last season after transferring from Miami (Fla.) is also in the mix, along with redshirt freshman D.J. Oats and true freshman Christian Gonzalez.
Miller has experience at corner, too, but the development of Luckett and Trujillo has allowed the Buffs to shift Miller to safety.
Defensive coordinator Tyson Summers said Miller could play all over the secondary, but is projected at safety.
“The communication is the same for both corners and safeties except the safeties make the calls,” Miller said. “Now I’ve got the power to do that responsibility and I think I love it.”
The 6-foot, 190-pound Miller has been a physical corner and despite his injury history – he’s missed 15 of 24 games the past two seasons – he’s not concerned about going to a more physical position.
“I’m not really worried about that at all because that stuff is just part of the game, so it could happen to anybody,” he said. “When I’m going out there, I’m playing fearless. I don’t really care about any of that.”
Miller joins a safety group that includes returning starter Derrion Rakestraw. Now a senior, Rakestraw got into the starting lineup after Aaron Maddox went down with an injury in the third game of the 2019 season (Maddox then left the team in mid-season).
Including Maddox and 11-game starter Mikial Onu, CU lost five safeties from last year, but return junior Isaiah Lewis and sophomore Mark Perry, who is a potential starter at Star. Sophomore junior college transfer Jaylen Striker will also compete, as will true freshmen Will Anglen and Toren Pittman.
Miller could be the key to the whole secondary because of his versatility and, as long as he’s healthy, he’s ready to play anywhere.
“I’m learning to play everything (in the secondary) I can,” he said. “As a safety, you have to know what everybody does. I know all the positions, pretty much.”