Any list of the toughest players in football history is sure to include the names of Chuck Bednarik, Dick Butkus and Bronko Nagurski.
Those three legends are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame and they all have major college football awards named in their honor.
It’s no surprise that Colorado linebacker Nate Landman is on the preseason watch list for all three awards, which honor the nation’s top linebacker (Butkus Award) and defensive player of the year (Bednarik Award and Nagurski Award).
Arguably CU’s best player, Landman will fill a key role in the Buffaloes having success during the 2020 season – if there is a season. The coronavirus pandemic has created doubt about the season even happening, but Landman is gearing up to be a better version of himself just in case.
“Just being more consistent with my game (is a focus),” he said. “Towards the beginning of the (2019) season, I struggled with some missed tackles and pass coverage. It was never the mental game that affected me; sometimes it was the physical game, whether it was sore shoulders or anything like that.”
Landman has recorded 260 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, six sacks and three interceptions over the past two seasons. He’s a big hitter with a nose for the ball, which was evident during his brief appearance late in the 2017 season.
Where Landman has taken perhaps the biggest strides is in leadership. He embraced a leadership role last season and is intent on becoming even better in that regard this year.
“(I’m working on) being more accessible to the team and being that kind of leader to where I can lead by example and if guys are hurting they can come to me, and being a guy that someone can lean on,” he said. “I want to help create more leaders on the team. I don’t think leaders always have to be seniors. Helping create a freshman leader that can lead that freshman class and someone they can look to for advice.”
While Landman aims to be a leader for his younger teammates, his presence on the field is expected to have a significant impact on the entire defense. Under the direction of then-first-year coordinator Tyson Summers, CU struggled defensively last year until the last four or five games and Landman believes the Buffs can pick up where they left off.
“Last year towards the beginning we were doing a lot on defense,” he said. “We had a huge call menu and we were rotating in and out a lot of guys. This year, talking with coach Summers, we’ve kind of reduced the call menu down a little bit and that’s what we did toward the end of last season. Get really good at playing base and then having a pretty wicked third down package.
“If you look at the last four or five games, we took pretty big strides in our game plan and turnovers and forcing teams to punt the ball.”
Landman’s position coach from the last three years, Ross Els, followed former Buffs head coach Mel Tucker to Michigan State this offseason. However, Landman is pleased to have Summers, who was retained by new head coach Karl Dorrell, coming back. Summers is now coaching the linebackers.
“It’s very important,” he said of Summers’ return. “Losing a head coach, you lose that stability and kind of rock that’s holding the team together, but having the DC stay on and be able to lead the defense is huge.”
As for postseason awards, Landman knows the key to winning those isn’t just about him. It’s rare to find a winner of those awards that didn’t play on a Top-25 team. CU has finished in the Top 25 once in the last 17 years (2016) and it’s been 19 years since a Buff won a major national award.
Frankly, Landman is more interested getting the Buffs into the rankings than he is in hoisting some personal hardware.
“It’s a tremendous honor and I appreciate the recognition,” he said of being on the watch lists, “but that’s not what I’m focused on. I can’t win those awards if I don’t win games with the team. … I’d rather go undefeated and win games for my team instead of winning any of those awards. It’s not my main focus.”