Recent defensive line coaches at Colorado have had to deal with a lack of depth, experience and high-end talent.
Chris Wilson doesn’t have those issues, but the Buffaloes’ first-year defensive line coach is hoping intense competition makes one of CU’s strengths even better.
Hired in February, Wilson took over a group that returns three starters – senior Mustafa Johnson, junior Terrance Lang and sophomore Jalen Sami – along with several others who gained valuable experience in 2019.
All of them will fight for starting jobs as the Buffs gear up for the Nov. 7 opener against UCLA.
“I really don’t have any starters right now,” Wilson said after practice Saturday. “I have a depth chart and I’ve got guys playing reps. The beauty of this group is everybody played some reps last year, which is kind of a bonus for us.
“We’ve got really good talent here. My job is to make sure we develop them. I like the group we’ve got, I like their competitive edge; they’re working really hard every day. The biggest thing is how we’re transitioning from where we were a year ago to now. There’s a lot of good carryover. I’m excited about the group.”
Leading the group is Johnson, who has been a two-year starter and one of the most disruptive defensive linemen at CU in the past decade.
Although he dealt with some injuries last season, Johnson, a former junior college transfer, has 107 tackles, 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss in his first two seasons with the Buffs.
Wilson compared Johnson to Brandon Graham, a 2016 All-Pro that Wilson coached with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I’m not saying he’s Brandon Graham, but he’s got that kind of diversity,” said Wilson, who coached the Buffs’ defensive line from 2000-04 under head coach Gary Barnett. “He can play end, he can play tackle, he can line up at the nose. He gives you a lot of position flexibility.”
In fact, Wilson wants everyone in the group to have that flexibility.
“Everybody is an X,” Wilson said. “We’re very multiple. We’ll have a lot of guys doing the same in multiples positions. We do that because it always helps us to play the next best player instead of playing the next-best position, so everybody plays everything.”
The biggest challenge for Johnson is to get used to another style. Wilson is the Buffs’ fourth defensive line coach in four years and the third for Johnson.
“I’m trying to relearn a new technique and kind of style of play,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of the main thing I’m trying to do is catch up on that and still make sure I got my pass rush skills on point and working on my first move.”
With everyone learning Wilson’s style, that leads to more competition because the group is on the same level in that regard.
“We’re trying to create as much competition as we can across the board,” Wilson said. “When you can develop two-deeps, three-deeps on your roster, that’s when you really become a championship quality program and that’s the process right now.”
Regardless of the technique, Johnson’s goal is the same for himself and his line mates: create more havoc up front.
“Basically I want to finish with 10-plus sacks,” he said. “My first year, I was close to that TFL record. I want to try to beat that. That would be a goal to get to that. And then overall just be a good captain and help the people around me elevate; not just myself, but elevate everyone around me.”
A year ago, Johnson and Lang were the only Buffs with experience up front. This year, both are back, along with Sami and key reserves Janaz Jordan, Na’im Rodman, Austin Williams and Jeremiah Doss. Others, including redshirt freshmen Lloyd Murray and Jayden Simon and junior college transfer Justin Jackson, will fight for playing time, as well.
“As many good players as I can get coming to play, I want to keep rotating them,” Wilson said. “You do that by creating depth and developing the bottom part of your roster. What that creates more than anything is quality competition. We don’t want the drop off. The more guys we can play at a high level, the more competitive we become and the faster we play. Depth definitely can be an ally during these tight times.”