Defensive coordinator Tyson Summers returns for his second season at Colorado.
CU Athletics
Defensive coordinator Tyson Summers returns for his second season at Colorado.

(Note: This is the second of a two-part series previewing the Colorado football season. Part one previewed the Buffaloes’ offense.)

In the early going of the 2019 season, the Colorado defense struggled to stop anyone.

Giving up more than 30 points and 400 yards was expected in the first couple months of the season. Three times, the Buffs yielded more than 500 yards.

Colorado linebacker Nate Landman during practice on Oct. 30, 2020.

During the final month of the season, however, things started to click for the Buffs on defense. The players became comfortable with first-year coordinator Tyson Summers and Summers started to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of his players.

Despite the fact that CU comes into this season with a new head coach and six new assistants, one of the keys to the Buffs’ success might be the fact that Summers and many of those key players from 2019 are back.

“Late in the year (in 2019), everybody seemed like they were playing at a much faster level, more communication, less thinking and more reacting,” junior outside linebacker Carson Wells said. “It really carried over, especially with offseason and a lot of meetings.”

CU opens its season on Saturday against UCLA (5 p.m., TV: ESPN2) and they do so after an encouraging preseason camp on defense.

“The defense, in my opinion, has been pretty dominant this camp,” senior linebacker Nate Landman said. “We’ve gotten better since day one and keep getting better every day.”

Returning a lot of talent helps. Landman, Wells, linebacker Akil Jones and all three starting defensive linemen – Mustafa Johnson, Terrance Lang and Jalen Sami – are back. Starting safety Derrion Rakestraw and cornerback KJ Trujillo are also back. In all, 16 players who were on the field for at least 160 snaps last year are back on defense.

Most importantly, Summers is back and this is a unique year for him. Although he’s a veteran coach, this will be the first time in Summers’ career that he will go into a second season with a team as its coordinator.

“The second year is just having the  relationships with the players,” he said. “And I think their understanding of a lot of the systems that we have in place (is important), so it’s a lot more fun. It really is.

“I think I’ve got a good relationship with almost every guy on the defense, and so it’s been really exciting just to be able to have that kind of relationship, that kind of communication as we go into year two.”

That communication started to improve last year. The Buffs gave up 34.9 points and 486.9 yards per game the first eight games. In the last four, those numbers dropped to 25.8 points and 352 yards per game.

With Summers and a host of experienced players back, the Buffs are hoping they can improve those numbers even more this year.

“We’ve come a long way from last year,” said outside linebackers coach Brian Michalowski, the only other defensive assistant back from 2019. “What we developed as a team last year and to continue that development as a defense is going to be exciting this year – building on some of the things that we did great towards the end of the year last year.”

A quick look at each position on the CU defense:

BOULDER, CO – October 17, 2020: Defensive lineman Jalen Sami during a Colorado football scrimmage. (Courtesy photo/University of Colorado)

Defensive line: Arguably the deepest pool of talent on the roster is up front on defense. CU returns all three starters with senior Mustafa Johnson, junior Terrance Lang and sophomore Jalen Sami. Johnson has 13 sacks in his two seasons at CU and Lang had a team-high six last year. Behind the starting trio is a talented group that includes senior Jeremiah Doss, juniors Justin Jackson and Janaz Jordan, sophomores  Na’im Rodman and Austin Williams and redshirt freshmen Lloyd Murray Jr. and Jayden Simon.

Inside linebackers: Senior Nate Landman has emerged as one of the best linebackers in the Pac-12 and he returns for his third season as a starter. He has racked up 260 tackles the past two seasons and is one of the leaders of the entire defense. Senior Akil Jones moved into a starting role in the middle of last season and played well. He and Landman form a good duo in the middle of the defense. Junior Jonathan Van Diest has starting experience and will see the field, as well. The Buffs also like the potential of redshirt freshmen Marvin Ham II and Alec Pell and junior Quinn Perry.

Outside linebackers: Despite battling plantar fasciitis last season, Carson Wells registered 57 tackles. He had just one sack, however, and he and the Buffs would like to see that increase now that he’s healthy. There isn’t much experience behind Wells, but junior college transfer Guy Thomas and junior Jamar Montgomery both played well in preseason camp, as did redshirt freshman Joshka Gustav.

Safeties: Senior Derrion Rakestraw leads what could be a very good starting group. Rakestraw has continued to get better every year and is a leader in the back of the defense. Strong safety Mark Perry is one of the top young players on the roster, while Chris Miller will take over at the Star position (safety/outside linebacker hybrid) and has played well since moving from corner. The Buffs lack depth and experience, but junior Isaiah Lewis had a good camp and KJ Trujillo moves over after starting at cornerback last year. True freshman Toren Pittman could also get into the mix.

Cornerbacks: Two of the Buffs’ better corners from last year – Miller and Trujillo – are now at safety, but they’ve got intriguing players here. Junior Mekhi Blackmon has played corner and nickel and was a starter before a knee injury ended his 2019 season early. On the other side, the Buffs gave the starting nod to true freshman Christian Gonzalez, one of the top players in the 2020 recruiting class. Sophomores Nigel Bethel, Tarik Luckett and Jaylen Striker are all still battling for playing time and should see the field, as well.

Punters: For most of the last five years, Alex Kinney handled the Buffs’ punts. Now that he’s graduated, the Buffs are turning to newcomer Josh Watts, a junior from Australia. Watts has reportedly had a good camp.

Depth chart

Position      First team                                               Second team                          

DE              Terrance Lang, Jr., 6-7, 285                     Justin Jackson, Jr., 6-2, 280

NT              Jalen Sami, So., 6-6, 325                         Lloyd Murray, Fr., 6-2, 300

DT              Mustafa Johnson, Sr., 6-2, 290                Jeremiah Doss, Sr., 6-4, 265

OLB           Guy Thomas, Jr., 6-4, 240                       Jamar Montgomery, Jr., 6-2, 240

ILB             Nate Landman, Sr., 6-3, 235                   Jonathan Van Diest, Jr., 6-1, 230

ILB             Akil Jones, Sr., 6-0, 235                          Marvin Ham II, Fr., 6-1, 225

OLB           Carson Wells, Jr., 6-4, 250                      Joshka Gustav, Fr., 6-3, 235

STAR         Chris Miller, Jr., 6-0, 190                         Curtis Appleton, Jr., 6-1, 180

LCB            Christian Gonzalez, Fr., 6-2, 200            Nigel Bethel, So., 6-0, 170

FS               Derrion Rakestraw, Sr., 6-2, 200             Isaiah Lewis, Jr., 6-0, 205

SS               Mark Perry, So., 6-2, 200                        KJ Trujillo, So., 6-0, 165

RCB           Mekhi Blackmon, Jr., 6-0, 170                Tarik Luckett, So., 6-3, 180

P                 Josh Watts, Jr., 6-4, 200                          Tyler Francis, So., 5-11, 170

SNAPSHOT: CU defense

Assistant coaches

Tyson Summers (2nd season): Defensive coordinator/inside linebackers

Demetrice Martin (1st season): Cornerbacks

Brett Maxie (1st season): Safeties

Brian Michalowski (2nd season): Outside linebackers

Chris Wilson (1st season): Defensive line

CU Athletics
BOULDER, CO – October 17, 2020: Defensive back Chris Miller during a Colorado football scrimmage. (Courtesy photo/University of Colorado)

Five to watch

DL Mustafa Johnson, Sr.: He was dominant in 2018. Last year, he was good, but battled injuries and saw his production drop a bit. If back to 2018 form – or better – he’ll be an all-conference player.

ILB Nate Landman, Sr.: He’s the star of the defense and arguably the best player and best NFL prospect on the team.

DL Terrance Lang, Jr.: Finished last year with a team-best six sacks, but could be more of a force this season.

STAR Chris Miller, Jr.: When healthy, he’s been one of the Buffs’ best corners. Now he’s at a new position and hopes to stay healthy and show his full potential.

S Mark Perry, So.: Got his feet wet with late playing time last season, but he’s primed for a breakout season.

2019 Statistics

Rankings                    Avg.                Pac-12             National

Scoring                        31.8                 9                      96

Total defense              441.9               8                      104

Rushing                       153.6               8                      61

Passing                        288.3               10                    123

Passing efficiency       154.7               11                    121

Sacks                           24                    10                    72

3rd-down %                47.4                 12                    125

Red zone scoring        83.7                 6                      65

Top returning individuals

Tackles: LB Nate Landman, 137 total (112 solo); LB Akil Jones, 61 total (50 solo); OLB Carson Wells, 57 total (21 solo)

Sacks: DL Terrance Lang, 6; DL Mustafa Johnson, 4.5; LB Nate Landman, 2

Interceptions: S Derrion Rakestraw, 3; LBs Nate Landman, Carson Wells; DBs KJ Trujillo, Chris Miller, 1 each

Numbers to know

13 – Career sacks for Mustafa Johnson. He needs six to move into a tie for 10th on CU’s all-time list.

25.8 – Average points allowed by the Buffs in the last four games of the 2019 season. It was a significant drop from the first eight games, when they allowed an average of 34.9.

47.4 – Third down conversion rate for CU opponents in 2019. The Buffs were one of the worst defenses in the country on third down, ranking 125th.

52 – Tackles for loss by the Buffs last year. That ranked last in the Pac-12 and 126th nationally.

277 – Career tackles by Nate Landman. He’s on track to become the 17th player in CU history with 300.