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CU Buffs season review: Defense

Group took steps forward in Tyson Summers’ second season

BOULDER, CO - Nov. 28, 2020: ...
BOULDER, CO – November 28, 2020: Isaiah Lewis, left, and Akil Jones, of CU, tackles BJ Busbee, of SDSU, for a loss during the Colorado San Diego State game at Folsom Field in Boulder on November 28, 2020. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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By the end of the 2019 season, the Colorado Buffaloes felt good about the progress they made on defense.

With coordinator Tyson Summers and several key players back, there was hope the progress would continue.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado defensive coordinator Tyson Summers helped the Buffaloes show some improvement on that side of the ball in 2020.

“The defense, in my opinion, has been pretty dominant this camp,” senior linebacker Nate Landman said prior to the Nov. 7 season opener against UCLA. “We’ve gotten better since day one and keep getting better every day.”

Although this past season was shortened and disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Buffs (4-2) did take more steps forward as a defense, led by Landman, outside linebacker Carson Wells, cornerback Mekhi Blackmon and others.

A dismal performance in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29 damaged CU’s final numbers. The Buffs gave up 638 yards in the 55-23 loss to Texas, but that came with four starters – including Landman – out with injuries or COVID-19 issues. That left CU with final numbers (allowing 31.7 points and 420.3 yards per game) similar to 2019 (31.8, 441.9).

During the five-game regular season, when the Buffs were healthy, they allowed just 27.0 points and 376.8 yards per game – numbers that both ranked in the top six in the Pac-12.

With Summers leading the way, the Buffs saw Landman play at an All-American-caliber level, while several others, including Wells, Blackmon, Isaiah Lewis and Janaz Jordan took their games up a notch. The Buffs also developed some young players, most notably cornerback Christian Gonzalez.

A position-by-position review of the Buffs’ 2020 defense:

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Defensive linemen Janaz Jordan, center, and Mustafa Johnson, left, were part of a solid defensive line for Colorado.

Defensive line: This was expected to be an area of strength for the Buffs this season, and the group played well for the most part. Although CU wound up ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (181.17 yards per game), 28 percent of the rushing yards the Buffs allowed came in the Alamo Bowl, when CU was missing two of its key players up front, Terrance Lang and Jalen Sami. During the regular season, the Buffs were fifth against the run. Defensive end Mustafa Johnson was exceptional throughout the year and finished with three sacks. Lang posted five tackles for loss at the other end spot. At nose tackle, Jordan became a starter and teamed with Sami to do a nice job in the middle.  That foursome took the bulk of the playing time, but Na’im Rodman and Jeremiah Doss provided solid depth off the bench. Grade: B.

Outside linebackers: Wells was one of the most disruptive players in the Pac-12 this season, as he took a giant leap forward in his game. He led the country with 2.67 tackles for loss per game and he was tied for third in total TFLs, with 16 – just 2.5 behind national leader Justin Rice of Arkansas State, who played in five more games. Wells had 6.5 sacks, including two in the Alamo Bowl, and five pass breakups. Joshka Gustav, Jamar Montgomery and Guy Thomas all contributed off the bench. While they weren’t as dominant as Wells (very few in the county were), they were solid. Grade: A.

Inside linebackers: Landman was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award before rupturing his right Achilles’ tendon in the regular season finale against Utah. One of the best linebackers CU has had in recent years, Landman finished the season with 61 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks and was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection. Playing next to him most of the season was senior Akil Jones, who had some ups and downs, but finished with 23 tackles and five tackles for loss. Jonathan Van Diest got a pair of starts when Jones and Landman each missed a game and posted 16 tackles. Quinn Perry got a little playing time, as well. Jones, Van Diest and Perry played well at times, but missed Landman over the final six quarters. Grade: B.

BOULDER, CO - Dec. 12, 2020: ...
BOULDER, CO – December 12, 2020: Colorado’s Mekhi Blackmon makes an interception past Utah’s Bryan Thompson. Colorado’s Mekhi Blackmon makes an interception past Utah’s Bryan Thompson. The Colorado Buffaloes and the Utah Utes play at Folsom Field in Boulder on December 12, 2020. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Safeties: Depth was a concern going into this season, but the Buffs managed to get some solid play out of their starters and an unexpected breakout season from Lewis, who was one of the Buffs’ top defenders. He finished with 35 tackles and led the team with eight pass breakups. Senior Derrion Rakestraw was second on the team in tackles (42) and was solid against the run, but had some struggles in coverage. Mark Perry, in his first full season as a starter, had some growing pains, but showed flashes of potential in the future. Chris Miller, who opened the year at Star, could have helped a lot, but injured his shoulder in the opener and played just 14 snaps after that. Sophomore KJ Trujillo provided some depth off the bench. Grade: C.

Cornerbacks: Blackmon didn’t get postseason recognition with awards, but he maybe should have. Blackmon was one of the best corners in pass coverage in the Pac-12 this season, finishing with six pass breakups and rarely giving up big plays. True freshman Christian Gonzalez went through some typical growing pains, but got better as the season went along and displayed some star potential for the future. He gave up just one touchdown (in the Alamo Bowl) and added four pass breakups. CU rarely went to the bench at corner, but when they did Nigel Bethel Jr., played very well. Grade: B.

Punter: In his first year with the Buffs, Josh Watts had a good season and improved as the year went along. He wound up averaging 41.34 yards on his 35 punts and he pinned the opponent inside the 20 on 11 of those. Grade: C.

Overall: The lasting impression of this defense was the Alamo Bowl, but with so many key players out for that game, it’s probably more fair to judge the Buffs on the five-game regular season. During the regular season, CU had a defense that ranked among the top half of the Pac-12 in most major categories. Still, including the bowl game, CU led the Pac-12 in third-down defense (31.76 percent) and was third in the red zone (80 percent). The Buffs also led the Pac-12 and finished seventh nationally with 8.17 tackles for loss per game. CU had some tackling issues late in the year, however, and gave up a lot of big plays. Ultimately, it was a group that was expected to improve from last year and it did. Grade: B.