Most days at practice, Colorado outside linebackers coach Brian Michalowski likes to walk around during the stretching period and talk to the tight ends.
“Who is the hardest outside linebacker to block?” he will ask them.
The easy answer would be Carson Wells, a junior who led the country in tackles for loss per game last year. Michalowski is encouraged, however, because Wells hasn’t been the only answer to that question.
“(Joshka Gustav) has garnered a couple of nominations,” Michalowski said.
One of CU’s many tasks this offseason is to develop some outside linebackers to complement Wells. Although shorthanded this spring, the Buffs seem to be making progress, particularly with Gustav, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound redshirt freshman.
“Joshka is just that player that has continued to pour into his game,” Michalowski said. “In the offseason, and I said this last year, he was probably one of the guys that took advantage during the idle time in COVID and getting a lot of personal work in. So his want-to is very high. He’s a technician, and I always remind him of that because what really sets him apart as a player is the technique that he plays.”
Under the direction of new coordinator Chris Wilson, the Buffs are aiming to be an attacking defense that makes more plays behind the line of scrimmage, and that will require them to have multiple quality players on the edge.
Around the Pac-12, it would be difficult to find many edge players better than Wells, who posted a remarkable 4.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in CU’s five-game regular season in 2020, plus another two sacks and 2.5 TFLs in the Alamo Bowl against Texas.
This spring, Wells has picked up where he left off.
“Carson does a great job playing in the backfield and using indicators within offensive formations,” Michalowski said. “He’s taken the coaching, and is really embracing coach Wilson’s scheme and it really fits him. If you’ve heard coach Wilson talk, we’re going to build the scheme around our players, around their skill set, and (Wells’) skill set is whooping up on the line of scrimmage and playing in the backfield and generating some pass rush. He’s really embracing it and doing very well within the scheme.”
So have Gustav and others, Michalowski said. With junior Guy Thomas out this spring because of a shoulder injury, the Buffs have just four healthy scholarship outside linebackers practicing: Gustav, Wells, junior Jamar Montgomery and freshman Devin Grant.
“(It has been) good to develop our depth and playing with some really good younger guys coming up the ladder,” Michalowski said. “Joshka Gustav has been great; he’s been progressing really well. Same thing with Jamar Montgomery; same thing with Devin Grant. We’re getting valuable reps every day and taking advantage of our opportunities.”
Gustav surprised CU coaches with his play last season. He was projected as a potential contributor on special teams, but wound up being a key player off the bench on defense. He has taken his game up another notch this spring.
“He’s developed great signature rushes, which has been great to see; some rushes that are very similar to (Los Angeles Chargers star) Joey Bosa. I know that’s a lofty comparison, but they work a lot of similar pass rush moves, and (Gustav) does a great job with hand placement at the point of attack. … He’s a sponge of knowledge coming from Germany and the sacrifices that he made to get to this point. You wouldn’t really expect anything different.”
Michalowski also likes the development of Grant, who plays fast and aggressively.
“We’ve got to clean up some footwork, we’ve got to clean up some hand placement sometimes with him, but he’s very difficult to block because he’s very aggressive,” Michalowski said. “It’s something that is hard to coach sometimes. … He’s just a fast, rugged downhill linebacker, and he’s won some one-on-ones and continues to get better every day.”
In the fall, the Buffs are expected to get Thomas on the field and they’ll add incoming freshman Zion Magalei. Yet, even with a small number of players this spring, Michalowski is feeling good about the depth in his room.
“We’re out here with the mindset of getting better every day, having that growth mindset that we talk about within our group,” he said.