Since his days as an all-state player at Cherry Creek High School, Jonathan Van Diest has played a lot of football and enjoyed success on the field.
The Colorado junior is heading into the summer with a level of confidence that he hasn’t experienced in a while, however.
An inside linebacker with the Buffaloes, Van Diest was one of the Buffs’ top players during spring practices, which wrapped up April 30, and has his eyes on a starting role next season.
“The last year I really put in a lot of work to improve my mental game and that came with confidence,” he said. “I really stepped up in getting my mind game right and learning the playbook, being confident in myself and my abilities, digging deeper. Overall, just feel like I’ve gotten better.”
CU used spring football to develop a lot of its young players, but it was an important set of 15 practices for Van Diest, entering his fifth season with the Buffaloes.
“I think he’s made huge strides over the spring and that’s an experienced player that really got a chance because of the depth,” CU head coach Karl Dorrell said.
Senior Nate Landman is one of the best inside linebackers in the Pac-12, if not the country, but he missed spring practices as he continues recovering from rupturing his Achilles’ tendon on Dec. 11 against Utah.
True freshman Mister Williams also missed all of spring, while Quinn Perry and Marvin Ham II missed several practices because of COVID-19 protocols.
The lack of depth meant extra work for Van Diest. All the reps left him exhausted but improved as a player and leader.
“I feel like I got a lot better,” he said. “The reps definitely helped mentally … the more reps you get the more you’re gonna get better. I feel like I got better as a player, and mentally it challenged me a lot to make good calls when I’m exhausted.
“I really feel like I’ve developed overall. Still a long way to go. I didn’t play my best practice (at the spring showcase on April 30), and that just shows that there’s always more to get better at and improve on.”
An improved Van Diest will help new inside linebackers coach Mark Smith limit Landman’s time on the field and feel more comfortable about the position overall.
From the start of the 2019 season through the moment he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon, Landman played 96.4 percent of CU’s defensive snaps. Smith can’t wait to get Landman on the field, but not that much, this fall.
“I’d love to (limit the snaps) and that was the first conversation I had with Nate when I first met him,” Smith said. “I shared this plan with him that this was my goal for the guys. I think that everyone is better if we can spread the work around to a certain extent.
“There will be guys, and Nate may be one of those guys, that it’s required for him to play more than other guys … but my goal is to definitely try to limit some of that work. Nate’s a guy that he wants to do the lion’s share. He doesn’t want to come off the field. He doesn’t want to miss one rep, but it would be really great if we had five or six guys that were contributing every Saturday within our room and doing it at a high level.”
This spring, Van Diest showed the potential of being a high-level contributor, but he wasn’t alone.
Oklahoma transfer Robert Barnes had a good spring, as did Perry and Ham before they were sidelined.
“I was very pleased with the progression of those two guys,” Smith said of Perry and Ham. “In fact, they had been very productive in their positions. Their understanding and growth of the defense, and as we continue to install through spring, those guys really grabbed the bull by the horns and understood the concepts and what we were trying to do.”
True freshmen Zephaniah Maea and Alvin Williams are also developing, and the Buffs will get some reinforcements in the fall. Landman and Mister Williams should be healthy, and Notre Dame transfer Jack Lamb is set to arrive in the summer.
“I’d love to take some of that load off of (Nate), and I think this spring has been big in developing some of these other guys, so hopefully we’re in a position to do that,” Smith said.