Early in the 2020 season, opposing quarterbacks picked on Colorado cornerback Christian Gonzalez because he was a freshman.
There were moments throughout the year in which he looked like a freshman, too, but by the end of the season, there were enough positives about Gonzalez to signal that his future is bright — and that starts next season.
“I believe he’s on the verge of having a breakout year,” defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said.
Leading up to fall camp, which starts Aug. 5, BuffZone.com is previewing each position group for the Buffs. In this installment, we look at the cornerbacks.
CU goes into this next season short on experience, but there is plenty of talent and potential among the group, including both of last year’s starters — Gonzalez and junior Mekhi Blackmon — returning.
Blackmon is a fifth-year junior who has battled some injuries in his career but had a stellar season in 2020. Starting all six games, Blackmon had six pass breakups and was rated among the best coverage corners in the Pac-12.
Health has always been the question with Blackmon, who was limited to four games in 2019 because of a shoulder injury. He missed a large chunk of spring practices this year because of injuries.
When healthy, however, Blackmon has the ability to play corner and nickel. He has 11 career starts and is entering his fourth year in the program after transferring from the College of San Mateo in 2018.
Gonzalez has star potential, and he flashed it at times during his true freshman year. He did get picked on at times, but finished strong, including five tackles and three pass breakups in the Alamo Bowl against Texas.
This spring, Gonzalez felt and looked like an improved player.
“I feel I’ve got a lot stronger with communication on the field,” he said in spring. “I’m one of the returning starters coming back; people will trust me on the team and if I call something out, they’ll know I know what I’m talking about. Confidence is a huge booster, especially going through spring, getting that out of the way. It was great for my confidence.”
With Blackmon and Gonzalez healthy and playing well in 2020, there weren’t many snaps that went to other corners, but sophomore Nigel Bethel Jr. got some time on defense, while sophomore Jaylen Striker played a bit on special teams. Both will be counted on to be ready and improved this year.
CU emphasized corner in the 2021 recruiting class, so there will be three freshmen on board this year: Kaylin Moore, Nikko Reed and Tyrin Taylor. All will need some time to adjust to the college game, although Taylor did arrive in January and went through spring ball.
“For you to be great on defense, you’ve got to be really good in the secondary,” Wilson said. “Guys who can eliminate big plays, make good tackles in the secondary. I think (cornerbacks coach Demetrice) Martin has done a really great job of developing these guys and getting them to play really close. And that’s something that you’ve got to do in college football nowadays.”
Returners (2020 statistics)
- Mekhi Blackmon, Jr., 6-feet, 170 pounds (6 starts, 19 tackles, 6 pass breakups, 1 INT)
- Nigel Bethel Jr., So., 6-0, 170 (4 games played, 1 tackle, 1 INT)
- Jaylen Striker, So., 6-3, 200 (3 games on special teams)
- Christian Gonzalez, Fr., 6-2, 200 (6 starts, 24 tackles, 4 pass breakup)
- Kyle Scofield, So., 5-9, 150 (walk-on)
- Trey Ortega, Fr., 6-0, 175 (walk-on)
- Kaylin Moore, Fr., 6-0, 185
- Nikko Reed, Fr., 5-10, 160
- Tyrin Taylor, Fr., 6-2, 180
- Tarik Luckett, 6-3, 180 (Transfer portal)
- K.J. Trujillo, 6-0, 165 (transferred to Wake Forest; 6 games, 1 start, 5 tackles)
- D.J. Oats, 5-10, 180 (Transfer portal)
2021 outlook: This is arguably the most underrated position group for the Buffs this season, because of the fact that there isn’t a ton of experience. If healthy, however, Blackmon and Gonzalez form one of the better cornerback duos in the Pac-12. Blackmon has been solid at nickel in the past but proved last year he can be a very good cornerback, as well. Gonzalez might be the most talented corner at CU since Isaiah Oliver in 2017. Bethel had some good moments in limited playing time last year, and Striker is a big corner with the potential to step in and play well when his number is called. The Buffs also like the trio of freshmen. Of the three, Taylor might be the readiest to play because he enrolled early and got a jump on learning the defense this spring.