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CU Buffs position preview: Chris Miller’s health could be key for safeties

Safety has played just 12 games during four seasons with Buffs

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

Throughout his time as the strength and conditioning coordinator at Stanford, Shannon Turley gained a reputation for his ability to keep players healthy.

That’s a big reason why Colorado hired Turley this offseason to lead its strength and conditioning program.

CU is hoping Turley can make a big difference in the program and one of the main benefactors this season could be safety Chris Miller.

“He’s doing great. He’s having a great summer,” defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said of the oft-injured Miller.

Leading up to fall camp, which starts Aug. 5, BuffZone.com is previewing each position group for the Buffs. In this final installment, we look at the safeties.

BOULDER, Colo. – April 2, 2021: Colorado safety Isaiah Lewis during spring football practice on Friday in Boulder. (University of Colorado Athletics)

Miller is an X-factor for the Buffs because he’s one of their most talented players when healthy, but hasn’t been healthy very often.

This will be Miller’s fifth season in the CU program, but he’s played just 12 games because of various injuries. After playing the first four games of 2019, Miller has missed 12 of CU’s last 14 games and was limited to 57 snaps in 2020.

When asked about Miller, Wilson quickly praised Turley.

“I really believe that, if you’re gonna say one of the best acquisitions that we’ve had, it’s been Shannon Turley and the buy-in and his ability to keep guys on the field,” Wilson said. “Again, the weight room is more for preventive medicine than anything. So the belief factor (among the players and Miller) is high. We’ve just got to keep going in there every day and finding a way to improve.”

If Miller can stay healthy, he can make a significant difference for a safety room that is loaded with question marks and is short on experience.

Junior Isaiah Lewis returns after a breakout season in 2020. After playing just 29 snaps during his first three years on campus, Lewis started the last five games of the six-game 2020 season and was arguably the Buffs’ best defensive back.

Lewis started alongside Derrion Rakestraw and they formed a solid duo. With Rakestraw having transferred to Tulane, the Buffs have several players competing for a starting role.

Miller, if healthy, will be in the mix, along with sophomore Mark Perry. After showing glimpses of stardom as a true freshman in 2019, Perry admitted this spring he didn’t play well last year. He was on the field for 72 percent of the defensive snaps during the regular season but didn’t have the impact he had hoped.

Junior Curtis Appleton – a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship in the spring – converted linebacker Ray Robinson and junior college transfer Trustin Oliver add talented depth, but not much experience. Freshmen Toren Pittman and Trevor Woods are hoping to compete, as well. That group of five has played a combined total of 39 defensive snaps in college, all by Appleton last season.

Going into the season, the Buffs are hoping Turley can work some magic with Miller, that Perry can make the jump he wanted last year, and that Lewis can pick up where he left off. There are a lot of “ifs” with this group, but Wilson feels good about the safeties and their progress.

“(Safeties coach Brett Maxie) does a great job of teaching these guys concepts and how to identify because again, that’s really the quarterback of your defense at the safety area,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be nice to see guys like Mark Perry, as well as Isaiah Lewis and then you start encompassing some of the new newcomers like Trustin Oliver and Chris Miller plays into that role. You’ve got some quality depth. We’ll compete our butt off and see how it shakes out.”

BOULDER, CO – April 19, 2021: Colorado Buffaloes safety Mark Perry during spring football practice. (University of Colorado Athletics)

Position: Safeties

Returners (2020 statistics)

  • Curtis Appleton, Jr., 6-foot-1, 180 pounds (6 games played; 1 tackle, 1 interception)
  • Isaiah Lewis, Jr., 6-0, 205 (6 games, 5 starts; 35 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 8 pass breakups)
  • Chris Miller, Jr., 6-0, 190 (2 games; 3 tackles, 1 TFL)
  • Mark Perry, So., 6-0, 200 (5 games, 2 starts; 10 tackles, 1 PBU)
  • Ray Robinson, So., 6-2, 200 (6 games on special teams)
  • Toren Pittman, Fr., 6-4, 190 (5 games on special teams)
  • Anthony Lyle, Jr., 6-1, 190 (walk-on; 6 games on special teams)
  • Steele Dubar, So., 6-2, 210 (walk-on)

Additions

  • Trustin Oliver, R-Fr., 6-4, 220 (Junior college transfer)
  • Trevor Woods, Fr., 6-2, 200
  • Austin Dahlke, Fr., 6-1, 190 (walk-on)
  • Matthew Jacobsen, Fr., 6-0, 180 (walk-on)

Losses

  • Derrion Rakestraw, 6-2, 200 (Transferred to Tulane; 6 starts; 42 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 PBU)
  • Rich Hall, 6-1, 200 (walk-on)
  • Dustin Johnson, 6-1, 185 (walk-on)
  • Ryan Travis, 6-0, 190 (walk-on)

2021 outlook: This is arguably the most unsettled group on defense, but there is good talent in the room. Lewis went into last year just hoping to get some playing time but wound up as one of the more reliable safeties in the Pac-12. He led CU with eight pass breakups and will be a team leader going into this year. Perry is loaded with potential and excelled in a specialized role in 2019. Still relatively new to safety, Perry hopes to be better this year and should compete for a starting role. If healthy, Miller – who can play cornerback or Star, as well – could be one of the better players on defense. Robinson, a former safety who switched to linebacker, is back at safety and had a good spring, feeling more at home at his natural spot. He provides solid depth. Oliver is a big safety with speed. He needs some time to learn the defense and settle in but has the potential to be a key player on this defense. Appleton has played well in spot time. Pittman and Woods are freshmen who, barring injuries, may not see the field much this year, but have the tools to fill in if needed.