Every year, there are underclassmen making an impact in college football, proving themselves early in their careers.
Many others, such as Colorado’s Isaiah Lewis, take some time to grow their game.
“I feel like I took the natural course, or just not maybe the true freshman course,” Lewis said.
In 2020, the 6-foot, 205-pound safety had a breakout year, going from career backup to one of the Buffaloes’ top defenders during their six-game COVID-19 pandemic-shortened season.
Now, he’s a leader on a team hoping to take the next step forward as the Sept. 3 opener against Northern Colorado (7 p.m., TV: Pac-12 Networks) approaches).
“I’m helping in getting the young guys going,” Lewis said. “I think they definitely look to me for help. I’m just trying to build depth, get in the playbook and then give them the answers that they need.”
A fifth-year junior from Granite Bay (Calif.) High School, Lewis redshirted in 2017 and played only 29 snaps on defense the next two years, getting most of his playing time on special teams.
Last year, it finally clicked for him. When Chris Miller was injured in the first game, Lewis got an opportunity to start and ran with it. He recorded 27 tackles and a team-high eight pass breakups during the 5-game regular season and then added eight tackles in the Alamo Bowl.
“It was great,” he said of getting the opportunity. “Just sticking to the plan, playing special teams the first two years, getting a look at what guys are doing that works and doesn’t work and then applying that. I definitely took note and then I realized that we need to have an idea on the playbook if you want to play fast. So the playbook really clicked for me and then I was able to play fast.
“I was just sticking to the script and working for my turn, rather than waiting.”
Mel Tucker, the Buffs’ head coach in 2019, had the philosophy that the best players, regardless of age or experience, would play. Current head coach Karl Dorrell has the same approach. That, Lewis said, added to his confidence and his ability to be ready when Miller went down with an injury.
“That’s just kind of the mentality that Dorrell and our coaches preach is next man up, no matter what,” Lewis said. “We can’t have a drop-off. So it was more so, ‘All right, well, it’s my turn to play,’ not, ‘Oh, crap, it’s time to play.’ It was time to go.
“Honestly, when I first got here during camp (in 2020), I was making plays, I was ready to go. It was just getting on the field and getting a feel for the speed. Getting in the game, it felt natural.”
Getting in the game and finding success produced confidence that Lewis is carrying into this year.
Miller is healthy and Mark Perry also returns as an experienced safety. Cornerbacks Mekhi Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez are also back.
“I would say I’m definitely building on it and the DBs are building on it,” he said.
Junior center Colby Pursell has been a key part of the Buffs’ offensive line since starting all 12 games in 2018. Now in his fifth year at CU, he believes he’s better than ever.
“I believe so, yes,” he said after a recent practice. “I’m trying to fix whatever I can. I think I’ve improved. I’m working on some things; I’m not gonna say publicly or anything, but I’m trying to piece together my game and be the most complete player that I can.”
Part of Pursell’s offseason has been building chemistry with the Buffs’ quarterbacks.
“It’s very important,” he said. “It feels different when you’ve got a different quarterback back there. It’s a different feel. So you really have to get used to everyone and kind of interact to some extent under center and stuff like that. Gun, it doesn’t really matter as much, but there needs to be some chemistry.”
CU is 22-10-1 in its last 33 season openers. …Guy Haberman will handle the TV play-by-play for the opener against UNC, with Shane Vereen providing color commentary.