In spending the early part of the summer in 2020 working on the family ranch in Florida, Carson Wells kept in shape and gained some strength in preparation for his junior year.
Colorado’s top outside linebacker gained something else, too.
“I finally got some confidence back last year,” he said. “And I just keep building off of that.”
After battling a leg infection during his redshirt year in 2017, Wells had a good 2018, with 4.5 sacks. In 2019, he missed two games with injury and racked up 57 tackles, but only one sack.
Last year, Wells exploded, leading the country in tackles for loss per game (2.67). Despite CU playing only six games during the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened season, Wells had 16 tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks.
“I knew I had put in the work, especially over quarantine (in 2020),” he said. “I knew I put in the work and it finally showed off. Just doing work in the weight room, doing work studying the film. I was a much smarter player last year and I feel like that was a big difference.”
This season, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Wells is aiming to be even better.
“There’s always room to get better each game,” he said. “I’m my hardest critic so I get back in there the next day watching film. There’s always something to improve on, so there’s still room to get better.”
Much of Wells’ motivation in 2020 was his belief that he left too much on the field in previous years.
“I feel like my biggest step was I knew not only what I was doing and the whole defense but I knew what the offense was doing and how they’re trying to attack our defense,” he said. “I knew what was going on all around me. That was the biggest step forward for me.”
Wells expects to see something different this year. Despite his big numbers, Wells didn’t get much attention in postseason awards. He’s been underrated this preseason, too. But, opposing coaches know about him – and CU’s offense has been preparing him in practice.
“I’ve been talking some trash with our offense because they keep sliding protection my way in practice,” Wells said. “A lot of chip protection and sliding. It helps me, too, and then it gives one-on-ones on the other side for Jamar (Montgomery) and Guy (Thomas) and Joshka (Gustav) to do their job and they’re getting better with that, too.”
Montgomery, Thomas and Gustav have all been battling for the other starting spot at outside linebacker. Head coach Karl Dorrell said there hasn’t been much separation between the three, but that all three are playing well. Wells agrees and has enjoyed watching them develop.
“They’re all doing their part,” Wells said. “We come in here and watch film every day after practice as a group; without coach, too. We’re all just trying to elevate our game every day. They each bring their own things to the table. If one of them doesn’t separate, we still have that committee approach and they all bring their own unique talents to the table.”
Given the attention he expects to receive, Wells doesn’t necessarily have to duplicate his 2020 numbers to have an impact on the Buffs’ defense.
“The individual stuff doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “As long as we win, that’s all that matters. Just do my part, play my role. Like (defensive coordinator Chris) Wilson says, we don’t have to be Superman. Just be Clark Kent and do your job. If all 11 people do your job, you’re going to win the play.”
Wells won a lot of plays last year and is eager to see what he and his teammates can do on a defense led by Wilson for the first time.
“A hundred percent, we love it,” Wells said. “Keep tight coverage and rush the passer; that’s what they brought us here to do. We’re doing a good job of it so far. We’ll see how it goes in the season.”
A look at each position on the CU defense:
Linemen: Mustafa Johnson’s departure left a big hole up front for the Buffs, but three players with starting experience are back, led by end Terrance Lang. Tackles Janaz Jordan and Jalen Sami are also back. The key upfront will be the development of sophomore Na’im Rodman and other young players.
Outside linebackers: Carson Wells is one of the best in the Pac-12 at making plays off the edge, but he’ll need help. Joshka Gustav, Jamar Montgomery and Guy Thomas have all had a good offseason and continue fighting for playing time.
Inside linebackers: If Nate Landman is fully recovered from an Achilles’ injury, he should once again be one of the Pac-12’s best defenders. The Buffs have more depth here than a year ago. Jonathan Van Diest returns and has starting experience, but the Buffs also added transfers Robert Barnes and Jack Lamb. Quinn Perry and Marvin Ham II add quality depth, as well.
Cornerbacks: Mekhi Blackmon had an exceptional year in 2020 and Christian Gonzalez is a budding star. They could be one of the best duos in the conference. Behind them, the experience is limited, but Nigel Bethel Jr. played well in a backup role and the Buffs have a trio of freshmen that have had a good offseason.
Safeties: It starts with Isaiah Lewis, who turned into one of the Buffs’ top defenders last year. A healthy Chris Miller and improved Mark Perry would make this a top-notch trio to lead the safety group. Curtis Appleton has some experience in a backup role and the Buffs have several young players they are developing.
SNAPSHOT: CU defense
Projected depth chart
Position First team Second team
DL Jalen Sami, So., 6-6, 325 Na’im Rodman, So., 6-2, 300
DL Janaz Jordan, Jr., 6-4, 305 Justin Jackson, Jr., 6-2, 280
DL Terrance Lang, Jr., 6-7, 285 Lloyd Murray Jr., Fr., 6-2, 300
OLB Carson Wells, Jr., 6-4, 250 Guy Thomas, Jr. 6-4, 230
ILB Nate Landman, Sr., 6-3, 235 Jack Lamb, So., 6-4, 220
ILB Robert Barnes, Jr., 6-2, 230 Jonathan Van Diest, Jr., 6-1, 230
OLB Jamar Montgomery, Jr., 6-2, 240 Joshka Gustav, Fr., 6-3, 235
CB Mekhi Blackmon, Jr., 6-0, 170 Nigel Bethel Jr., So., 6-0, 170
FS Isaiah Lewis, Jr., 6-0, 205 Chris Miller, Jr., 6-0, 190
SS Mark Perry, So., 6-0, 200 Curtis Appleton, Jr., 6-1, 180
CB Christian Gonzalez, Fr., 6-2, 200 Tyrin Taylor, Fr., 6-2, 180
- Chris Wilson (2nd season): Coordinator/defensive line
- Demetrice Martin (2nd season): Cornerbacks
- Brett Maxie (2nd season): Safeties
- Brian Michalowski (3rd season): Outside linebackers
- Mark Smith (1st season): Inside linebackers
Five to watch
CB Mekhi Blackmon, Jr.: CU’s best corner – and one of the best in the Pac-12 – last year, he is hoping to pick up where he left off.
LB Nate Landman, Sr.: One of the best linebackers in the Pac-12, he has spent the offseason recovering from a ruptured Achilles. If he can regain his pre-injury form, he’ll be a beast in the middle of the defense.
DE Terrance Lang, Jr.: An anchor of the defensive line, he has shown improvement each year he’s been at CU.
S Isaiah Lewis, Jr.: A pleasant surprise in 2020, Lewis will be one of the better safeties in the conference if he plays like he did a year ago.
OLB Carson Wells, Jr.: Led the country in tackles for loss per game last year and he’s hoping to be even better this season.
Rankings Avg. Pac-12 National
Scoring 31.7 8 77
Total defense 420.3 8 84
Rushing 181.2 8 71
Passing 239.2 10 87
Passing efficiency 126.0 5 33
Sacks per game 2.5 2-tie 45
3rd-down % 31.8% 1 13
Red zone scoring 80.0% 3 42
Numbers to know
5.41: Average yards per play allowed by the Buffs last year – the third-best number posted by CU since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. It was a big drop from 2019, when CU allowed 6.51 yards per play.
13: Returning players who started at least one game on defense for the Buffs last year, including 11 who had multiple starts. Cornerbacks Mekhi Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez and outside linebacker Carson Wells each started all six games.
32: Passes defended (breakups or interceptions) by the Buffs last year. CU’s 5.33 per game ranked third in the Pac-12.
42: Plays of 20-plus yards allowed by the Buffs in 2020, the most of any team in the Pac-12. Six of those plays went for 50-plus yards.
321: Tackles by senior Nate Landman over the last three seasons. Landman has increased his tackles per game each year, from 10.25 (123 total) in 2018 to 11.42 (137) in 2019 and 12.2 (61) last year.