Colorado linebacker Jonathan Van Diest knows it sounds cliché for the Buffaloes to talk about getting better every day. He also believes it’s been true over the past month.
“Here it really felt authentic,” the junior said. “Each day we’re getting better, whether you’re taking mental reps or on the field or in meetings. There’s always a step forward.”
Van Diest is one of several players still fighting for a spot as the Buffs prepare for Friday’s opener against Northern Colorado at Folsom Field (7 p.m., TV: Pac-12 Networks).
After an impressive spring, Van Diest missed some time early in August but feels healthy and ready to go.
“The reps I had in the spring really helped me grow in game scenarios and experience in making calls and checks as a leader,” he said. “The defense looks at (senior Nate Landman), but Nate is sometimes going to be out taking a breather or whatnot, and he wasn’t in during the spring, so I had to step up. That really pushed me to lead the team, especially the defense. I can just take that and apply that to this camp.”
Van Diest believes he is a more complete linebacker now than he was when he started the first five games of the 2019 season.
“Where I made my bread and butter when I first started in 2019 was I could play the run and I was trusted in that,” he said. “But then with my ankle (injury) and then the second half of the season we went more towards a heavy man coverage team and that’s where my skill set didn’t carry.”
This offseason, Van Diest said he has improved with his pass coverage and formation recognition. That has put him in better position to compete with transfers Robert Barnes and Jack Lamb and returners Quinn Perry and Marvin Ham II for playing time next to Landman.
“I love (the competition),” he said. “I think that’s how it should be given the last couple of years. It’s usually four linebackers that can see the field and you’re competing for time, but now we’re looking at like six to eight. We have a lot of competent guys who can see the field and it really forces you to elevate your own game.
“I also think our room really gets along, so there’s that tension of ‘I’m trying to take your spot, but also I love you as a brother and you’re my friend.’ So I think it’s a healthy balance and it makes us all better.”
It remains to be seen how the Buffs will rotate their linebackers, but Van Diest is eager to get the season started – especially against UNC. The Bears are led by head coach Ed McCaffrey, quarterback Dylan McCaffrey and several other former area high school stars.
“All respect to the McCaffreys,” Van Diest said. “It’s fun being a Colorado kid because I played against Dylan in high school football, a little bit of middle school basketball; middle School football too. … I’m excited to play him again. It’ll be a good little reunion after the game.”
Taking on blockers
Running back Jarek Broussard earned Pac-12 offensive player of the year honors in 2020 because of what he did with the ball in his hands, rushing for 813 yards during the five-game regular season.
Broussard and running backs coach Darian Hagan both believe he’s improved in all areas, especially as a pass blocker.
“I hit the weight room pretty hard this summer,” Broussard said. “It’s a confidence thing. You just can’t be scared to make contact with that guy and stick to your fundamentals.
“Wanting to (do it) is one big thing, but another thing is setting that tone. We have a deep backfield and if I’m able to go out and make a big play or put somebody on their back, that’s going to bring energy to the offense, to the whole group in general. Setting the tone is the biggest thing.”
Although the Buffs had a chance to play in front of some fans at the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29, it’s been nearly two years since Folsom Field was filled with CU fans. Head coach Karl Dorrell said the players are eager for Friday.
“(The players) are going to be extremely excited,” Dorrell said. “That excitement is great and I want them to be excited; I want them to be pumped about playing and playing in front of their friends and family and the students here. I want them to be excited. But on the opposite side of that, I just want to make sure we’re focused and honed in on doing our jobs and playing well and working well within our system.”
Broussard is particularly excited because he hasn’t played in front of home fans since 2017 – his senior year at Bishop Lynch (Texas) High School.
“Those were the days – the student section screaming your name and stuff,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to having that on a bigger scale. I feel like having fans, that pride and the tradition and all those people coming out, it’s gonna add more fuel to the fire and make you want to play harder. We’re not only playing for each other, we’re playing for the whole University of Colorado.”