In evaluating himself after last season, Colorado defensive coordinator Chris Wilson determined he needed to be more involved in all areas of the defense.
Heading into the final week of spring practices — the Buffs completed their 12th of 15 sessions on Monday — Wilson is pleased with how his own shift in duties has played out, as well as the growth of the defense as a whole. A long-time defensive line coach, Wilson is now coaching the Buffaloes’ outside linebackers in addition to his coordinator duties.
“It has given me a little bit more position flexibility and a chance to be able to walk around and work with every position to an extent,” he said. “So it really has been a benefit. I think that’s the benefit of obviously the new staff and the new roles.”
Head coach Karl Dorrell hired six new assistant coaches in the offseason, in addition to shifting Wilson’s role. That means only three of the 10 assistants are in the same roles as they were during a 4-8 season in 2021.
While most of the change has occurred on offense, there’s plenty of change on defense. Rod Chance was hired to coach cornerbacks, while Wilson’s move to coaching outside linebackers allowed the Buffs to hire Gerald Chatman to work with the line.
Wilson has coached defensive linemen at several stops, including Mississippi State, Georgia, Southern California and the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, but said the transition hasn’t been difficult.
“Once you’re a ball coach, you’re a ball coach,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough I’ve coached every position but safeties. I’ve worked with corners, the nickels, everybody. So this is just the next part of the progression. And it also allows the defensive line to get more one-on-one attention. That’s a high priority position. And again, bouncing around (in practice) is not always easy, so I’m glad Gerald’s here. He’s doing a really good job with them.”
Chatman, hired from Tulane in March, took over the deepest and most experienced group on the defense, led by seniors Janaz Jordan and Terrance Lang and juniors Jalen Sami and Na’im Rodman.
“Really good teacher,” Wilson said of the newest member of the coaching staff. “Builds really good relationships with players, which is important. Once they know you care, they’ll let you coach them. He’s done a really good job of doing that. Not only that, he just brings an extensive background and knowledge from the NFL, from being in the SEC at LSU. So he’s got a really good knowledge base. He’s able to take some of the things that we’re doing here and improve them and he’s bringing some things with him.”
Wilson, meanwhile, is working with a talented group led by Guy Thomas, a senior who missed the final five games in 2021. The Buffs are trying to replace Carson Wells and Wilson likes the group he’s coaching. In addition to Thomas, Jamar Montgomery, Devin Grant and Alvin Williams are among the outside linebackers who have been highlighted this spring.
CU isn’t deep at inside linebacker or the secondary, but Wilson knows reinforcements are coming this summer.
“We’ve got some guys that are going to add to it,” he said. “Obviously this is not the final team. This is probably the bulk of the team that is here but we’ve got a bunch of good players coming in that we feel really good about and the scheme is tailored for those guys, so we’re just excited. They should be able to plug and play once we get them in here.”
The scheme has changed a bit since last year, too, as the Buffs are now utilizing a 4-3 base defense, as opposed to the 3-4 from years past (although they will use multiple alignments).
“Last year … we had a couple of linebackers (Wells and inside linebacker Nate Landman), obviously, that had played a lot of football and have the ability to hopefully play in the next level,” Wilson said. “So it was structured around them.
“Every year is a new team and then you just try to complement your best guys right now. We’ve got a good group of guys up front, a veteran group of guys up front, so that was the best move for us moving forward.”
All of the changes will be geared toward the same goal of trying to be better than last year, when the Buffs ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (26.7 points per game) and 11th in yards allowed (420.8). No team in the Pac-12 gave up more plays of 20-plus yards than the Buffs (59).
“The thing that you notice is there are a lot of positive things but the things that broke down were glaring,” Wilson said. “If we can just eliminate a few of those explosives, we become a better football team expeditiously. I mean, it really goes quick, but again, eliminating those things that we did last year in regards to mental errors, those are the things that will make us a better football team.”