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CU Buffs assistant Sal Sunseri not worried about DL depth going into spring game

BOULDER,CO: April 5: Colorado defensive tackles coach Sal Sunseri during spring football practice on April 5, 2023, at the Buffaloes' indoor practice facility. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER,CO: April 5: Colorado defensive tackles coach Sal Sunseri during spring football practice on April 5, 2023, at the Buffaloes’ indoor practice facility. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

With four defensive linemen leaving the team and heading for the NCAA transfer portal this week, the Colorado Buffaloes are a bit thin up front as they go through the final few days of spring workouts.

Think defensive line coach Sal Sunseri is worried?

“No,” said Wednesday after the Buffs’ 13th practice of spring. “I don’t worry about anything. Those guys will be ready to play.”

Colorado will play its annual spring game on Saturday in front of a packed house at Folsom Field, and the Buffs will do so with a small group of linemen.

On Wednesday, Na’im Rodman, a primary starter the past two seasons, put his name into the portal – along with backup tight end Zach Courtney.

A 6-foot-2, 300-pound senior, Rodman is the fourth defensive lineman to transfer out of the program this week, joining Allan Baugh, Tyas Martin and Ryan Williams. The Buffs have only six defensive tackles – five on scholarship – for Saturday’s spring game at Folsom Field (1 p.m., ESPN), but not all of them are healthy.

“With them leaving, it hasn’t affected us at all,” Sunseri said. “The four guys stepped up (Wednesday) and did a heck of a job: Shane Cokes, (Leonard) Payne, (Jalen) Sami, Mason Maddox. They went in there and they took the reps and they got better reps and they did quality reps and they got better.

“The bottom line is that we’re going to work with the guys that are here. The guys who don’t want to be here, we’ll see you later and we’re going to get better.”

CU has already revamped its defensive line through the transfer portal, adding Taijh Alston (from West Virginia), Leonard Payne Jr. (Fresno State) and Cokes (Dartmouth) this winter. Alston has been out this spring with an injury.

Sami and sophomore Aaron Austin are the only returning scholarship linemen, while Maddox is a returning walk-on.

More reinforcements are coming as the Buffs continue to search through the portal.

“The bottom line is that you’re looking at guys that can make plays,” Sunseri said. “Guys that have quickness, guys that have speed, guys that have length, and then you go and you watch the tape on them and you see if they can upgrade you from where you were with the guys who left.

“Right now we’ve got visions on people (in the portal) and hopefully we can get them here. Then next thing you know we’re going to be playing with a defensive line that’s going to come off the ball, that’s going to strike, that’s going to dominate and go get sacks because the most important thing is to stop the run and affect the quarterback.”

How much the Buffs are able to do that in Saturday’s spring game remains to be seen, but the Buffs are more concerned with their ability to be stout up front in September.

“Playing defensive line, I don’t care what level football it is, you’ve got to stop the run and be physical versus it and you’ve got to affect the quarterback and that’s what we will do,” Sunseri said. “And I’m going to get guys here that can do that and the guys that are here will do that.”

Sami is one player Sunseri is working with to get to that level. Despite being a senior who has started 36 of the 40 games he’s played in a CU uniform, Sami had a slow start to spring.

“The first impression of him, he was too heavy,” Sunseri said. “So the bottom line is that we’re going to get him slimmed up. But when Sami comes in there, he understands blocking schemes. We’ve got to get him in a mode that he can go for more than four plays; we’ve got to get him to be able to go for 10 plays. We’ve got to get him in better shape and let him do it.

“But let me tell you, the last two practices, Sami has gone out there and he has done what I’ve asked him to do. I am proud of him.”

Rodman was also a returning starter for the Buffs. During his four seasons at CU, he played in 42 games, with 19 starts, recording 53 tackles, five tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in his career with the Buffs.

The Buffs will move on without him, however, and Sunseri isn’t worried about summer arrivals getting up to speed.

“You have an install (of the defense) that you’re going to install and you’ve got to take the kids through it,” he said. “And, then (the newcomers) will learn and then the kids that are here are going to help them. They will sit with them: this is what we’re doing on this call. So it is a group effort and having everybody on the same page.”