Colorado: Beyond the Box Score Preseason Defensive Preview

Yesterday we took at look at what really was an impressively bad offense that Colorado put on the field in 2008.  That the Buffs came within a game of bowl eligibility must speak volumes of their defense, right?

Defense

Overall Stats

S&P+: 110.1 (#33)
Success Rate+: 105.3 (#45)
PPP+: 116.1 (#34)

Standard Downs S&P+: 108.6 (#36)
Passing Downs S&P+: 124.0 (#15)

Redzone S&P+: 109.5 (#37)

Q1 S&P+: 107.0 (#43)
Q2 S&P+: 122.7 (#20)
Q3 S&P+: 98.4 (#62)
Q4 S&P+: 123.1 (#15)

1st Down S&P+: 108.7 (#37)
2nd Down S&P+: 102.3 (#52)
3rd Down S&P+: 135.5 (#8)

Rushing Stats

Rushing S&P+: 103.1 (#56)
Rushing SR+: 102.6 (#53)
Rushing PPP+: 103.8 (#55)

Standard Downs: 101.7 (#58)
Passing Downs: 104.4 (#57)

Redzone: 96.2 (#76)

Line Yards+: 98.3 (#64)

Passing Stats

Passing S&P+: 115.3 (#18)
Passing SR+: 107.1 (#34)
Passing PPP+: 125.0 (#18)

Standard Downs: 116.0 (#14)
Passing Downs: 129.9 (#15)

Redzone: 129.8 (#13)

Adj. Sack Rate: 5.9% (#61)


While the offense was almost universally bad in every category, the defense was a lot more interesting to analyze--quite a few ups and downs.

  • They were decent on Standard Downs and excellent on Passing Downs.  When I see a team better on Passing Downs, I assume that their LB corps must be pretty good at blitzing, but that's a bit of a generalization.
  • This is reflected in the per-down numbers as well--they were mediocre on 2nd downs and great on 3rd downs.
  • Their best quarter: Q4.  Makes sense if you think about it.  A) They lost four games by 16 points or more, and in "non-close" situations, the trailing team usually has the advantage while the leading team is running the ball and killing the clock.  B) When they were in close games down the stretch, they usually thrived.  As mentioned yesterday, they were 4-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and while that ignores the Nebraska game--they were leading by one with two minutes left before Nebraska scored a quick 10 points that deceptively boosted the scoring margin--clearly they were still pretty good when the game was close.
  • While their success rates (efficiency) and PPP (explosiveness) were roughly the same in rushing defense, Colorado did see a decent split between their passing defense success rates (34th) and PPP (18th).  That usually suggests relatively loose coverage and good tackling--you can get efficient, short gains against them, but you're not necessarily going to burn them deep a lot.
  • Neither line play measure was particularly impressive.

Defensive Line

Herrod (#90) is about the only returner who has made any plays whatsoever.

2008 Unit Ranking: #58 in the nation (#7 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
DE Marquez Herrod (6'2, 265, Jr.)
DT Eugene Goree (6'1, 295, So.)
DT Taj Kaynor (6'5, 265, Sr.)
DE Conrad Obi (6'3, 265, So.)
DT Curtis Cunningham (6'1, 275, So.)
DE Lagrone Shields (6'3, 270, So.)
DT Will Pericak (6'4, 265, RSFr.)
DE Tony Poremba (6'1, 230, So.)

Remember how I pointed out yesterday that the CU receiving corps has next to no experience whatsoever?  Well they've got nothing on the CU D-line.  The eight names on the list above combined for 27.0 tackles, 4 sacks, and 2 TFL.  As a reference point, Mizzou's Jacquies Smith alone had 34.0 tackles, 1 sack and 3 TFL in 2008, and he didn't really start seeing a ton of playing time until a few games into the season.

Half of the 27.0 tackles listed above (and all of the sacks) came from Herrod, who by default becomes the unquestioned veteran leader of the line.  CU fans seem pretty excited about Conrad Obi, but it's all potential right now--he had exactly one tackle in 2008.  If he can stay healthy, I think good things could be in store for Curtis Cunningham, but we'll see.  The 7.5 tackles on his resume leave something to be desired.  As we'll see, the CU LB corps and secondary have quite a bit of potential in 2009, but if the line is a sieve, it won't matter.  CU had a mediocre D-line at best in 2008, and unless at least two of the people on the above list (or star recruit DE Nick Kasa) become studs, I don't see how the ranking won't fall in 2009.

Linebackers

Smart (#45)

2008 Unit Ranking: #36 in the nation (#7 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Jeff Smart (6'0, 220, Sr.)
Shaun Mohler (6'3, 220, Sr.)
BJ Beatty (6'2, 220, Jr.)
Doug Rippy (6'1, 230, RSFr.)
Michael Sipili (6'1, 240, Jr.)
Jon Major (6'2, 225, RSFr.)
Marcus Burton (6'0, 260, Sr.)

Last year, Jeff Smart, Shaun Mohler and Brad Jones combined to make up a solid-not-spectacular LB corps; this year Jones is gone, but a host of potentially capable replacements lie in wait. Jones was the big-time playmaker in the bunch (7 sacks, 7 TFL, 2 forced fumbles), and he will be missed.  While Smart and Mohler aren't big-time playmakers (they combined for just six sacks/TFLs) and Jones was (7 sacks, 7 TFL, 2 forced fumbles), every team needs a tackling machine or two, right?  The trick will be getting some good blitzing from one of the potential Jones replacements.

There really is a nice mix here between experience (Smart, Mohler, Burton) and guys with high ceilings (Beatty, Rippy, Major), but while I think the high-ceiling guys could be quite strong in 2010, I'm not sure where they lie for 2009.  I'm going to say that this unit has a pretty good chance to remain ranked somewhere in the 30s, but I'm not going to call for significant improvement until next year.

Secondary

Mighty mite Cha'pelle Brown is a rock-solid corner.

2008 Unit Ranking: #13 in the nation (#4 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
CB Cha'pelle Brown (5'7, 170, Sr.)
CB Jimmy Smith (6'2, 200, Jr.)

S Anthony Perkins (5'10, 200, So.)
S Patrick Mahnke (6'1, 205, So.)
CB Benjamin Burney (5'11, 190, Sr.)
CB Jalil Brown (6'1, 205, Jr.)
S Travis Sandersfeld (6'0, 205, So.)
S Ray Polk (6'1, 190, RSFr.)

The strength of Colorado's defense in 2008, the Buffalo secondary returns a wealth of experience at cornerback...and a wealth of unknowns at safety.  If Anthony Perkins and Patrick Mahnke (or anybody else) can do well in the "last line of defense" role, the depth at corner should serve them well.  Cha'pelle Brown (71.5 tackles, 1 sack, 5 TFL, 10 pass breakups, 1 FF) was quietly strong last year, and either Jimmy Smith, Benjamin Burney or Jalil Brown should serve as a solid #2 CB.  But really, the performance of this unit will come down to the safeties.  I wasn't just amazed by the now-graduated Ryan Walters last year, and I think he is replaceable.  This isn't the biggest secondary, but it should still remain the strength of the defense and remain ranked somewhere in the teens, if not a smidge higher.

Special Teams

Aric Goodman MUST improve in 2009.

2008 Unit Rankings: #80 Net Punting, #56 Punt Returns, #38 Kickoff Returns

Projected Starters
K Aric Goodman (5'10, 185, Jr.) - 30-for-31 PAT, 5-for-14 FG
P Matt DiLallo (6'1, 200, Sr.) - 34.0 Net Avg
KR - Rodney Stewart (5'7, 170, So.)
PR - Jason Espinoza (5'8, 175, So.)

I didn't even know Colorado was allowed to have a bad place-kicker.  I just assumed that when Mason Crosby left, his replacement would be just as good.  Nope.  Last year, Aric Goodman was...well, we'll politely call him "iffy."  I mean, 5-for-14?  Really?  I could probably manage to go about 2- or 3-for-14*, so he was only about six points better than me as a kicker.  He MUST improve if Colorado wants to duplicate its strong close-game record from a year ago.  They got lucky that he wasn't more of a liability last year.  Meanwhile, punting was only a hair better.  Matt DiLallo returns, and like Goodman, he must improve.  Seriously, how did Colorado not find somebody better than at least Goodman, if not Goodman and DiLallo?

* Okay, maybe 1-for-14.  Fine, 0-for-14.  I'd have kicked every ball directly into the ass of a lineman seven yards ahead of me.

Meanwhile, here's where Josh Smith's loss could possibly hit the hardest.  Again, Smith wasn't all-conference material or anything, but while he averaged a decent 13.3 yards per catch (best among CU receivers), he was quite good in the return game, averaging 10.4 yards per punt return (point of reference: Jeremy Maclin averaged 11.0) and 25.5 per kick return (Maclin: 24.0) with 1 TD.  Assuming he doesn't get coerced into staying in Boulder, then it looks like the early leaders to replace him are Rodney Stewart at KR and Jason Espinoza at PR.  I have nothing valuable about whether they're any good at returning kicks, so instead I'll just point out that they're very little.  So there you go.

Summary

As I mentioned in yesterday's intro, I'm trying as hard as I can not to be biased about Colorado.  I think they're young enough that they really could be solid in 2010 and maybe 2011, but it's really annoying me that it appears writers are once again jumping the gun too early on them, picking them as a North sleeper for what I think is the fourth straight year.  They've got a solid-not-flashy LB corps and potentially very good secondary.  They've also got a lot of unproven potential at RB and on the O-line.  But that's about it.  They have nothing proven at WR or on the D-line, and unfortunately I think Cody Hawkins has proven a bit too much at QB.  They would be better served floating under the radar for another year and figuring out what they have, particularly at WR.  But instead, people are once again ranking them in the Top 40 and calling them a sleeper, meaning they'll be expected to produce a little earlier than I think they're capable of producing.  Not that I'm losing sleep over these preseason picks or anything, but it's not fair to Colorado to expect anything major from them just yet--I've been wrong plenty of times before, but I think they're still a year away.

---

Projections on Friday.  And I'm warning you now--as down as I appear to be on CU, the BTBS projections are infinitely more down on them.  Shockingly down on them...to the point where I almost want to stick up for them a bit.

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