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Colorado: Beyond the Box Score Defensive Preview

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Yesterday we took a look at the Colorado offense, beat it around like a pinata, taped it back together, and beat it around some more.  If the offense has been that terrible recently (and, spoiler alert, so has their special teams unit), then how exactly has Colorado managed to win even 14 games in the last three seasons?  With a solid, underrated defense, that's how.

Defense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 39th

S&P+: 34th
Success Rate+: 21st
PPP+: 50th

Standard Downs S&P+: 25th
Passing Downs S&P+: 61st

Redzone S&P+: 43rd

Q1 S&P+: 87th
Q2 S&P+: 13th
Q3 S&P+: 12th
Q4 S&P+: 64th

1st Down S&P+: 42nd
2nd Down S&P+: 38th
3rd Down S&P+: 31st

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 30th
Rushing SR+: 14th
Rushing PPP+: 56th

Standard Downs: 19th
Passing Downs: 70th

Redzone: 20th

Adj. Line Yards: 47th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 47th
Passing SR+: 34th
Passing PPP+: 52nd

Standard Downs: 50th
Passing Downs: 58th

Redzone: 79th

Adj. Sack Rate: 9th
SD Sack Rate: 8th
PD Sack Rate: 40th

Colorado's defense in 2009 wasn't exactly a squad of All-Americans by any means, but the Toledo game aside, they were pretty solid at holding teams below their season averages ... at least while the game was in question.  They gave up a few too many big plays, but they were a rather efficient unit, particularly against the run.  Despite not having one particular pass-rushing specialist, they were good at getting to the quarterback -- seven players had at least two sacks, including cornerback Cha'pelle Brown -- and they got better as both downs and quarters progressed.  With an offense ranked even in the Top 60, this was a defense capable of winning some games for the Buffs.  Unfortunately, their offense was not even a Top 90 unit.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A* 44 41 45 39
S&P+ 17 43 44 33 34
Success Rate+ 19 42 22 45 21
PPP+ 18 49 56 34 50
Rushing S&P+ 11 25 39 56 30
Passing S&P+ 33 78 44 18 47
Standard Downs S&P+ 21 34 58 36 25
Passing Downs S&P+ 5 87 30 15 61
Adj. Line Yards 5 23 40 63 47
Adj. Sack Rate 99 74 86 51 9
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.

The Colorado defense has been good-not-great for all of Dan Hawkins' tenure.  They have never been as good as they were the last year that Gary Barnett was around, but they have never been the problem for Hawk.  It has always been the offense holding the Buffs back.

The improvement in the pass rush is a very recent development.  It has improved just about every year under Hawkins, but it was still a middling unit until 2009.  Meanwhile, the run defense took a step forward as well after a bad 2008.  The pass defense overall has fluctuated considerably through the years, as have most of the other measures.

Defensive Line

2009 Unit Ranking: 17th (4th in the Big 12)

Projected DE Depth Chart
Marquez Herrod (6'2, 285, Sr., 32.5 tackles, 10 TFL/sacks)
Nick Kasa (6'7, 270, So., 2.0 tackles, 1 TFL/sacks)
Forrest West (6'1, 260, So., 9.0 tackles, 1 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 2 PBU)
Josh Hartigan (6'1, 240, Jr., 2.5 tackles)
Joe Silipo (6'2, 260, Sr.)
Brandon Gouin (6'1, 220, Jr.)

Projected DT Depth Chart
Will Pericak (6'4, 285, So., 30.0 tackles, 6 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 2 FR, 2 PBU)
Curtis Cunningham (6'1, 280, Jr., 32.5 tackles, 3 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU)
Nate Bonsu (6'1, 295, So., 13.0 tackles, 1 FR)
Eugene Goree (6'1, 310, Jr., 3.5 tackles, 1 FR)
Conrad Obi (6'3, 290, Jr.)
Tony Poremba (6'1, 240, Jr.)

Despite the lack of a true star, and despite five-star true freshman Nick Kasa failing to contribute as expected (he partially tore his MCL in two-a-days, but he still played sparingly ... for god-only-knows what reason), this was a downright solid line in 2009.  Plus, every major contributor returns in 2010.  As Herman Edwards would say, the Buffs can build on this!  If Kasa is ready to rock and roll, there is no reason to think this unit will be anything worse than equal to last year's, and the upside that Kasa brings to the table (if CU coaches can milk that upside, anyway) is tremendous.  This is a big line, and it could be the best overall unit on the team ... even if none of you can name one of the returning starters right off the top of your head.

This is as good a time as any to mention that Colorado seems to vary between a 3-4 and 4-3.  They list their depth chart as a 4-3, but they quite often only play three down linemen.  This somewhat explains the large variety in their pass rushing -- they will always send at least four guys, but the fourth one might be a down lineman, he might be a cornerback, he might be a linebacker ... it varies.  So ... they play a 4-3 with a 3-4 mindset maybe?

Linebackers

I'm sure I'm not the first person to make this joke (nor the last), but ... has anybody ever seen B.J. Beatty and Carrot Top in the same room? (Via Zimbio)

2009 Unit Ranking: 43rd (6th in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
B.J. Beatty (6'2, 235, Sr., 23.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 PBU)
Michael Sipili (6'1, 250, Sr., 30.0 tackles, 2 TFL/sacks, 1 FF)
Tyler Ahles (6'2, 245, Jr., 18.5 tackles, 5 TFL/sacks, 1 FF)
Jon Major (6'1, 225, So., 11.0 tackles)
Patrick Mahnke (6'1, 205, Jr., 9.0 tackles, 1 PBU)
Doug Rippy (6'1, 240, So., 3.5 tackles)
David Goldberg (6'1, 250, Jr.)
Liloa Nobriga (6'2, 235, RSFr.)
Derrick Webb (6'0, 220, RSFr.)

While the line should still play a solid role in Colorado's defensive success, the linebacker unit is a concern.  Gone are Jeff Smart and Marcus Burton, and while there are five players here with some starting experience, none have been true difference makers.  Tyler Ahles is a playmaker -- five of his 18 tackles last year went for a loss -- but in two years he has only begun to work his way into the rotation.  If he can step up his game in terms of consistency, maybe this unit stays level to where it was last year, but at least a slight regression is certainly possible.

Secondary

Jalil Brown: a big part of a unit that is ALMOST good ... but not (again via Zimbio)

2009 Unit Ranking: 101st (11th in the Big 12)

Projected CB Depth Chart
Jimmy Smith (6'2, 210, Sr., 61.0 tackles, 3 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 10 PBU)
Jalil Brown (6'1, 205, Sr., 55.0 tackles, 2 INT, 2 FR, 15 PBU)
Deji Olatoye (6'1, 190, RSFr.)
Paul Vigo (6'1, 180, RSFr.)
Anthony Wright (6'0, 190, Jr.)
Jonathan Hawkins (5'11, 195, Jr.)

Projected S Depth Chart
Anthony Perkins (5'10, 200, Jr., 63.0 tackles, 1 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 1 FF, 3 PBU)
Ray Polk (6'1, 210, So., 32.0 tackles, 1 TFL/sacks)
Travis Sandersfeld (6'0, 205, Jr., 3.0 tackles)
Parker Ohms (5'11, 180, RSFr.)
Vince Ewing (6'0, 200, So.)
Cody McAninch (6'0, 200, RSFr.)

The rankings for these units seem backwards to what your perceptions would tell you, don't they?  Before I dove into the numbers, I'd have told you that the Colorado secondary, featuring Cha'pelle Brown, Jimmy Smith, Jalil Brown, Benjamin Burney and Anthony Perkins, would have been a relative strength of this team.  But in reality, that was far from the case.  Toledo threw for 319 yards, Kansas for 431, and Texas A&M 242.  Fact is, if the pass rush wasn't getting to the opposing quarterback, said quarterback was probably picking the Colorado secondary apart.

This unit certainly does not lack for experience in 2010, at least at cornerback.  It seems that Smith and J. Brown have been in Boulder almost as long as Scotty McKnight (C. Brown finally exhausted his eligibility last season; pretty sure he was in Rick Neuheisel's final recruiting class), and safety Perkins has played a primary defensive role for two seasons to boot.  Experience gets you nowhere if talent doesn't tag along, but in theory this unit should be at least as (bad) good as it was last season.  And if it isn't, it's time to turn the reins over to the next batch of players that will be getting the Buffs through their opening seasons in the Pac-12 -- redshirt freshmen like Olatoye, Vigo, Ohms and McAninch.

Special Teams

This was longer than 40 yards, so ... miss. (via Zimbio)

2009 Unit Ranking: 95th (11th in the Big 12)

Place-kicking: 101st
Net Punting: 113th
Net Kicking: 7th
Returns: 77th

Projected Starters
K Aric Goodman (5'10, 190, Sr., 31-for-32 PAT, 10-for-18 FG, Long: 54)
P Zack Grossnickle (6'2, 185, RSFr.)
KR Brian Lockridge (5'7, 180, Jr., 30 returns, 23.3 avg., 1 TD)
PR Jason Espinoza (5'8, 180, Jr., 22 returns, 3.1 avg!!)

There is just no excuse for the Colorado special teams unit to be this bad.  None.  Especially in terms of place kicking and net punting.  It should not be hard to find kickers who can get the ball up into the thin air and have it drift into the ether.  That, or Mason Crosby left such a large impression on me that I find it appalling that they couldn't find Mason Crosby II.  Regardless, Aric Goodman was rather brutal last season, at least on anything over 40 yards.  He was 7-for-8 on field goals of less than 40 yards and just 3-for-10 outside that distance.  Ridiculous.  Meanwhile, the Buffs' biggest weakness was in the punting game.  Some new blood might be a good thing there, and big (for a punter) Zack Grossnickle will find it hard not to improve on CU's numbers from last season.

Brian Lockridge, a running back whom I called underrated all of last season, was given opportunities to show his stuff in the kicking game, and he did well.  Unfortunately, apparently CU couldn't find anybody but Jason Espinoza capable of catching a punt; I mean ... 3.1 per return?  Really?  And that doesn't even include fair catches!

With the thin air, Colorado certainly kicked touchbacks and covered kickoffs as well as almost anybody in the country, but ... when your offense is struggling as much as Colorado's did last season, having a good kickoffs unit isn't the best way to maximize your resources.

As a whole, this unit can only improve in 2010 -- almost the same cast of characters returns, for better or worse, but the punting can't get worse, so ... they've got that going for them!

Summary

While the special teams unit might continue to struggle, the Colorado defense will likely do its best once again to hang on as long as possible in some games.  They are a unit lacking in top-end speed, but they play smart and disciplined; you can make plays on them, but you'll have to take them -- they won't just hand them out.  If Kasa is healthy and can begin to live up to expectations, the front four could be a strength, especially if CU is still able to blitz and vary their defenses rather effectively.  I'm not sure how much athleticism resides in the back seven, but ... again, Toledo game aside, this defense didn't lose games last year.  That was on the offense.  Things should play out in a similar way this season.