Throughout his first season in Boulder as defensive coordinator for the Colorado football team, Kent Baer cautioned it takes time for players to learn his defense and reach a comfort level that allows them to play at a high level.

The Buffs were improved in 2013 on defense over the disastrous 2012 season under different coaches, but they still fell far short of playing well enough to consistently stop opponents. They ranked 101st in the nation in rushing defense, 102nd in the nation in passing defense and 112th in scoring defense, allowing 38.3 points per game.

The Buffs returned to the field Saturday morning for the start of fall camp and Year Two under Baer and head coach Mike MacIntyre. Baer said a year in his system along with another year in the offseason program should lead to improvements. How big the jumps are remains to be seen.

Colorado defensive coordinator Kent Baer talks to the team on Saturday during the Buffs’ first practice of the fall. More photos and video:
Colorado defensive coordinator Kent Baer talks to the team on Saturday during the Buffs' first practice of the fall. More photos and video: www.BuffZone.com (Cliff Grassmick / Daily Camera)

"They're going to be better because they understand a lot more," Baer said

There are eight returning starters on the CU defense and five other players with significant starting experience back not to mention another nine defenders who have logged what CU considers significant playing time in their careers to this point.

All that experience and familiarity would seem to point toward a defense that is better organized and prepared for whatever creative Pac-12 offenses might throw at it.

"I noticed it," sophomore middle linebacker Addison Gillam said of a difference in how the defense practiced at the start of camp. "It felt like everyone was playing more together, more as a unit and not really a bunch of individuals. Then everybody knew what they were doing for the most part. That was awesome not having to worry about if somebody was going to mess up."


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Baer went through a similar rebuilding job with MacIntyre at San Jose State before being hired at CU. In his second season under MacIntyre with the Spartans, Baer's defense went from allowing 34.7 points a game to allowing 30.3. It actually got slightly worse against the run allowing 204 yards a game on the ground compared with 203 in 2010 and it improved against the pass by 39 yards per game.

But the Spartans made a massive leap forward in turnovers in Year Two under Baer and MacIntyre going from 18 turnovers in 2010 to 33.

Turnovers has been one of two areas in which Baer has focused much of his energy in the offseason with the Buffs. The other area is improving on third downs. CU forced 21 turnovers in 2013 and allowed opponents to convert on 38.8 percent of their third down plays.

"I think we're going to be better at turnovers," Baer said. "That's a huge key for winning. I think we're going to be better on third downs. I don't want to put too many things on them but I think those are the areas I think we can improve. You can't give them too many. You'll never get anything done."

The conventional wisdom is that with so many returning players back on defense, Baer might be able to do more with his defense this year. Baer said he hopes to do less. He'd like to see players executing at a better rate and making more plays because they have a greater understanding of their assignments and where they are supposed to be in every situation.

One change in the coaching staff could help. Assistant coach Andy LaRussa has been working with a young group of defensive ends since spring ball after coaching cornerbacks previously. The change gives the staff more eyes on the front while defensive line coach Jim Jeffcoat handles the defensive tackles.

Colorado linebacker Addison Gillam runs through drills during practice on Saturday.
Colorado linebacker Addison Gillam runs through drills during practice on Saturday. (Cliff Grassmick / Daily Camera)

Charles Clark is handling the secondary with some help from MacIntyre, who was primarily a secondary coach when he was an assistant.

Clark said simply having players who have been through a full year in the defense should help the unit play better this fall because they know what to do a much higher percentage of the time. He said last summer players weren't really equipped to get the most out of their player-run practices because they had a limited base of knowledge from their first spring under this staff.

This summer the Buffs knew what they were doing when they were on the field without the coaches.

"That time put in in the summer and the spring definitely gives them the opportunity to move a little faster," Clark said.

"Whenever you can play fast on defense, you've got a chance. ...Even sometimes if you're out of position, if you can play fast and you know what's going to happen, that allows you to get better."

Gillam joked after Saturday's first practice that the first post-practice meetings and evening walk-through of this fall camp would not be nearly as painful as they were a year ago.

"It's nice to know that I'm not going to be getting yelled at later today in the meetings as much," Gillam said. "I mean, I still might but I did a lot better than last year. It's nice coming out here and not worrying about messing up and just getting to play."

Contact BuffZone.com Writer Kyle Ringo at ringok@dailycamera.com or on Twitter: @kyleringo.