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  • Derek McCartney, left, Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode watch defensive...

    Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Derek McCartney, left, Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode watch defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, during fall practice in early August.

  • CU defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt (left) and defensive line coach,...

    Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    CU defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt (left) and defensive line coach, Jim Jeffcoat, have fun with the players by doing the wave as they arrive for football practice in August.

  • CU's new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was hired in January...

    Mark Leffingwell / Staff Photographer

    CU's new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt was hired in January by coach Mike MacIntyre to turn around the Buffs' defense.

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Still a work in progress

Several members of the Colorado defense have said they enjoy playing for new coordinator Jim Leavitt.

There are times, however, when those players are reminded that they’ve got a lot of work to do in order to excel in Leavitt’s system.

In an intrasquad scrimmage at Folsom Field in mid-August, the defense had some good moments, but also give up a 52-yard run to Christian Powell, a 39-yard touchdown pass to Lee Walker and four other touchdowns.

“When they’re doing that stuff to us, it’s hard to dictate where we are,” junior defensive end Jimmie Gilbert said. “When we’re able to get all of those little things filled up and covered, I feel like we’d step in and become that defense I know we can be. We’re definitely on the way. We’re definitely progressing.”

Leavitt is in his first season at CU’s defensive coordinator after spending the previous four as the linebackers coach for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.

After 11 practices with his new team, Leavitt said, “Our first group has a chance (to be good). They’re not there yet, but they have a chance. I don’t know how much depth we’ll have. That’s a concern of mine, but that’s up to the guys. We might be able to put together 14-15 guys that can play.”

Head coach Mike MacIntyre said the defense has had “good days and bad days,” but feels more good days could be ahead as the scheme is now fully installed.

“We’ll have a great improvement this week,” MacIntyre said. “It comes with repetition. Now that we have everything in, you’ll see the little things get better.”

BURBANK, Calif. — — In reviewing film of future opponents during the offseason, first-year Oregon State coach Gary Andersen verified something he suspected about the Pac-12 Conference.

“This conference has juice,” Andersen said at the Pac-12 football media days at Warner Bros Studios at the end of July.

“In my opinion, based off what I have seen, you better be able to run at a high level on defense or you can pay a price very, very quickly.”

It’s the same conclusion Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has come to since he was hired in January by coach Mike MacIntyre to turn around what has been one of the worst defenses among all power-five conference teams for several seasons dating back to before MacIntyre was hired.

Improving on the defensive side is a priority for MacIntyre and the Buffs because it represents the biggest opportunity to make a jump in performance and ultimately in the standings. The Buffs went winless in the Pac-12 last season, in part, because the defense gave up more than 200 rushing yards per game and 39 points per game.

The CU offense made significant improvement last season, finishing 19th in the nation in passing and 37th in total offense.

“I think that’s the key,” MacIntyre said. “I think the way we improve on defense this year. I don’t know if we can jump from there to 37th, but if we can jump and stop teams in scoring defense, when we get ahead, keep the lead and not just give up big plays, our improvement … that will be the difference in our team this year.”

But that defensive improvement won’t come easy with players learning and implementing a new scheme with new coaches in Leavitt and safeties coach Joe Tumpkin also learning how best to utilize each player.

MacIntyre decided late last season he needed a new approach to playing defense in the Pac-12 based on the creativity and explosiveness of offenses in the league. He said CU fans will see a different-looking defense this season both in scheme and in the size, strength and speed of the players.

“You can’t just be traditional all the time on defense,” he said. “I’m excited about what we’re doing and how we’re going to do it.”

MacIntyre said it might be a bigger challenge implementing a new defense this fall if the rules hadn’t changed a year ago allowing coaches to spend up to two hours a week with players in the summer. MacIntyre said CU coaches have used that time with defensive players to continue the learning process so that there won’t be as much of a learning curve.

MacIntyre is also comforted in having two veteran coaches in Leavitt and Tumpkin to lead the turnaround on defense. Tumpkin was the defensive coordinator at Central Michigan the past five seasons and Leavitt has defensive coordinator experience dating back 30 years.

“He has great expertise, No. 1,” MacIntyre said. “No. 2, he has great passion and energy. And No. 3, he’s a grinder. I mean he works at it hard.”

Kyle Ringo: twitter.com/kyleringo

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