CU Buffs season review: Defense

Group showed progress while dealing with plenty of injuries and struggling offense

University of Colorado Boulder’s Guy Thomas (1) and Jalen Sami, stops  Minnesota’s Mar’Keise Irving during the Colorado Minnesota NCAA football game on September 18, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
University of Colorado Boulder’s Guy Thomas (1) and Jalen Sami, stops Minnesota’s Mar’Keise Irving during the Colorado Minnesota NCAA football game on September 18, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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When Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell elected in January to make a change with the leadership of the Buffaloes’ defense, he did so with the intent of “bringing our defense forward.”

Chris Wilson was promoted to the coordinator position and he installed a scheme that was geared toward being more player-friendly than what the Buffs did in 2020.

For much of this past season, the Buffs did show signs of progress, but key injuries, leaning on youth and getting little support from the offense led to final results that didn’t match the preseason hopes.

Colorado defensive coordinator Chris Wilson signals during a scrimmage at Folsom Field in Boulder on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

CU gave up 26.7 points per game, which was a significant improvement from last year (31.7). The Buffs allowed about the same number of yards, 420.8 per game this year compared to 420.3 in 2020.

The Buffs were significantly worse on third downs this year, but they were better in the red zone. The Pac-12’s leader in tackles for loss (8.17 per game) in 2020, the Buffs dropped to ninth this year (4.92). They actually had more sacks in the six-game 2020 season (15) than in the 12-game 2021 season (13).

Trying to make up for an offense that ranked among the worst in the country, the defense kept the Buffs in some games this season. Opponents often took advantage of the fatigued Buffs, however. On average, the defense was on the field 4 minutes, 12 seconds per game more than in 2020.

More than anything, it was the injuries that hampered this group, particularly late in the season. The Buffs’ best player, linebacker Nate Landman, missed the last five games. Outside linebacker Guy Thomas missed the last five games, cornerback Mekhi Blackmon missed three and corner Nigel Bethel missed the last six.

The silver lining is that several young players gained valuable experience that could pay off in 2022. For this year, it was a mixed bag. A review of the Buffs’ defense:

Defensive line: Mustafa Johnson, who declared for the NFL Draft in January but wasn’t selected, returned to the team for Week 5 and provided a boost (28 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 pressures in eight games). The group was playing fairly well before his return. Jalen Sami had his best season as a Buff, with 30 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Na’im Rodman had a good season, as well, especially against the run. Terrance Lang didn’t make a lot of impact plays, but still finished with 20 tackles and six QB pressures. The group struggled late in the season, though, as five of the last six opponents racked up at least 213 rushing yards. Grade: C.

DENVER, CO – September 11, 2021: University of Colorado Boulder’s Nate Landman goes after Texas A&M’sZach Calzada during the September 11, 2021 game at Empower Field in Denver. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Outside linebackers: Carson Wells was the leader of this group and he was one of the better edge players in the Pac-12. He posted a career-best 62 tackles, along with 5.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss, 17 quarterback pressures and a pick-6. Before a foot injury, Thomas was dominant, as well (36 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 TFLs, 2 forced fumbles in seven games). Joshka Gustav had a good season and freshman Devin Grant came on strong in the last two games. Grade: A.

Inside linebackers: Through seven games, Landman was having an All-American type of season (71 tackles, six TFL, 4 PBU) and he was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award. This group wasn’t the same without him in the last five games. Quinn Perry put together a strong season (78 tackles, 4 TFL), but couldn’t completely fill Landman’s shoes as the lead backer. Robert Barnes (44 tackles), Jack Lamb (21 tackles) and Marvin Ham (20 tackles) all had some ups and downs when they got a chance to play. Grade: B-minus.

Safeties: Mark Perry made a significant improvement from last year, racking up 72 tackles, two TFL, three interceptions and four pass breakups. Isaiah Lewis didn’t have the same overall impact he had in 2020, especially in pass coverage, but led the team with 79 tackles. Freshmen Trevor Woods and Tryin Taylor both flashed their potential when they got an opportunity to see the field. Grade: B.

Cornerbacks: Second-year freshman Christian Gonzalez raised his game a level or two this season. He was great in coverage (six pass breakups) and also had 54 tackles and five tackles for loss. Blackmon was solid when healthy (50 tackles, 5 PBU). Bethel had a strong start as the third corner but missed the second half of the year. The injuries forced CU to lean on true freshmen Taylor, Nikko Reed and Kaylin Moore, who showed good potential, but had some freshman moments, as well. Grade: C.

Punter: In his second year with the Buffs, Josh Watts had a strong season. He averaged 47.8 yards per punt and landed 16 of 66 inside the 20-yard line. He also had 24 punts of at least 50 yards. Returners had fun against CU, though. CU had more punts returned (38) and gave up more yards (407) than anyone else in the country and ranked 108th in average (10.7). Grade: B.

Overall: CU’s defense was on its way to having a good season until injuries started to pile up. Through seven games, while getting very little help from the offense, the Buffs allowed 20.7 points and 376.7 yards per game. Over the last five games, with Landman, Thomas and others out, they gave up 35.0 points and 482.8 yards. There were plenty of good signs for the future to come out of this season, but it was ultimately a mediocre campaign for the defense. Grade: C.

BOULDER, CO - Nov. 6, 2021: ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s Carson Wells celebrates his hit on Oregon State Beaver’s Chance Nolan on November 6, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Defensive MVP: OLB Carson Wells. Although Landman is CU’s best player on defense, if not the entire team, he missed almost half the season. So, the nod goes to Wells, who was sensational for the second year in a row. Honorable mention: Landman.

Top newcomer: LB Robert Barnes. The transfer from Oklahoma picked his game up late in the season and finished with 36 tackles and five tackles for loss. Honorable mention: DB Tyrin Taylor.

Most improved: S Mark Perry. By his own admission, he did not play well in 2020. This season, he was a leader and made a lot of impact plays. Honorable mention: LB Quinn Perry.

Best comeback: LB Nate Landman. A remarkable story, as he ruptured an Achilles’ tendon in December of 2020 and was ready to go by August. Unfortunately, that comeback was cut short by a shoulder injury. Honorable mention: DL Mustafa Johnson.