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Duck Dive: Colorado Football 2023 Preview

Going deep with the Buffaloes’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

California v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Special thanks to Jack Barsch of Ralphie Report for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Colorado’s roster. LISTEN HERE

Nota bene: At this point over 70 scholarship or significant walk-on contributors have left from Colorado’s roster last season, and I anticipate only a handful of returners to be in contention for playing time in 2023 – this will for all practical purposes be an entirely new team. As such this article won’t use my typical statistical analyses of the Buffaloes’ 2022 season, although I did chart each of their games, and for brevity’s sake I’ll forgo the usual listing of each of the departures but instead only note a player who left when necessary to clear up potential confusion.


Head coach Sanders has brought over much of his staff and several key players from his last three years at Jackson State. While the Tigers’ offensive coordinator came to Boulder as part of that group, Buffaloes’ WR coach Bartolone, Sanders brought in OC/QB coach Lewis to run the offense, who was the head coach and playcaller at Kent State for the previous five seasons.

Bartolone and Lewis ran fairly different offenses, and it will be interesting to see how presumptive starter #2 QB She. Sanders (a Jerry Rice Award winner and the coach’s youngest son) adapts to the potential changes. From watching his film at JSU, that system focused heavily on screens and short passes, with about 70% of balls traveling no more than 8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage through the air and almost none going more than 25 yards, and allowing receivers with far greater athleticism than opposing defenders to generate yards after catch (on the podcast the comparison we came up with was Arizona State’s offense under Noel Mazzone for Jayden Daniels).

I thought Sanders was an excellent quarterback for that system with great anticipatory throws and mechanics, though Jack brought up some questions about his arm strength. I also thought that JSU’s offensive line breakdowns were surprisingly frequent (it may be telling that Lewis brought new Colorado OL coach O’Boyle with him from Kent St) and that Sanders was a very effective scrambler against almost every defense he faced, but that the offense didn’t really have a lot of designed quarterback runs in it, something Jack said jumped out to him from watching tape too.

Lewis is a protégé of Dino Babers, who in turn comes off the Art Briles coaching tree and runs that vertically oriented, uptempo spread offense. After four years with Briles at Baylor, Babers took over at Eastern Illinois and hired Lewis as his WR coach, where they set records with QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Two years later the pair moved to Bowling Green, where Lewis got his first shot as a playcaller in 2015 and had his best season in F+ advanced statistics (although bizarrely I’ve been unable to find any quality film from that season to review). They then moved to Syracuse in 2016, where Babers has remained head coach ever since – Lewis’ two seasons as playcaller there have mediocre F+ rankings, almost exactly equal to the Orange’s 24/7 team talent composite those years.

As head coach of the Golden Flashes since 2018, Lewis dealt with some of the worst talent in the FBS all five seasons, but the offenses he called overperformed decently in F+ all but the first year (and in 2020 wildly so, but that four-game sample against mostly atrocious MAC teams in the covid season is probably distorted). I watched six games from the 2022 season since I was also interested in their starting QB, Collin Schlee, who’s transferred to UCLA and I think may play an interesting role in the Bruins’ 2023 season.

I was impressed with how consistent the offense has been since watching Robert Griffin III’s Heisman season with Baylor in 2011 – a whole lot of tempo, four verts, and QB runs. I also got to see them make Georgia sweat out a 39-22 win, and although that was a weird game with a bunch of turnovers, empty possessions, and cheap points off short fields, Kent St did get one full-field touchdown drive against the Bulldogs, which is more than Oregon and a lot of other teams did against the champs.

On the podcast, Jack and I discussed how Lewis might adapt his offense to the roster talent at Colorado, which may put some constraints on what he’d otherwise like to do. In addition to the question of how much vertical passing might be in the offense given Sanders’ arm and what may be a curiously small group of tall deep threats, there’s also a possible restriction in how much running Lewis might ask his starting QB to do. Jack and I both observed that Sanders at JSU wasn’t much of a designed run threat (as opposed to scrambling, which is a different skillset), and the depth in the QB room is extraordinarily thin with everybody else transferring out.

There are only two others on scholarship besides Sanders, both true freshmen: early enrollee mid 3-star #16 QB Staub and Fall enrollee low 3-star Kasen Weisman. From watching some of their tape I think the freshmen are actually more in the mold of what Lewis wants out of a QB in terms of arm and legs – they both play a lot like Schlee, actually – but it’s extremely unlikely that Lewis or the starting QB’s father will countenance anything that risks an injury to Sanders this season, so I suspect all but the safest of QB runs are out of Lewis’ playbook.

What I don’t expect any compromise on is the tempo. I only counted a dozen plays tops in Syracuse or Kent St’s playbook (or the Buffs’ Spring game, with the ones against the twos conducted in a snowstorm with ESPN providing the zanni to Sanders’ Capitano), but they executed those plays lightning fast with players who could handle the pace. Reviewing the massive roster changeover that the new staff has implemented, with only ten scholarship players remaining from last year’s team, it’s clear to me that they’ve prioritized speed and athleticism over size.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Colorado at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There are two notable returners in the running back room: #22 RB Hankerson and #44 RB Offerdahl. I think both are solid ballcarriers who combined for over a hundred touches last year at about four yards a carry, and by reports and from talking to Jack they’re grinders with the respect of the new staff (Offerdahl is a walk-on but should be in line to get a scholarship; I count eight that the Buffs still have left to play with).

The four new backs are mid 4-star recruit #10 RB D. Edwards, borderline 4-star Houston transfer Alton McCaskill, mid 3-star Kentucky transfer Kavosiey Smoke, and JSU transfer Sy’Veon Wilkerson. Edwards was available in the Spring and looked very fast, but he’s pretty small right now and I think would only be used as a change-of-pace guy if he plays as a true freshman (Jack noted he’s also been spotted working out with the slot receivers in Spring practices, though I don’t think that position will need any help in Fall once everyone is on campus). The portal guys weren’t available in Spring and we’ll have to wait until Fall to see how they shake out.

Smoke was the first to commit to the Buffs; he was part of the 2018 cycle and has been a career backup with multiple new RBs passing him up to become the starting or second-string back while he was stuck in third place for the last four seasons. That led me to think he’s most likely to join Hankerson and Offerdahl as safety-net guys in case there’s a problem with the more dynamic backs who transferred in later. Jack had a different take, though, which is that Smoke is going to be a frequent 3rd-down thumper and pass protector in long-yardage situations.

McCaskill is the most likely option for the starting workhorse back. He was a near-thousand yard rusher in 2021 for the Cougars but tore his ACL and missed the 2022 season. Reportedly he going to be back to full-contact status for Spring practices in Houston before transferring (Jack shared the evergreen tampering allegations from Coog fans on the podcast). McCaskill’s film is very promising, assuming he really is at 100%, and he’s a big back at 6’1” and 215 lbs, making me doubt the need for a separate specialist.

Wilkerson ran for over a thousand yards at JSU last year. Jack’s description of him on the podcast was interesting, calling him a “manic” runner who’s desperate to get that last yard through contact, though limited athletically and not the home-run threat that McCaskill or Edwards is. In addition to the usual question about making the transition from facing FCS to Power-5 defenses, there’s also a possibility Wilkerson may have to redshirt this year due to NCAA rules – he started his career at Delaware State in 2020 and 2021, then transferred to West Virginia as a walk-on for the Spring term in 2022, then again to JSU in the Fall of 2022 for the football season. So when he announced his transfer to Colorado this month, that would be his third, and unless he’s completed his degree – grad students have automatic immediate eligibility – he’d have to get an NCAA hardship waiver, and I haven’t found any indication Wilkerson has either in hand.

The tight end unit is confusing, and we spent a lot of time on the podcast recounting the ins and outs of it despite my suspicion that ultimately we’ll see very little production from this group.

Officially there are two scholarship returners on the roster, both from the 2020 class: #18 TE Fauria (son of CU tight end legend Christian) and #89 TE Passarello. Neither have meaningfully played over the last three years. Passarello was a low 3-star, and all four tight ends with remaining eligibility who left the team – including coveted Arkansas State transfer Seydou Traore who transferred back out after playing in the Spring game with the twos – are significantly more talented on paper, but apparently he’s the preference of TE coach Brewster because he’s the only guy willing to block hard. Jack was surprised Passarello was recruited in the first place and thought he’d get processed out when Sanders arrived; both of us doubt he can catch a pass. Fauria wasn’t listed on the official Spring game handout and they’d given his #18 jersey number to Traore, giving me the impression that he’s not truly with the team.

The two additions to the room (still with the team, anyway) are both non-scholarship players: #83 TE Yelverton and #47 FB C. Johnson. Yelverton initially signed with Iowa in 2020 as a mid 3-star, but battled injuries and reportedly “fell out of love” with the game, but has now walked on with Colorado, and Jack told us that he’s an old high school teammate of Sanders and that connection makes him think Yelverton will actually be used the most. I didn’t get to see that for myself, however, since Passarello was with the ones and Yelverton was with the twos and threes with Johnson, who transferred from Cal. (They’d also given jersey #83 to a walk-on wideout playing X-receiver with the twos, so they had to keep swapping those two players on and off the field. Evidently the process of earning jersey numbers is proceeding somewhat fitfully.)

As we discussed on the podcast, Lewis’ offenses didn’t really use pass-catching tight ends, only deploying them as extra blockers as needed situationally. Since Traore has the build and skillset of a detached Y-receiver, and given the general chaos and shunken size of the room, my belief is that this offense simply doesn’t have a use for anybody but blockers. I think that if Lewis had his druthers they’d be in 10-personnel four-wide with two inside receivers and no tight end at all on most snaps, though depending on how the offensive line situation plays out they may need to be in 11- or even 12-pers a lot more than that for extra blocking help.

There are no returning scholarship wide receivers from last year’s squad. They’ve brought in a dozen new scholarship receivers plus a thirteenth two-way cornerback, but because almost none of them were available for the Spring game we saw a lot of walk-ons. The most likely of the returning walk-ons to see the field in 2023 is #83 WR Harrison (the X-receiver with the jersey issue), who’s a 6’3” junior and got a couple of catches last year. I think he’s worth mentioning because Lewis’ offense requires two tall flankers on all snaps, and while CU has brought in some very interesting guys through the portal plus four promising freshmen who I think could be outside receivers, there are some questions about whether they have enough immediately available playable depth at X and Z.

On the outside, the portal additions are South Florida’s low 3-star Xavier Weaver at 6’1”, FCS Northwestern State’s Javon Antonio at 6’4”, and Baylor’s high 3-star Jaylen Ellis at 6’3”; none of those three were available for Spring. JSU’s 5-star #12 CB Hunter at 6’1” has also moonlighted as an outside receiver, he got 18 catches at about 10 yards a reception last season and was playing X in the Spring game (though they needed him to, they barely had enough receivers even with walk-ons and not-yet-departed players). They had one more briefly committed after Spring, EJ Horton from Marshall, but he decommitted a few days later (there were four players – at TE, OL, DL, and CB – who transferred in, played in the Spring game, then transferred back out, but Horton isn’t one of them as he was never on campus).

Weaver almost certainly has one of the starting outside jobs locked up. He got 53 catches for the Bulls last year and is entering his fifth straight season as a full-time starter with 1,735 career receiving yards. His film shows just what Lewis wants for this role – a reliable vertical route runner with great hands. I’m very curious how the other spot and — since there will probably be a high degree of rotation given the fast pace of play — the second line of outside receivers shake out.

Antonio is the tallest, oldest, and most experienced, but also probably has the lowest talent ceiling as a former 2-star, and his body type and skillset is more like a possession receiver who runs out for quick catches in the flat rather than the sideline burner I think Lewis really wants running four-verts. Ellis’ tape is crazy, he has exactly three catches in his career, but they’re for 50 yards each – Baylor used him on a particular passing pattern that usually defenses covered fine so the QB would check out of, but every so often there’d be a coverage breakdown so he’d have no one else around him for miles and an enormous gain. Jack said Ellis has a lot of footspeed but otherwise he’s not expecting a lot out of him – to me Ellis seems like a potential high ceiling / low floor guy to keep an eye on. Hunter is a thrilling athlete and I think deserves his 5-star rating as a corner (that’s certainly where his NFL value is), and I suspect Colorado will indulge him on offense from time to time, but as a full-time starting option or even frequent backup, having him run the length of the field for 60 minutes every week is probably a bad idea.

If there’s not a satisfactory option on that list, or if there is but they need more playable depth than that, then CU would need to turn to a true freshman, a walk-on, or additional portal help on the outside before the Fall … and I think the odds are that at least one of those will happen. The four prep recruits I think will be outside receivers — though none enrolled early so some guesswork is involved from their heights, Hudl tape, and talking with Jack — are low 4-stars Adam Hopkins at 6’0” and Omarion Miller at 6’2”, and mid 3-stars Jordan Onovughe at 6’2” and Jacob Page at 6’3”.

Jack thinks that Hopkins is the most likely of the true freshmen to see the field, though he’s not certain if it’d be on the inside or outside – he’s a polished player who did well at camps, and his Hudl film had him on the outside, but at 6’0” and splitting time at corner in high school. I think Hopkins was just the most talented athlete on his team and that’s where such guys are usually put – he may naturally be more suited to the inside in college. Miller and Onovughe look like natural flankers and Jack said they’re exciting athletes but very raw right now as route-runners, and thinks they’re more likely to need to redshirt and develop. Jack said he likes Page the most of the group as a developmental candidate, and his frame looks very promising, but he’s so skinny for his height right now at just 175 lbs that I have to think he takes a year at the training table to bulk up and be ready for serious play.

It looks like the inside receiver options are a lot clearer. The three portal additions are USF’s mid 3-star #5 WR Horn at 5’10”, JSU’s Willie Gaines at 5’9”, and Auburn’s low 4-star Tar’varish Dawson at 5’11”. They’ve also added two mid 3-star scholarship prep recruits, #82 WR Waseem at 5’11” and Isaiah Hardge at 5’10”, and there’s a notable walk-on true freshman in #13 WR Mathis at 5’9”.

Like the other USF wideout Weaver, Horn is a virtual lock for the slot receiver position. He was dressed for the Spring game but held out with a minor injury, and has been extensively discussed in local media as already having the job secured. Horn was the Bulls’ starter in the slot as both a true freshman and sophomore the last two seasons, and additionally is a pretty impressive sweep man with over 10 yards per carry on usually one per game. I think the second guy in — or opposite Horn if they go four-wide — is Gaines, he was one of their top two inside guys at JSU last year. Jack said Dawson looks good despite his stats not showing it and only seeing the field sparingly the last two years, and that he was poised to take over the Auburn wide receiver room in 2023 had he stayed (my contacts on the Plains deny this, though judging by how poorly that team has developed receivers over the last five years it wouldn’t take much to climb to the top).

Waseem and Mathis (son of the CB coach and much more developed-looking than his walk-on status might indicate) were both in the slot during the Spring game and seemed like they could be playable in a pinch; Mathis was actually with the ones although again, they had very few available bodies and that might not mean anything. Hardge doesn’t arrive until the Fall and I think is the least likely to see the field; despite being listed in CU’s press releases as a wideout recruit, Jack said he thinks Hardge will ultimately move to the defensive back room since he played both ways in high school and may be a better fit there (his brother Ron played DB at Oregon State). It’s also possible that the freshman RB Edwards plays in the slot if they need him to since he got some Spring practice there, or the polished freshman Hopkins whom I had tabbed as a outside receiver instead plays inside.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Colorado at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the six years since Colorado went 10-4 and won the Pac-12 South in 2016, they’ve suffered a severe offensive slide, though the various causes have been staggered over time – they’ve pretty much always had good backs and pass-catchers, they had the same QB who led them to the title game for the following three seasons through 2019 in Steven Montez, and they kept going back and forth with coordinator Darrin Chiaverini. The one throughline for all of it, however, has been absolutely terrible offensive line play.

For a short while it looked like it might turn around towards the end of 2019 under former OL coach Chris Kapilovic and with some future NFL talent, but he left with head coach Mel Tucker to Michigan State. The o-line had a decent 2020 season with some of the better-trained guys sticking around (though covid-related distortions to opposing d-lines probably had something to do with it), but then the departures and terrible coaching from Kapilovic’s replacement caught up to the Buffs in 2021 and the line play was horrible, getting the replacement fired midseason and forcing a GA to take over for the last seven games. The new coach in 2022, working with effectively the same group of 2018 and 2019 recruits whose development had been so thoroughly sabotaged, wasn’t able to do any better, and of course he was let go along with the entire staff.

New OL coach O’Boyle, the sixth for the Buffs in as many years, inherits only three scholarship returners: #69 LT Christian-Lichtenhan, #55 C Wells, and #77 OL C. Edwards. I saw Christian-Lichtenhan and Wells with the ones in the Spring game and after talking with Jack I believe they’ll be the starting left tackle and center in 2023.

Christian-Lichtenhan was a low 3-star from 2020 who redshirted then got a little backup play in 2021, and then played about half of all snaps last year – he graded out pretty poorly in protection for me, although he’s absolutely huge at 6’10” he’s just as slow-footed as you’d expect at that size and has real problems against top edge rushers. Wells was a mid 3-star true freshman last year and was also thrown in for about half of all snaps due to all the experimentation with this half-baked unit; he split time between left guard and center and got run over a lot up the middle at 285 lbs. Edwards was also a mid 3-star in the 2022 cycle, but he redshirted and was with the threes at LG in Spring; I don’t think he’s really in the mix for 2023.

The three other linemen with the ones in the Spring game were the 2-star from JSU #56 LG Ty. Brown, mid 3-star Juco #50 RG Wilty, and the low 3-star from Kent St #78 RT Washington. There will be several more additions to the room, but only two of them had enrolled for Spring practices: mid 3-star Juco #71 OL Jatta who was playing LT with the twos but Jack thinks will be a backup LG in the Fall, and the 4-star from Florida Yousef Mugharbil who played LG with the twos and has since transferred back out.

Washington is another enormous tackle at 6’8”, though he looks like he moves better, and is more accustomed to the pace of play from starting last year in Lewis’ offense. I wasn’t wild about JSU’s line in 2022, and that was at the FCS level, so I was surprised to see the staff put Brown ahead of Mugharbil, a former bluechip, and Jatta, the 7th ranked Juco OL in the 24/7 composite.

There are six incoming linemen for the Fall. The four portal additions are the 2-star from Kent St Jack Bailey, the low 3-star from FCS Missouri St Landon Bebee, the mid 3-star from Florida David Conner, and the low 3-star from Liberty Reggie Young. There’s also a mid 3-star Juco Kareem Harden, and a low 3-star prep recruit Hank Zilinskas.

Since Bailey started for O’Boyle the last year and a half, Jack said he’s likely to displace Wilty as the starting RG (Jack also suggested that since Bailey’s been playing next to Washington for a year, that may mitigate my longstanding concern about portal-based o-lines, an interesting thought). I’d be a bit worried about the size issue, since his last listing of 280 lbs at Kent St loses 30 lbs compared to Wilty.

The rest of the incoming players look like either backup guards, or too young or undersized to play in 2023. Bebee can apparently play all five spots and was an FCS All-American, though at 275 lbs. Young was last listed at 270 lbs. Conner and Zilinskas are both freshmen and undersized as well. I think Harden has a shot at playing time, and it’s likely a fight between the three Jucos — Harden, Jatta, and Wilty – for the sixth man, though he’s the smallest of the three at 290 lbs.

There’s plenty of depth here at guard, enough that I wonder if Fall camp will have some position battles as I’m not particularly keen on Brown or Wells’ film to date and almost all of the new arrivals appear to be interior OL candidates. I’m not sold on the depth at tackle, however – I’d be concerned about Christian-Lichtenhan’s blocking grades and ability to handle the pace of Lewis’ offense, and that it doesn’t appear they have any obvious backup prospects. Jatta or Bebee seem like the closest they have but when I pressed Jack on it he really seemed to think that they should be interior players.

Colorado only has 13 scholarship o-linemen, which is generally considered too few in a normal, organically developing room, and this is anything but. I was shocked that the Buffs only took one prep recruit, but even of the portal additions I would want to see two or three more depth pieces added here, especially at tackle. (Jack mentioned Harden’s Juco teammate Isaiah Walker making a campus visit the day we recorded; he’d earlier signed with Purdue but won’t enroll there and has been released from his NLI, but Syracuse is also in pursuit.)


Like the offense, head coach Sanders brought many of the JSU defensive assistants with him to Colorado but with a different coordinator, as last year’s DC Thurman will have an off-field role in Boulder as “Director of Quality Control.” The Buffs’ new DC Kelly had been Alabama’s safeties coach for the last four seasons (he’ll also coach that position for Colorado), where the Tide have been running the Mint defensive structure for about the past decade.

That’s a significant change in structure from the 4-2-5 that Kelly had run as DC for Florida St for four years, from 2014-17, although both teams were accustomed to working with top-ten talent, and produced top-ten defenses. The 4-down structure at FSU that Kelly ran was fairly traditional, with a pair of one-gapping DTs and a pair of DEs lined up outside the offensive tackles to set the edge and rush the passer. In Colorado’s Spring game, I was seeing something pretty recognizable as a 3-down Mint structure that should be familiar to Oregon fans by now, with a nose and big 4i inside the tackles, and a 5-tech over the other tackle with a “Jack” weakside OLB opposite him.

The nose and 4i appear to be the responsibility of DT coach Sunseri — who came over from Alabama with Kelly after the initial hire, Patrick Hill from LSU, left for an NFL job – and I’ll discuss them as DTs since that’s Sunseri’s job description. The 5-tech and OLB seem to be under DE coach Williams, their up-and-coming d-line recruiter as Jack tells it, and I’ll discuss them separately as such.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

There’s only one returner who would fit in the DT room according to Jack, which is #90 DT Main. He came in as a Juco last year after an FCS stint, looked to be around 250 lbs, and played off the edge (although in a pretty different structure). Main has since graduated and was away from the team during Spring ball, but he’s now back with the team and Jack said he’s “somehow” bulked up by 25 lbs in two months and will fit in as a 4i at 275 lbs. That should be interesting to see in Fall camp, I think Conway Twitty wrote a song about this.

In the Spring game they only had four guys available who could play nose or 4i, two of whom were playing with the second and third team defense and transferred out afterwards. The two grad transfers playing with the ones were #99 DT Cokes from Dartmouth at nose and #55 DT Payne from Fresno St at 4i. Jack said he thinks they’ll flip positions in the Fall and I think I understand why, Cokes is undersized for nose at 275 lbs and Payne is quite possibly the biggest guy they’ll have at 310. I believed Jack when he told us that the staff really likes Cokes and he’ll probably get a starting role, and that 4i is a better position for him so they only had him at nose in the Spring game for lack of bodies. However, I’ve been watching Payne for several years now due to multiple Fresno St film review projects and I don’t think he’s well suited to start at nose tackle, it’s simply not at all the structure or technique he’s coming from. The consistent drawback from Payne’s film I observed was stamina: he never played more than about a quarter of all snaps in a game and tended to dog it for much of even those, and Jack relayed that Sunseri has said the issue is effort.

The three Fall additions to the room whom Jack and I have penciled in as noses are mid 3-star Amari McNeill from Tennessee, high 3-star Bishop Thomas from Florida St, and low 3-star Chazz Wallace from Old Dominion. Jack and I disagreed a bit about who’ll win the starting job here, he thinks it’ll be Payne or McNeill. I think Payne may technically get the start but not play the majority of reps, instead I think that’ll go to Wallace as the most experienced and accomplished starter at his old school. McNeill and Thomas simply haven’t played very much – the latter is a redshirt freshman – and experience is usually the trump card on the line.

In addition to Cokes and Main at 4i, the two Fall additions look like mid 3-star JJ Hawkins from Ole Miss and 2-star Juco Zack Blackwood. Hawkins hasn’t played much for Ole Miss and when I reviewed that defense for a different project I didn’t think he was handling the pressure that dime defense asked of the few guys with any beef, but this is a better structure. I’d expect a starting job for Cokes, a Fall battle between Main and Hawkins to be the second man in, and Blackwood at cleanup.

For all the abuse that Colorado’s defense has taken in recent years, I’ve never really thought the interior defensive line has been the problem, and have rather liked guys like Mustafa Johnson, Terrence Lang, Na’im Rodman, and Jalen Sami – the first two are now in the pros and the last two landed at other Power-5 schools. My guess is that the replacements in the new defense will be at around the same value, or if they are an improvement, it won’t be a particularly significant one.

The exterior of the line, however, looks like an almost wholesale talent upgrade compared to last year. There’s only one putative scholarship returner remaining at this point, low 3-star #33 DE Gustav, but I’ve never seen him play a meaningful rep since signing in 2018 then greyshirting, including in this year’s Spring game when he wasn’t listed on the printout and his jersey number was given to a DB (who then transferred out). That led me to wonder whether Gustav is actually on the team, and at any rate Jack said he’s unlikely to contribute this year, meaning it’ll be an entirely new set of players at both 5-tech and OLB.

Only three of the eleven new players Colorado brought in here were available for the Spring game, and as it happens two of those seem to no longer be with this group, so there’s a lot of guesswork involved for these positions. Fortunately one of them is pretty easy, grad transfer #44 OLB Domineck was with the ones in the Spring and I think is a lock for the starting Jack position. He originally signed with Georgia Tech in 2018, played in three games as a true freshman then became a starter at the end of his second season and into his third and fourth in Atlanta, then transferred to Arkansas as a full-time starter for his fifth year. His 137 career tackles and 16.5 sacks in the ACC and SEC make him by far the most experienced and accomplished player in the defensive front.

The Jack playing with the twos behind Domineck was #42 LB J. Brown, one of JSU’s starters last year, but I think he was out of position and that was just because of how few available bodies they had, and Jack confirmed that he’ll be moving to inside backer on the podcast. Every other player I saw has transferred out, including one of the portal additions who’d come in for the Spring, Taylor Upshaw from Michigan, who was playing 5-tech with the twos. He completed his degree that term and so was able to transfer again with immediate eligibility to Arizona.

For the Fall, there are eight more additions to the exterior of the line to sort out. Five are from the FBS: high 3-star Derrick McLendon from FSU, mid 3-star Taijh Alston from WVU, mid 3-star Arden Walker from Mizzou, mid 3-star Deeve Harris from ODU, and 5-star Sav’ell Smalls from UW. Two are unrated FCS transfers: Khairi Manns from Maine is on scholarship while Tristan Marois from Robert Morris is not. There’s just one prep recruit, high 3-star Taje McCoy.

Jack and I agree that McClendon will probably be the starter at 5-tech opposite Domineck – he’s the most talented in the room, has the best build for it, and was a starter on a 10-win team with the 35th ranked F+ defense last year. I think that Alston will be the primary backup, he played essentially the identical role in WVU’s defense, I just like McClendon’s tape and greater production more. Walker probably fits in as a 5-tech as well though he’s from the 2021 cycle and hasn’t played much so he’ll probably be a developmental player. Jack suggested McCoy might see the field as a true freshman, his build looks like he might be suited for this spot if so.

My best guess is that Harris becomes the primary backup behind Domineck at OLB, that job fits his build better at 6’2” 230 lbs, and he’s got 23 games of serious FBS production under his belt (all at ODU, he was at Minnesota for his first two years but didn’t play there). I think the rest of the group are OLBs – I know Smalls was, though he can’t set the edge and has produced nothing of note as a pass rusher so I think he’s third at best in the rotation, and while I haven’t been able to acquire Manns and Marois’ FCS film they were both pretty productive at that level last year, and their builds look like they’re suited for dropping into pass coverage.

I think Domineck and McClendon are both high quality starters and they’ve got some really solid depth behind them, whereas I think that the edges of last year’s d-line were some of the weakest in the conference. That makes this group the biggest upgrade, in my opinion, anywhere on the defense.

Colorado v Oregon Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

There appear to be eight scholarship inside linebackers, which in normal circumstances would be fine for a two-spot unit, but this room breaks Colorado’s pattern of 80% portal additions and as such I’m not sure they currently have enough playable bodies here. There’s one returner remaining, #25 ILB Ham, a borderline 4-star from the 2019 class and a career backup with limited playing time the last four years. I think that could fairly describe two of the three other portal additions as well who are also 2019 4-stars: #20 ILB Bentley from Clemson who had five linebackers ahead of him last year, and Brendan Gant who’s a converted safety from FSU and had four DBs ahead of him last year.

In addition to Brown, the JSU transfer who was playing OLB in Spring but should be inside in the Fall, there’s just one other portal addition, borderline 5-star Demouy Kennedy from Alabama. He played on special teams and a little running back his first two years in 2020 and 2021, then one or two backup reps in 2022 before a gruesome injury in week 5 ended his season (I happened to see it while watching film for another project and it was stomach-turning; Jack said he’s just now getting back to playing speed).

There are three prep recruits here: high 3-star #56 ILB Pearson and mid 3-star #57 ILB V. Johnson (younger brother of the fullback) enrolled early but I only saw the latter in the Spring game with the threes, and mid 3-star Kofi Taylor-Barrocks arrives in the Fall. Jack said all three will probably redshirt or see only a little garbage time play and are unlikely to seriously be in the mix, leaving them just five non-freshmen to work with.

It’s hard to know what to make of this room. Jack relayed that the staff wants Kennedy to start, which is an interesting vote of confidence; despite the injury and not really seeing the field in three years, Kennedy was in practices for Kelly to watch at Alabama all that time … but none of the rest of us have seen him at all. Apparently Bentley was a great locker room guy at Clemson, though I’m not sure how that translates to on-field production, and he was the only one besides Ham available in Spring. Evidently Gant’s skillset is more like a linebacker but he could never put adequate weight on; his most recent listing was 200 lbs and I’m not sure why CU’s training table would be more effective than FSU’s, and he still hasn’t enrolled yet to get at it.

I have a hard time believing Ham is their best option – he couldn’t break into a pretty bad room in Boulder for years. The three FBS transfers were highly recruited players at schools that routinely haul in top ten classes, so I understand being hidden for a bit. But they’ve each had several seasons to step out of the shadows and none of them have yet, and I just don’t have enough to go on for any of them to pick out who’s going to win starting jobs. It’s possible the staff simply defaults to Brown, despite being a much lower rated FCS transfer, because he’s the only one with starting experience and LB coach Hart brought him from JSU.

I thought the linebackers were the biggest liability on the defense last year, more so even than the edges, and as such getting even one good backer out of this group would constitute a significant upgrade … and I’d give them good odds of finding one. But I don’t think they’ve done enough to hedge their bets here so far. To get what they need for a high quality unit – two great starters, plus a no-dropoff backup – out of the pool of options they’re assembled would require a hit rate that’s much higher than it’s safe to assume, in my experience. For that reason I wouldn’t be surprised if they sought out some more portal additions to expand the pool by the Fall, but when I brought that up on the podcast Jack said he thinks the staff is done here.

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Colorado should have eight scholarship defensive backs in the Fall for the three safety positions – boundary, field, and the STAR nickel – though only three of those eight were enrolled in the Spring so we saw a couple of walk-ons and several guys who’d later transfer out during the Spring game. The only remaining returner is #43 DB Woods, who was at his customary field safety spot with the ones.

The two portal additions available for Spring were low 4-star #22 DB Slusher from Arkansas at nickel and low 3-star #7 DB Silmon-Craig from JSU at boundary. In the Fall they’ll add the remaining five guys: mid 3-star Shilo Sanders (the QB’s older brother) from JSU and South Carolina before that, Rodrick Ward from FCS Southern Utah, high 3-star Vito Tisdale from Kentucky, mid 4-star Travis Jay from FSU, and mid 3-star prep recruit Jaden Milliner-Jones.

Of the former FCS guys, Silmon-Craig was a starter last year at JSU at strong safety, while Sanders started at free safety in the second half of the season (he was rehabbing an ACL injury for the first). Ward was a pretty effective nickelback for SUU.

The FBS transfers have higher talent ratings but have been in and out of the lineup at their schools. Slusher was a part-time starter in 2021, moved to nickel in 2022 but struggled with multiple injuries and a suspension so only played in a few games. Tisdale was more of a box safety in the structure of UK’s defense and a vicious hitter (unusual to see in a lightweight player at 170 lbs), he played backup as a true freshman and sophomore but missed last year with an ACL tear. Jay had a promising 2020 season after missing his true freshman year with academic eligibility problems, then I thought he stepped back a bit on his 2021 film (they had him playing some backup corner too which was a big mistake, he’s not great in coverage), and missed 2022 for academic reasons again.

I’ve been charting the returner Woods for two seasons, as a backup his true freshman year in 2021 and last year as a starter. I understand why Jack likes him so much, his instincts and head for the game are great, but he has mixed grades on my tally sheet in terms of getting to the play on time and effectively tackling bigger backs and tight ends which amount to what I think is a talent ceiling. Jack said the true freshman Milliner-Jones is likely to be a field safety like Woods but will probably redshirt.

There are plenty of options at the boundary and nickel positions here, though it’s tricky picking between FCS starters and Power-5 second-chancers. I’ll default to the guys who enrolled early, Slusher and Silmon-Craig, simply because they got a head start, with Ward backing up Slusher while Jay and Tisdale fight it out for boundary or maybe a nickel backup spot. Jack said he thinks that Sanders will take Woods’ starting field spot on pure nepotism, which isn’t a great reason, though to be honest I’ve watched both of their film and I’m not in love with either one and think they’ll wind up just trading off.

I didn’t think Colorado’s safeties were very good last year, with a huge amount of explosive plays given up in the first half of the season directly through poor angles, though when they fired their DC midseason the interim changed up how they played midfield defense and that got cut down a lot. Their best guy Mark Perry left the year before and helped TCU get to the national title game, the second best guy was Woods. Half the group coming from the FCS and the other half missing so much playing time gives me pause when projecting this group’s ceiling, but it’s hard to imagine they’re not an upgrade on 2022.

There are no returning scholarship cornerbacks on the roster. Colorado got two prep recruits and five portal additions, though one of those, Tayvion Beasley from JSU, transferred back out after playing with the twos in the Spring game.

The four remaining transfer corners are the 5-star Hunter and borderline 4-star #15 CB Breedlove who were with the ones in the Spring, and low 4-stars Omarion Cooper from FSU and Jahquez Robinson from Alabama who enroll in the Fall. The prep recruits are also Fall additions, 5-star Cormani McClain and mid 3-star Carter Stoutmire.

Cooper was a starter last year and a frequently used backup the year before as a true freshman. His film has been inconsistent and certainly showed growing pains but in my opinion that’s how the trajectory goes for corners and he was on track for a pretty good junior year, so it was baffling to me that Cooper switched to safety in Tallahassee earlier this year then hit the portal, only to re-emerge as a corner again in a crowded room. Despite reviewing Ole Miss and Alabama’s recent film for other projects I haven’t seen Breedlove or Robinson at all, they effectively haven’t played over their two and three seasons respectively. Stoutmire will probably redshirt, there’s no reason to expect a mid 3-star Fall enrollee to break out in this room.

Obviously Hunter has one of the starting spots locked down. For the other, Jack said that there’s too much juice with McClain to redshirt him, which I was expecting – if it were me I’d ask for some patience out of a late-arriving freshman because talent in corners still needs to get tempered with experience, but then I’m not the greatest NFL cornerback of all time so who am I to question the coach. But I wasn’t expecting Jack to say that Cooper was on the bottom of the list behind Breedlove and Robinson. I have a hard time believing that Cooper’s experience doesn’t put him as the primary backup, possibly with something like equal playing time to McClain by the end of the year, considering that Breedlove and Robinson have none of it … unless there’s something weird with Cooper’s history I don’t know about.

One of the things Jack and I discussed on a different podcast last Fall (starting at 1:03:54) was that Colorado survived giving up their starting corners from 2021, Christian Gonzalez and Mekhi Blackmon, by training up Nikko Reed and Kaylin Moore for 2022 – all of whom landed at Power-5 programs – and that nobody was throwing against the Buffs’ corners over the last two years. Now, a large part of that was the nobody had to, because linebacker and safety play has been so bad that the middle of the field was always open to attack. Still, it’s my opinion from watching all their film that, like the interior defensive line, the outside corners haven’t really been the problem for CU in recent years. So even though it’s clear there’s a significant increase in the talent of this unit in 2023, in terms of what that means to how the defense is actually attacked, I think the gain to the bottom line will be relatively modest.

Accountability Corner

Last year’s preview is fairly quaint to read now, considering the disaster of a season and that the entire staff and virtually entire roster has since been replaced, but checking it for accuracy is about the integrity of the process. The offensive section calls out the former head coach for mismanaging the team and trying to fit a square peg in a round hole in terms of doubling down on a pro-style offense without anywhere close to the roster for it, and that’s ultimately the biggest cause for their 1-11 season and his firing (the article also highlights the most important factor for this year, which was lifting the draconian progress-towards-degree requirements that had prevented CU from taking advantage of the transfer portal). The prediction for the starting QB and the problems with the room were accurate, though I didn’t expect for them to take a flier on the true freshman as the second guy. The RB, TE, and WR predictions were all exactly correct, including a couple that were called off very little film from last year, and I’m pretty proud of those sections. I got the four initial starters at OL correct, as well as the two guys they rotated initially at center, and of course the overall prediction that it would be a disaster. However, I specifically predicted that they would not play some very young linemen (whom I didn’t even name, but I’ll own) that CU did in Christian-Lichtenhan and Wells, who are now looking like 2023 starters. To be fair the former was due to an injury to both the starter and the correctly predicted backup, and the latter was a continuation of the correct prediction that “the search for a viable center is going to last through the Fall and may never be satisfactorily resolved.” Still, while ultimately my incorrect predictions about Dorrell’s tenure on offense were few and far between, there was a running theme to them: firing the OC and OL coach, and trying out freshman QB and OL – these are more adventurous than I credited Dorrell with being, instead constantly describing him as “conservative.” While I clearly judged his overall effectiveness correctly, I think I had that detail a bit off.

There wasn’t a more accurate defensive squad that I wrote up all year than Colorado’s. I got every single player and backup correct, and all of their relative qualities, with only two exceptions: I didn’t know a certain DE was going to be kicked off the team at the beginning of the year, and I was somewhat (though not very) surprised that a returning starting safety lost his job to a backup as part of the midseason coaching change. If I have a regret at all it’s that I didn’t bang the drum hard enough for how bad I thought this defense would be – it’s clear enough reading between the lines, particularly the units that really caused the problems in the middle of the field at linebacker and safety, but there’s no reason to be coy in these articles. I think my attitude was trying to find whatever bits of sunshine where I could to keep the article from being a total downer, but I should have at least put in a “to be clear” statement at the top.

Oregon State v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images