Brooks: Young D-Line Determined
BOULDER - Since August camp began - and actually several weeks before - it's been difficult for Marquez Herrod to tune out, or even turn down, the noise.
Here's the annoying perception: If there is a questionable sector on Colorado's defense, it's the one Herrod inhabits - the D-line.
"We hear every day: 'You're not good enough, you're not big enough, you're not fast enough,'" said Herrod, an intensely competitive junior defensive end.
"Everybody on the line agrees; it looks like everybody (outside) wants to see us fall," he continued. "Everybody is saying the linebackers are there to clean up our mistakes. Well, we ain't going to make no mistakes.
"I feel like we're being challenged every day. I want to come out every day and prove somebody wrong. And that's what I think our whole mentality is this year as a D-line - show people what we can do."
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Herrod is the most experienced returnee in an area that lost a trio of three-year starters to graduation - tackles George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas, end Maurice Lucas - and needs to regroup and reload. Reconfiguring also might factor into the equation.
But proving anything to outsiders, those hoisting the most perceptible question marks over the D-line, isn't the objective, said sophomore tackle Curtis Cunningham: "Mostly, we've just got to prove it to ourselves.
"We lost three huge impact players on the D-line . . . It'll take a group effort to fill those holes. We want the whole defense to be good."
And from most early indications, it can be -- if what will be a young and largely inexperienced front can get from 0 to 60 (or close) in a very short time.
Asked if the question marks above his bunch are justified, D-line coach Romeo Bandison laughed boisterously and answered, "Is that a trick question?
"If you take a major company and the founder and the CEO leave and you hire all new managing staff, yeah, in that way it makes sense that all those questions are justified.
"From an experience standpoint, yeah, experience is important. Freshmen aren't going to play like seniors. Curtis (Cunningham) is not going to play like those three-year starters inside.
"But these guys are working hard; I like what they're doing. And obviously, we've got work to do. We've got young guys and everybody still learning . . . but we're heading in the right direction."
Of course, Bandison (and all of his peers nationwide) would rather start each season with experienced, talented veterans filling every spot.
But, hey, this is college football and there are issues such as graduation and eligibility to be considered. And there's no NCAA waiver wire available to help restock a roster.
Starting from scratch, or close to it, must be done every several years - and this is one of them for the Buffaloes. Bandison recruited what appeared to be a quartet of capable D-linemen, but lost one to eligibility (nose tackle Edward Nuckols) before camp began.
Another (end Nick Kasa) went down with a partially torn MCL last week, leaving tackle Nate Bonsu and end Forrest West to shore up teammates not much more experienced than them.
But the youth in Bandison's area might hold a hidden benefit. The camp competition has been fierce, as good as Bandison has had entering his fourth year at CU, and there are only two seniors (Taj Kaynor, Tyler Sale) on the D-line depth chart.
"Oh yeah . . . everybody is kind of the same age, with the same experience," Bandison said. "And everybody is somewhat similar in their abilities.
"There's so much (competition) right now . . . those guys are working hard because they're trying to earn playing time. I think everybody gets motivated by certain things - if you tell them, 'Hey, you know what? I'm not sure if you're good enough' - that's going to motivate a guy.
"I think to some degree, the guys are motivated by all the doubters. But we have big shoes to fill. They understand it . . . we just do what we do. We try to develop these guys and get them to do all the right things, make them good ball players and smart ball players - that's our main focus.
"It's not so much to prove everybody wrong or not be the weak link. I don't know what all's out there (the public perception). But everybody has pride, everybody wants to do well, everybody wants to play - and those guys are competing for that starting job and playing time.
"Behind George and Brandon (last year) there was quite a bit of difference there with the next guys. They had really tight games, and I went with guys who had proved themselves."
This August, with returning players presenting short resumes, the proving ground has been the practice field. Prospects like Bonsu, a powerful but raw 295-pounder, and West, a speed rusher who weighs 245, have sensed an opportunity and seized upon it.
Both players arrived with the thought of playing immediately, "But the coaches just want us to keep working hard," Bonsu said. "They haven't told us anything. I'm pretty sure that's because they don't want us to think anybody's got anything locked up and get complacent."
Added West, who might have been the least celebrated of the incoming D-linemen: "I wasn't sure if it would happen, but I came in with the attitude that I wanted to (play immediately). I've given it all I have, so hopefully I'm going to be playing."
Bonsu's lower body strength has made a strong first impression on CU's offensive linemen. He's advanced in that area, but is a typical freshman in others - namely, proper technique with his hands, hips and feet.
Nonetheless, Bandison said Bonsu is "doing way better than I thought he would. I wasn't doubting his abilities, but for a freshman coming in at an inside position, he's doing well."
When West was recruited, coaches could see a potential sack specialist - something CU has had at the top of its wish list for several seasons.
That was West's forte in high school: "I've always gotten off the ball pretty quick," he said. "It's always been my favorite thing to do."
Quicker than most of the offensive linemen he faced in high school, West has had to ratchet up his game to match the one he's playing now.
"When I first got out here, I felt like when the running back got the ball I was so far away from him that I had no chance of making the play," he said. "But I think I've definitely adjusted to that."
If their development continues, Bonsu and West could be in Bandison's game-day rotation. Had Nuckols qualified and Kasa not been hurt, CU might have been looking at four true freshmen playing regularly along the defensive front.
"They're competing," Bandison said of Bonsu and West. "Right now, we're not saying, oh, those guys are going to redshirt . . . they're competing, they're hanging in there.
"They're doing very well for freshmen; they've been here all summer, so it paid off. Those guys are good players, and they all bring something different to the table."
Sophomore tackle Eugene Goree appears strong at that position, as does Cunningham at the other down position. But Bandison likes fresh legs and substitutes regularly, so his first eight players best be prepared.
Herrod, five pounds heavier (275) than he was last season, is playing well at one end, while Lagrone Shields, Conrad Obi and West are dueling at the other.
Herrod expects his game to take a sharp upturn this season: "I've gotten faster and I know this defense. That comes with experience and game time. Practice is one thing, but having that experience in the game - I've learned things, seen things and gotten a feel for it. I just have a better understanding of things this year."
CU could employ more linebackers (four) more often than in previous seasons, but even so, the defensive front usually still features a four-man alignment.
"The only thing different we've done as long as I've been on Hawk's (Dan Hawkins) staff is with three or four wides (on offense) you take a D-lineman out and put another DB in," Bandison said.
"As far as what we do, if you don't look at the jersey numbers and look at the fronts, they're all the same. One might be a 'liz' (outside) backer - maybe Doug Rippy or B.J. Beatty - at the end position."
A defensive mandate for the Buffs this season will be to strengthen the run defense. CU allowed 166.2 rushing yards a game last season (ninth in the Big 12 Conference, No. 86 nationally).
Improving on those stats starts at the line of scrimmage with Bandison's youngsters and filters back to a more experienced contingent of linebackers and defensive backs.
Bandison's small corps of "veterans" - namely Herrod and Cunningham, both of whom will be counted on for leadership - believe the new arrivals were made aware of how important details are at their positions.
"Game speed is a whole lot faster than practice speed, and just the whole mental aspect behind knowing our defense and all the details," Cunningham said. "I'm trying to lay that on the younger guys, so hopefully we can all have the same mindset."
"I feel confident about those (young) guys," Herrod said. "They came out ready to work. Nate Bonsu, the young guys, they showed up ready to work. They were dedicated this summer to learning the defense.
"We had 100 percent attendance, and that's what we needed. As long as you've got guys working, you can overcome."
But all know the question marks above their area will remain until their play eradicates them.
Said Goree: "I can see where (the questions are) coming from, because we are young and not a lot of us have experience. But we make up for it by coming together. We're familiar with each other and we have that chemistry.
"Brandon, George and Mo set the mark pretty high, but we're not going to live with that expectation. We're going to try and go beyond it."
THE LOWDOWN ON . . .
Coach: Romeo Bandison.
Returning starters: None.
Returnees: DE Marquez Herrod, Tony Poremba, Kevin Cooney, Lagrone Shields, Conrad Obi, David Goldberg; DT Curtis Cunningham, Taj Kaynor, Will Pericak, Joe Silipo; NT Eugene Goree, Eric Lawson, Tyler Sale.
Newcomers: NT Nate Bonsu, DE Nick Kasa (injured), Forrest West.
Key losses: DE Maurice Lucas, NT George Hypolite, DT Brandon Nicolas, Jason Brace (injury).
Stat line: In Lucas, Hypolite and Nicolas, CU is replacing a trio of three-year starters that accounted for 88 starts during a 111-game span. Of the Buffs' 24 quarterback sacks, half were registered by D-linemen, with Herrod contributing four.
Bottom line: Can you say "young talent?" Bandison's bunch might lack experience, but there are plenty of capable players in waiting. Goree, a 305-pound sophomore, and Bonsu, a 295-pound freshman, appear to be prototypical plugs in the middle, and Herrod, Shields, Obi and West are competing at the ends. Kasa had made huge strides until being sidelined by a partially torn medial collateral ligament early last week. He's trying to rehab the knee and avoid surgery.
NEXT: Wide receivers