Brooks: Ambrose Steps Into Well-Stocked Secondary
BOULDER - Ashley Ambrose considers himself fortunate, but not simply because he landed an assistant's job on the Colorado football staff coaching the position he played in the NFL.
Any coach at any level will tell you his success likely will be in direct proportion to his players' talent and experience. And this is where Ambrose believes his good fortune is grounded.
In his first full-time coaching gig (he was CU's defensive technical intern for the past two seasons), Ambrose, 38, isn't charged with breaking in an entirely new secondary. To the contrary, he finds himself working with a pair of experienced fifth-year senior cornerbacks, a savvy junior safety who has played in every game for the past two seasons and a sophomore safety whose potential is off the charts.
Moreover, working alongside and behind that foursome are enough other veterans and gifted young players to give Ambrose hope beyond 2010. Of course, all that's sweet and flowery in April must remain that way through November - particularly during a year as critical as this for CU football.
But Ambrose, who played professionally (New Orleans, Atlanta) under former Buffs secondary coach Greg Brown, has a very good feeling about his break-in season and the players he's coaching - particularly experienced corners Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown.
"It could just as easily be two freshmen out there . . . those guys are athletically gifted," Ambrose said. "Now it's getting them to understand what we're doing and making them feel more confident in what they're doing.
"I thank God I've got a chance to work with guys like that. With their athletic ability, they can make some plays, and when they put that with knowledge, they can make way more plays."
Currently working in the No. 1 secondary with Smith and Brown are junior safety Anthony Perkins and sophomore safety Ray Polk. Perkins, said Ambrose, knows his assignments as well as those of every other DB: "He's the leader, he knows the defense in and out . . . he can tell you what the corners are doing, what the other safety is doing - everything. He gets those guys in order back there."
At times, Polk, who transferred from offense (tailback) only a year ago, needs someone to bring order to his new world. But he continues to learn on the fly - and the good news is that flying (this guy can run) is an asset that often allows him to correct technical errors before they become disasters.
"He's got all the tools - height, size, speed . . . everything you want in a safety," Ambrose said. "Now, it's a matter of him getting it down like 'Perk.' If he can do that . . . you're talking about a guy who's only been at it for one year. He's steadily getting better, but there's still a lot of growing to do. He'll make a lot of plays."
Polk's considerable up-side allowed the move of junior Pat Mahnke, a safety in his two previous seasons, to inside linebacker/nickel back. Ambrose and the other defensive assistants believe it's a natural switch for Mahnke, as does Mahnke.
"It's all about finding guys' niches," Ambrose said, and even before pads were put on last month, new enrollee Josh Moten's niche was becoming apparent.
Recruited as an athlete and fairly certain he would get a spring look at quarterback, Moten instead began winter work at cornerback. He hasn't looked back; neither has Ambrose.
"Moten is climbing up the charts really fast," Ambrose said. "The kid is really a natural at what he's doing. He never played DB; he was always a quarterback. He's naturally talented, but he's still trying to figure out defenses.
"That's another thing - me sitting down with him and helping him understand why he's doing it. But he's been very good about that. He's very instinctive; he just makes plays. I can see some good things for him. He has the feet, the hips . . . he's going to make some mistakes but he hasn't been grading out bad for me."
Moten is among a threesome running behind Smith and Brown, with the other two being redshirt freshmen Deji Olatoye and Paul Vigo. A third redshirt freshman, Parker Orms, has blossomed as a versatile nickel back - the role previously filled by graduated Cha'pelle Brown.
Other players practicing this spring who figure to contend for playing time in the secondary include experienced juniors Travis Sandersfeld and Arthur Jaffee, who finished 1-2 last season in special teams points; junior Jonathan Hawkins, and sophomore Vince Ewing.
Orms is 5-foot-11, 180 pounds - and head coach Dan Hawkins contends "15 pounds" of that is heart. "He's a bigger, faster Cha'pelle . . . right now, he's probably the best nickel guy we have," Ambrose said.
"Cha'pelle was very instinctive and knew the game; you can tell that with this kid. You put him in there, ask him to do something . . . he'll make a few mistakes, but he just makes plays. He leads the team in spring interceptions, he's got sacks, third-down stops, fumble recoveries . . . he's filling up the stat sheet, he's a stat guy."
Greg Brown didn't see much of Orms last fall, but before his winter move to Arizona as co-defensive coordinator, he had huge hopes for Vigo and Olatoye, saying they were from the same mold as players he remembered from his first CU tour (early 1990s).
Ambrose calls Vigo "a tweener" - either a corner or safety - who is still trying to find his best fit. But the athletic Olatoye, who is 15 pounds heavier (195) than when he reported last summer, is cast in the right role - cover corner.
Asked what he believes he's shown thus far through spring drills, Olatoye said, "My 'physicalness;' I'm showing that not only can I cover, but I can also tackle, make hits."
Ambrose isn't alone in reaping the benefits of Smith's and Jalil Brown's experience. The players backing them up are, too. Said Olatoye: "They're pretty much teaching me everything - footwork, how to backpedal, where I should line up. They're great teachers; this is priceless for me. I'm getting experience I could never pay back."
Polk believes his biggest spring strides have come in "reading things faster . . . it's all coming to me a lot quicker. That's basically from focusing on your keys and getting in the film room and watching film."
Players believe the coaching transition has been smooth. Initially, Ambrose was scheduled to coach the receivers, succeeding Hawkins. But after Greg Brown's departure, maintaining continuity in the secondary dictated that Ambrose remain with the players he had helped coach.
While Ambrose undoubtedly benefitted from Greg Brown's expertise, he's tried to assemble "all the things I've learned throughout my career (including 13 NFL seasons)" and present that package to his players.
"It was a little different from when I played; I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing," he said. "But now, (coaching it) is a little different . . . I know what to do as far as technique. The thing now is trying to instill it in their minds and have them have a better understanding of it. It takes time.
"A lot of the guys, even guys like Jimmy and Jalil, are asking a lot of questions. Sometimes I just have to get away from the drill part of it and just teach them there on the spot. Sometimes you need that, instead of them just doing the drill and not understanding why they're doing it like that."
Some 2009 coverages and terminology have been altered, said Polk: "A lot of the stuff we ran last year has changed, but everybody is making fast adjustments. We had a new install (Tuesday) and we pretty much figured it out 20 minutes before practice. We've got a lot of young DBs, but they're really learning it fast. It's really cool to watch them learn it quickly . . . everybody has made huge strides."
As for any personality differences between Ambrose and Greg Brown, Olatoye has noticed nothing major: "Brown was more of a relaxed type of guy . . . he treated us very professional, kind of like NFL. Coach Ambrose is very similar, but I think he's making us work a little harder because he is a first-year coach and he has to prove himself also."
Which makes Ambrose as demanding as Brown. "You blow a technique the first time, both would let you know," Olatoye continued. "You blow it a second time, both let you know a little more intensely. There's no difference there."
The Buffs entered spring drills with better tackling topping coordinator Ron Collins' to-do list. In Ambrose's area, it's even more critical.
"We work on it every day," he said. "I'm never going to be pleased. That was one of 'Perk's' minuses last year. He was the leader in missed tackles in the secondary. He's got to get better in the open field, open space.
"But he and the rest have been so much better; he's understanding what he was doing (wrong). They've got to remember, we're the last line of defense; if we miss it, it's a touchdown."
Ambrose's vantage point last season was different, but he still witnessed too many of those. This season, the fewer the better.
SCRIMMAGE UPDATE (Friday, 2 p.m.): The weather appears to be holding, so it's a go for Friday's scrimmage at Folsom Field. The team will have some individual drills on the practice fields but will then move up to Folsom around 4:45 or so for the actual scrimmage.
BUFF BITS: The Buffs spent the final portion of Thursday's work inside their practice bubble - the first time they've gone indoors this spring . . . Reiterating the plan for simplicity on offense, coordinator/quarterbacks coach Eric Kiesau said over the last six practices, only two running plays have been used. But they've been run out of different formations. Kiesau said before spring drills began that the run schemes likely would consist of five basic plays . . . . Although redshirt freshman Seth Lobato is spending more time in quarterback than receiver meetings, he's getting a look at wideout. "He's 6-5 and can run," Kiesau said. "We joke that he's our Kerry Meier" - the former Kansas quarterback-turned-receiver . . . . Lobato's audition at receiver comes, in part, because of the presence of freshman quarterback Nick Hirschman, a January enrollee. Hirschman is taking most of the snaps with the No. 3 offense, running behind junior Tyler Hansen and senior Cody Hawkins. Hirschman says he'll redshirt if that's what the coaches want him to do . . . . The Buffs' spring enthusiasm has been "off the charts . . . the best it's ever been," according to Kiesau, because of the players' overall experience, their confidence in what they're doing, and the plays they've been making throughout the spring . . . . Four practices are scheduled next week, culminating with the spring game (Saturday, April 10, 1:30 p.m.) at Folsom Field.