Brooks: With DB Pool Restocked, Brown Looks To Rebound
(Note: Seventh in a series previewing the Buffs position-by-position during training camp. Today: Defensive backs.)
BOULDER - Greg Brown can look back at the 2011 football season, but he still can't laugh about it. Not now, maybe not ever. In his Colorado secondary last season, Murphy's Law went to work in early August and was drawing overtime by late November.
In addition to losing both starting corners to graduation (both went to the NFL), injuries took out one starting corner in week two and a pair of promising young corners in training camp. Both starting safeties survived camp but couldn't stay clear of the injury list for the entire season. And four defensive backs were suspended, including the team's leading tackler for four games.
By season's end, Brown's secondary was a plug-in operation. At corner, he was using a running back who had never played defense and a converted receiver (remember "Espy Island?") who hadn't played defense in three seasons. To fill one safety spot, he drafted a totally raw true freshman linebacker.
Can you say depleted? Brown could.
At the time, he said he had "never seen this many guys injured or gone for whatever reason. Our big problem has been depletion - big-time . . . it's tough, but we're going to play the hand we're dealt."
Brown wasn't dealt a hand as much he was backhanded, virtually slapped silly. A secondary stricken in August suddenly got worse and never recovered. The Buffs' pass defense felt the flames almost every week, allowing a Pac-12 Conference worst 34 touchdown passes and 255.4 air yards a game (ninth in the league).
Brown believes/hopes/prays the 2011 season's checklist of calamities is behind him. In replenishing his secondary numbers and talent in February, CU recruited as well as it ever has, signing five defensive backs. One - John Walker - already has been lost for the season after undergoing finger surgery and another sophomore, safety Will Harlos, saw his career end after on-going concussion problems.
Brown's reinforcements are of the type that ultimately can stand up to Pac-12 passing games, but they need seasoning. "These freshmen have size, speed and athleticism," he said. "And they've got some confidence . . . we gained a great deal in the fact that we brought in freshmen with ability, but we lost two guys (Anthony Perkins, Travis Sandersfeld) who had been on the field a lot. Especially the versatility that Travis had - he played corner, safety, nickel, dime, whatever you wanted. 'Perk' was a machine, a coach on the field. He had been there a long time and understood everything."
To fill the back end's leadership void, Brown will look to senior safety Ray Polk and junior safeties Parker Orms and Terrel Smith, who remains a ferocious hitter but is fast becoming a think-first DB.
"Terrel has gotten in the books so much that the difference between when he first came in and now is day and night," Brown said. "He's always been a very physical player, a tough kid, but now he's making checks, he's understanding it. He leads and helps teach the young guys. It's great to see guys come through the natural progression and go from a new guy on the team to showing them how to do it."
Orms, one of the players suspended last season for a violation of team rules, makes the Buffs better whenever he's on the field. But staying on the field has been difficult. Said Brown: "We just have one real strict rule for Parker: Stay healthy. He's such a versatile guy; he's played corner, safety, nickel. He's just one of those guys - a ball-player, a winner. He'll do whatever we need him to do."
Starting left corner Greg Henderson took over that position in his first college camp last August and hasn't given it up. But with Orms' injury history, Brown needed another player prepared to play nickel. He looked to Henderson.
"Part of his success," said Brown, "is because of his durability. Three things happened for him last year: There was an opportunity for a corner to come in; he came in, took it and went with it. He was smart enough to figure it out and function and fit in. Then there was his durability. For him to play that many practices and games without a nick, he's just got one of those bodies that just keeps playing - no matter."
Along with his four other touted incoming freshmen - excluding Walker, there are Yuri Wright, Kenneth Crawley, Jeffery Hall and Marques Mosley -- Brown has other returning players who are expected to contribute. Josh Moten has improved, and Jered Bell and Sherrard Harrington - healed after the 2011 camp's knee injuries - have picked it up in this camp.
Brown needs his increased numbers for nickel and dime packages. With his defense routinely facing teams - particularly Fresno State and Washington State early - that use four wide receivers, "We need all the corner-type bodies we can get . . . usually if you're a corner you're on the outside. But we're going to need a lot of DBs on the field, especially ones in the slot who can function there," Brown said.
Through two weeks of camp, Mosley and Hall have shown they can function in that role, but Brown doesn't want them to be the only two. "It's the same old situation," he said. "When you get down to it it's a numbers game of, how many guys do you have to play in the slot? It's one thing to have a fifth DB - a nickel - to play in the slot. But to get a sixth - a dime - it's a mirror position. When (an opponent) has four wides in, a dime and a nickel are the same things. Then you have to learn how deal, how to cover the run and the pass."
Polk is mentoring Mosley and calls him "a very versatile" player. "We'll be able to use him in a lot of ways in a lot of positions . . . He said he wanted to play safety this year, but I don't know if he'll end up at safety or nickel. But he can play both, as well as corner. I was just trying to walk him through the coverages and help him out with his reads. He's a great kid. I try to reach out to all these guys and help them."
Mosley, one of three freshman from Upland, Calif. (fullback Christian Powell and tailback Donta Abron are the other two), said he was "pretty prepared" for playing at this level. "But I think what surprised me most was how fast practice goes."
Before he visited CU, Mosley visited Nebraska and initially believed he would sign there. "But there were some issues and I talked to the coaches here and some of the players here and decided this is where I should be," he said.
He called the step up in physical play "fine" as long as he steers clear of the big guys: "Sometimes getting in the line is a problem but other than that it's not that big a deal."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Greg Brown, third stint at CU (seven seasons), second season under Jon Embree.
Returning starters: S Ray Polk, Sr.; CB Greg Henderson, Soph.
Returnees: S Terrel Smith, Jr.; CB Parker Orms, Jr.; CB Josh Moten, Soph.; DB Richard Yates, Fr.-RS; DB Hunter Harrison, Soph.; CB Jered Bell, Soph.; CB Sherrard Harrington, Fr.-RS; DB Brandan Brisco, Fr.-RS.
Newcomers: Isaac Archuletta, Fr.; Kenneth Crawley, Fr.; Jeffrey Hall, Fr.; Marques Mosley, Fr.; John Walker, Fr.; Yuri Wright, Fr.; Tommy Papilion, Jr. (transfer).
Key losses: S Anthony Perkins, DB Travis Sandersfeld, CB Jonathan Hawkins, CB Jason Espinoza, CB Brian Lockridge, CB Ayodeji Olatoye (left program), DB Jordan Marquez (left program); CB River Thompson (left program), DB Justin Gorman (switched to RB).
Stat line: The Buffs allowed 255.4 air yards a game (ninth in Pac-12, 97th in the NCAA) and a league-worst 34 TD passes.
Bottom line: If you're looking for a position where freshmen are likely to make an immediate impact, the secondary should be near the top of your list. By mid-season in 2011, injuries and suspensions had prompted Brown's bunch to become a patchwork of running backs, receivers and third-stringers - basically anyone who could raise hands above head and run a little bit. The losses of Perkins and Sandersfeld will cost the Buffs on-field expertise and leadership that will be hard to replace, but Polk should be ready to step up in those areas in his final season. Smith and Orms could contribute there, too - provided he stays healthy. The incoming freshmen are talented and Brown is eager to see them show it on the field.
Next: Wide Receivers
BUFF BITS: Monday afternoon's practice featured full-squad, full-pads work after a pair of split-squad morning sessions. Coach Jon Embree called the afternoon work crisp and energized. It featured more situation work, with 4-minute and 2-minute drills. Embree said the Buffs need to pay more attention to details, but overall he was pleased with his team's intensity and its work . . . . The Buffs have four more days of camp, with much of that time to be spent on self-improvement rather than beginning preparation for opening opponent Colorado State (Sept. 1, 2 p.m., Sports Authority Field at Mile High). But the Buffs could take their first look at the Rams late this week . . . . Embree addressed about 120 of CU's corporate sponsors following Monday afternoon's work. The event was organized by Buffalo Sports Properties (BSP), with the attendees watching part of practice then eating a dinner catered by Boulder's West End Tavern . . . . Tuesday's schedule features a morning practice in full pads and an afternoon walkthrough.