Buffs' Leavitt Takes Aim At Productive Spring
BOULDER — Just a year ago, Jim Leavitt walked into his position as defensive coordinator at Colorado only one day before spring drills began.
It was not, to say the least, an ideal situation. Leavitt inherited a defense that had finished near the bottom of the nation in almost every meaningful statistical category, including the one that mattered most, scoring defense. The Buffs had been bruised, battered and beaten, and Leavitt's task was to change that direction — and initiate the turnaround in the span of a mere 15 spring practices.
"Not easy," Leavitt said Wednesday morning, in between film sessions and staff meetings. "We were having to teach the defensive coaches everything and get on the same page while also teaching our players. I don't think it was as productive as it could have been, but that's why I stayed all summer. The summer was very productive last year. If we hadn't had the summer last year, we would have been in really hard times."
But despite the late start, a host of injuries and the task of continuing to install a new defense throughout the fall, the Buffs took significant strides:
— CU moved from 116th in the nation in scoring defense in 2014 (39.0 points per game) to 70th in 2015 (27.5 points per game). The 11.5 points per game improvement was fifth-best in the nation and third-best among Power 5 schools.
— Those numbers translated equally well into the offensive-minded Pac-12. After giving up 43 points per league game in 2014, CU cut that number to 32.3 in 2015.
— After forcing just 11 turnovers in all of 2014, the Buffs doubled that number in 2015, picking off 14 passes and recovering eight fumbles. CU was also one of only six programs in the nation to force at least one turnover in every game.
Clearly, 2015 yielded concrete improvement. But anyone who knows Leavitt knows it's not enough. Not even close. As the Buffs get closer to the March 2 opener for spring ball, Leavitt made it clear that expectations from last year's 4-9 finish will be ratcheted up significantly this spring.
"We weren't great, but we looked like a defense at times," Leavitt said of the 2015 Buffs. "I'm very proud of how they played because they got better as the year went. They started playing harder and they started to understand a little bit more what my expectations were."
But, he added, "We have a ways to go — we all know that. We're not good enough yet defensively to win in the Pac-12, but hopefully we will be by fall."
The good news is the defense has most of its key personnel returning, with just two full-time starters — lineman Justin Solis and cornerback Ken Crawley — lost to graduation. The Buffs also added some players in the most recent recruiting class that Leavitt believes will be able to contribute almost immediately.
But most importantly, Leavitt's players and defensive coaches have had a year in the system.
"It's totally different this year because our guys know the system," Leavitt said. "We feel like we're going to be able to do a lot more this spring than we've done before. We have guys that are very knowledgeable and they know what we expect, so our expectations are much higher than they were a year ago."
The Buffs will still be limited to a degree this spring. Of the seven players who won't be able to participate because of injuries, five are on the defensive side of the ball: linebackers Addison Gillam, Terran Hasselbach and Travis Talianko; and linemen Blake Robbins and Tyler Henington. (Offensive players out for the spring are quarterback Sefo Liufau and tackle Jeromy Irwin.)
The Buffs also won't have junior college transfer linebacker Drew Lewis in spring ball, who Leavitt said "we'll be counting on next year," as well as lineman Josh Tupou, who the Buffs hope will be available for fall camp after missing a year.
But while Gillam and Lewis won't be available for the spring, two starting linebackers from last year, Kenneth Olugbode and Rick Gamboa, will be on the field.
There is also some solid returning experience in the secondary, including second team all-Pac-12 selection Chidobe Awuzie, fellow cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, and safeties Tedric Thompson and Ryan Moeller.
And, Leavitt added, he expects one or two of the defensive backs from the recent class — CU signed Ca'Ron Baham, Ronnie Blackmon and Trey Udoffia — to be contributors next fall.
"We're going to count on some of these defensive backs that we recruited," Leavitt said. "A couple of them are going to have help and play right away."
Leavitt said he's also hoping for some immediate contribution from some of his newly signed linebackers, particularly Akil Jones and Pookie Maka.
"Those are some guys that are going to have a chance to do some things," Leavitt said. "They'll be important in the summer."
Still, Leavitt plans to get plenty accomplished this spring. Of particular interest will be the interior line and outside pass rushers. CU has returning starters up front in Jordan Carrell and Leo Jackson III, along with outside linebackers Jimmie Gilbert and Derek McCartney.
The key, Leavitt said, will be establishing some depth and seeing if some of his youngsters can make the jump up to becoming regular contributors.
"We really want to find out what Brett Tonz, Lyle Tuiloma and Frank Umu can do," Leavitt said of his trio of redshirt freshmen up front. "Those guys will be really important to see what they can give us."
Others on the radar will be sophomores Eddy Lopez and Michael Mathewes. "We've got to see if Lopez can help us, and we've got to look at Mathewes more, to see what he can give us," Leavitt said.
On the pass rush front, Leavitt hopes to add some outside speed and strength. They'll give sophomore linebacker N.J. Falo work on the outside this spring (he played inside and outside last fall), along with junior linebacker Christian Shaver and freshman Sam Bennion, who begins his career after serving a mission for the Mormon Church.
Last season, CU produced 28 quarterbacks sacks, a number Leavitt would like to increase this season.
"We've got to find more outside pass rushers," said Leavitt. "We're going to see if some of those guys can help us there."
But there is one thing Leavitt knows for sure: this spring has to be more productive than his first. While the Buffs improved, his expectation will be to see more of the same this year — and it begins this spring.
"There's a lot of things we need to do as far as personnel goes before we get into the summer," Leavitt said. "We're going to try to make some decisions this spring as we get into the summer. Summer might actually end up being bigger than spring for us, but we've got a lot of work to do. A lot of work."