Johnson Leads Deep Group For New Buffs D-Line Coach Wilson
BOULDER — When the Colorado Buffaloes finally reconvene for fall practice, there will be at least one position group at which experience — or lack thereof — won't be a problem.
Welcome to new D-line coach Chris Wilson's room, where every defensive lineman who made even one tackle last season will be back in a Buffs uniform this fall. The list of returnees includes last year's regular starters, senior Mustafa Johnson (nine starts last year), junior Terrance Lang (11) and sophomore Jalen Sami (11); as well as sophomores Na'im Rodman (two starts) and Austin Williams; juniors Janaz Jordan (one start) and Jeremiah Doss; and redshirt freshman Lloyd Murray Jr., who played in two games but retained his redshirt status.
Of course, Wilson hasn't yet had the luxury of actually being on the field with his players. New CU head coach Karl Dorrell added Wilson to his staff soon after his late-February hiring, but barely a couple of weeks later, CU — and just about every other program in America — had to cancel spring ball because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thus, in his second go-round with the Buffs, Wilson has had to settle for several months of Zoom meetings and plenty of hours watching video.
"We've got some good athletes," Wilson said recently. "We've got some good size, guys who have some experience, guys with some versatility. That's what's really important in this day and age, guys who can play three downs … You wish you would have had spring to really get a chance to work with them, but from the eyeball test, they pass the test."
Of all the returnees, Johnson has the most career starts (21). He's second overall on defense in that category, trailing only linebacker Nate Landman (24).
After starting all 12 games as a sophomore junior college transfer, Johnson's season was disrupted last season by injury. Still, he finished with 34 tackles, second-best among D-linemen behind Lang (40), while also recording 4.5 sacks, also second-highest on the team.
But Johnson, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection two years ago, will have plenty of help up front. Lang, a 6-7, 285-pounder with great pass rush skills, played 588 snaps last year for the Buffs, finishing with 40 tackles and a team-high six sacks. Sami, meanwhile, played 411 snaps at the nose and finished with 25 tackles. His 6-6, 325-pound frame is perfect for the interior, where he can occupy two offensive linemen on a regular basis.
It is Rodman, however, from whom CU's defensive coaches are expecting maybe the biggest jump. As a true freshman, the 6-2, 300-pounder played more than 300 snaps and finished with 11 tackles. He also improved steadily down the stretch, especially against the run, with his best game of the year a 37-snap, three-tackle effort against Washington in a 20-14 win over the Huskies. In the first "pencil" depth chart, Rodman is listed as a starter at defensive tackle with Johnson on the end and Sami at the nose in CU's base 3-4 scheme.
Throw in Williams, Jordan, Doss and Murray — as well as some promising newcomers — and the Buffs should have no problems finding fresh legs in the trenches.
That's good news for Johnson.
"We have depth," Johnson said. "That's the biggest thing. Now we have guys that were able to come in and play and get that experience. There's less worry and less strain, thinking, 'Oh, I have to play every snap.' That's kind of what happened. I played a lot of snaps early on until I was forced to not play because I got hurt. Now we know we have guys that have done it and been in there before instead of having a room full of six freshmen that have never played before and four upperclassmen. That's the biggest difference."
CU's improved defense under defensive coordinator Tyson Summers down the stretch last season was one of the most positive developments of the year. The Buffs held Stanford to 13 points in Week 10, then limited Washington to 14 a week later. CU also held its final three opponents to under 375 yards total offense after giving up more than 400 in each of the first nine games.
CU's line development was a big part of that improvement. The Buffs notched 11 sacks over the last three weeks while holding Stanford and Washington to a combined 159 yards on the ground.
The entire CU staff will no doubt be trying to utilize every moment possible with players when they finally return to the field. For Wilson, it will mean finding what each of his linemen does well, then doing his best to make sure he Summers get them in the best position possible to make plays.
"That's my goal as a teacher, to make sure I'm helping them do what they do really, really well," Wilson said. "Nobody comes to watch the coach. You have to make sure you put your guys in the best position and that you maximize their skillset. That's what it comes down to."