Rakestraw Brings Much-Needed Experience To Buffs Secondary
BOULDER — With a grand total of 11 career starts under his belt, Colorado senior safety Derrion Rakestraw made the transition from relative newbie to seasoned vet in the span of one season in 2019.
But in 2020, he won't have much company in that regard in the Buffaloes' secondary.
To say the Buffs are "young" in that area is an understatement. The first depth chart of the Karl Dorrell era at CU includes five sophomores, two juniors and just one senior in the two-deep at the cornerback and safety spots. Experience at every spot — except free safety, where Rakestraw is a returning starter — will no doubt be one of the key issues the Buffs will have to address when they open fall camp.
Rakestraw, a converted wide receiver who also spent a year playing cornerback for CU, made the move to safety in 2018, when he started two games. Last year, he started the final nine games, and by season's end had become a dependable pass defender and more-than-capable run stopper.
But of the four players listed on the depth chart at the two safety spots, he's the only one with any starting experience as a safety. Listed behind Rakestraw at free safety is junior Isaiah Lewis, who has played just a handful of snaps. At strong safety, sophomore Chris Miller — who will be making the jump from cornerback — is atop the depth chart with junior college transfer Jaylen Striker behind Miller.
It's not that there won't be any talent. Miller is a physically gifted DB who has been plagued by injuries, but a player from whom the CU coaching staff is expecting big things. Striker is a talented transfer and Lewis has been a steady and improving backup.
But there's no doubt the Buffs will be leaning on Rakestraw to provide leadership and a veteran's guiding hand on the back end of the Colorado defense.
"It's been a long road," Rakestraw said in a conference call with the media on Wednesday. "I feel like all the obstacles that I went through to get here, that's really made me into the player that I am today. It's given me a lot of confidence. Just the fact that I'm getting into the second year of the system and this playbook, I'm getting really comfortable back there. I feel like all that is something that made me into the player I am today, taking advantage of all that."
Despite not starting the first three games last season, Rakestraw finished as CU's eighth-leading tackler with 38, including 25 solo stops and three for a loss. He also finished with three interceptions, second-best on the team, and five pass breakups.
But perhaps most importantly, he played a major role in CU's improvement down the stretch, when the Buffs won two of their last three games on the back of some solid defensive efforts. Rakestraw had five tackles and an interception in Colorado's 16-13 win over Stanford, then added three tackles (one for loss) and a key third-down stop against Washington in a win over the Huskies.
And, while the Buffs will be playing under a new head coach this year, they won't have to start from scratch on defense. Coordinator Tyson Summers — who also coached safeties last year — was retained by Dorrell, meaning the Buffs can pick up where they left off in 2019 when it comes to the basics of the playbook.
"It's huge for us to have Coach Summers back," Rakestraw said. "I feel like he came in and really changed the attitude of our defense. He really brought that intensity. He demands a lot out of us and a lot of us really got a lot better because of that. It's great to have him back calling plays ... I'm excited for it."
While Summers is returning, he won't be coaching safeties this fall. Instead, that job will go to CU newcomer Brett Maxie, a 21-year coaching veteran with stops in the NFL and college. Maxie also has a 13-year NFL career on his resume — and the two know each other, as Maxie recruited Rakestraw as a Georgia prep standout when Maxie was coaching at Vanderbilt.
"I have a great relationship with Coach Maxie," Rakestraw said. "It's really good for me to have a true safeties coach on the staff that can really focus on the role of safety. I think that's really going to help us out a lot. He's a great coach."
Because of the Covid-19 shutdown, the Buffs didn't have the opportunity to participate in spring ball with the new CU coaching staff. It meant players spent three months working out on their own while meeting with their coaches via Zoom.
Now, Rakestraw and his teammates are simply anxious to get back on the field and go through a true practice. While CU players can now participate in voluntary workouts, actual practices with coaches are still weeks away.
Rakestraw said he's more than just hungry to play the game again.
"I'm starving, I'm ready to get back on the field," he said. "This is my last go-round so I'm ready to get back out there, go out there as a team and win some games. You saw what we were doing at the end of the season. I'm ready to continue that trend into the next season."
If fall camp — tentatively scheduled to begin Aug. 7 — goes as planned and the Buffs play their schedule as its currently set up, they will open the season Sept. 5 at Colorado State.
Recently, CSU tight end Trey McBride was quoted in a newspaper story as saying, "
I'm planning on going out there and destroying them. That's what everyone has in mind, and that's what we are going to plan on doing. It's really who wants it more September 5 and I think we'll be more hungry than they will be."
Rakestraw — who saw the quote — chuckled when asked for his reaction.
"We should be on their minds," he said. "But that's not where we're at right now. We're focused on the work we have to put it in to get to that point … We don't have to really do too much talking as a team. The work we're putting in now is going to speak for itself."