Buffs Coaches Like Progress Of O-Line, OLBs
BOULDER — As the Colorado Buffaloes near the end of their spring session, just about every position on the field is missing a player or two because of injury.
But no position group has been hit as hard as the offensive line. With four practices remaining, the Buffs are down to one scholarship player at left tackle, a couple of reserves to fortify other spots — and that's it.
"This spring has kind of been a continuation of what we faced all year long during (last) season," O-line coach Mitch Rodrigue told the media after Wednesday's practice. "We have so many injuries from last season, compounded by the injuries that we've had in the spring, we're just real thin. We've been having to play musical chairs, which is not really good for anyone because you don't build any continuity."
The Buffs should get some of those injured players back by the time summer drills begin, and they will also be seeing a handful of new faces report.
But meanwhile, it means lots of reps for the players who are present and healthy.
"We've been fighting through it and it's giving us an opportunity to play people at different positions," Rodrigue said. "That's been the positive."
Rodrigue does like what he has seen from the players he's had available, beginning with senior left guard Kary Kutsch and junior center Colby Pursell. Both have plenty of starting experience, and they've used their time this spring to develop a solid inside presence up front.
Pursell, who has battled injuries for much of his career, has had a "fantastic spring," according to Rodrigue.
"He and Kary have really solidified the middle of that front," Rodrigue said. "He's had a great spring and hasn't missed a rep, which is different for him. He has really done well in the weight room with our new strength coach (Shannon Turley) and has built some confidence. He has done an outstanding job, both he and Kary."
Kutsch, who is taking advantage of the "free" year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the Covid pandemic, is spending almost all of his time at guard. Last season, with Pursell out, he bounced back and forth between guard and center.
"Kary's a quiet warrior," Rodrigue said. "He doesn't vocalize his leadership, but he does exhibit it through his play. Every day he comes to work, he has his lunch pail and he does his job and he does it quietly. He's had a fantastic spring. For him to be allowed to stay at one position and get good at it, that has meant the world to him."
The Buffs started the spring with Frank Fillip at left tackle. But after Fillip recently went down with an injury, it has meant plenty of reps for freshman Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan.
"Frank had done a really good job throughout the course of the spring in pass protection, run protection, his knowledge of the position was really good, and he was getting better," Rodrigue said. "It was unfortunate that he had (the injury). But he did get some good work there and he showed us he can handle the left tackle position, there's no doubt about it."
Now, the Buffs are getting a good look at Christian-Lichtenhan, who at 6-foot-10, 330 pounds, is the tallest Buff in CU football history. While raw, he's a developing talent.
"I call him Tank," Rodrigue said. "Not only has he been playing left tackle, he's been playing left tackle with the one group and the two group because he's the only tackle we've got. He's getting double the amount of reps. He has benefited most from the adversity that we've faced."
On the right side, Kanan Ray got some work early with the No. 1 group at guard, with Joshua Jynes now stepping in. At right tackle, redshirt freshman Jake Wiley has been the mainstay.
"Jake has been doing a really good job at right tackle," Rodrigue said. "He has some work to do fundamentally, but I'm pretty happy with him in the run game. As far as pass protection, he has to develop a little more, and I'm fine with that. He's got all summer long to get that right. He is going against some good competition here. It's just making him better."
OUTSIDE 'BACKERS DEVELOPING: One of the more consistent defenders throughout the spring for the Buffs has been junior outside linebacker Carson Wells.
Coming off a season when he led the nation in tackles for loss per game and earned first team All-Pac-12 honors, Wells has embraced the new defensive scheme installed by coordinator Chris Wilson.
"Carson does a great job playing in the backfield," said OLB coach Brian Michalowski. "He uses indicators within offensive formations — he's a 4.0 student so he does well in the classroom. He's taken the coaching and he's really embracing Coach Wilson's scheme. It really fits him. That's something that if you've heard Coach Wilson, we're going to build a scheme around our players and around their skill set. His skill set is whooping up on the line of scrimmage and playing in the backfield and generating some pass rush. He's really embracing it and doing very well within the scheme."
Michalowski actually has two players who earned 4.0 grade-point averages in the 2020 calendar year. The other is redshirt freshman Joshka Gustav, who came on at the end of last season and ended up leading the team in quarterback hurries with seven.
Gustav, a native of Germany, moved to the United States to play football just before his sophomore year of high school.
"He is one of the guys who took advantage of the idle time during Covid in getting a lot of personal work in," Michalowski said. "His 'want-to' is very high. What really sets him apart as a player is the technique that he plays with. He's developed some great signature rushes, some rushes that are very similar to (Los Angeles Chargers star) Joey Bosa. I know that's a lofty comparison but they work a lot of similar pass rush moves. He does a great job with hand placement on attack."
Also making an impact at OLB this spring is freshman Devin Grant, who came up with some big plays in the red zone in last week's scrimmage.
"Devin is one of those younger players that's come into the program and it's all about development for him," Michalowski said. "He's done a great job taking the coaching. He plays very fast and very aggressive. We have to clean up some footwork and some hand placement sometimes with him. He's very difficult to block because he's very aggressive, which is hard to coach sometimes. He's really taking advantage of the spring that we obviously missed last year and he's just continuing to get better every day. He's just a fast, rugged, downhill linebacker."