Buffs Position Preview: D-Line Ready To Take Next Step
BOULDER — No matter the scheme, no matter the game plan, no matter the coaching staff, there is one simple, universal truth when it comes to football defense:
It all starts up front. If the big men in the trenches aren't salty, a defense is behind before the game ever starts.
Clearly, Colorado defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Chris Wilson is a proponent of that truth. Wilson's career has included stops at elite college programs and Super Bowl champion NFL franchises — and through it all, he's seen one constant.
"When your fronts become great, your teams become great," Wilson said Monday after the Buffaloes' fifth practice of fall training camp. "Every place I've been where you win championships, you are dominant up front. We have to get more guys going that direction."
The Buffs do have a good foundation in that regard, beginning with returning starters Terrance Lang and Jalen Sami.
The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Lang, a second-team preseason all-Pac-12 pick by Phil Steele, has a prototype defensive end frame. The junior had his best year as a Buff in 2019, when he finished with six sacks and nine third-down stops, and last season led all CU defensive linemen in snaps played with 304.
This year, CU coaches are expecting even more from a player who is being projected as a next-level lineman.
"Right now I just see a great level of maturity," head coach Karl Dorrell said last week. "You haven't seen the best of his game yet. You saw glimpses of it because he's such a good athlete. Now the mental side of the game — his football knowledge and his role in understanding the defensive system — is really going to enhance it even more. We're excited to watch him play."
The 6-foot-6, 325-pound Sami is looking to bounce back from a 2020 season that saw him hampered by injuries. He played just 166 snaps last season in five games last year, but in 2019 — his first year on the field for CU — he had a critical role in CU's interior as a run stopper, logging 411 plays on defense, including 25 tackles (two for loss).
This year, Sami has trimmed down slightly while adding some muscle, and like Lang, could be headed for a breakout year.
The Buffs also have high hopes this year for returnee Na'im Rodman, a 6-2, 300-pound sophomore who has three career starts to his credit. Rodman had a solid spring and is getting quality reps with the top defense early in camp.
Other returnees with experience include Janaz Jordan, Justin Jackson and Lloyd Murray Jr., and CU coaches are excited about newcomers Tyas Martin and Ryan Williams, two freshmen with big potential.
POSITION COACH — Chris Wilson is in his second season on Dorrell's staff, and like Dorrell, is in his second tour of duty with the Buffs (he coached CU's defensive line from 2000-2004 under Gary Barnett).
Wilson is also beginning his second stint as a major college defensive coordinator, having first filled that role at Mississippi State from 2010-2012. Wilson has also coached the defensive line at places such as Oklahoma, Georgia and USC; and with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he won a Super Bowl ring.
Now, while his duties now consist of coordinating the entire defensive attack, he must also make sure his front is up to snuff. There are some proven pieces in place, but there's more untested potential.
KEY RETURNEES — Terrance Lang, Jalen Sami and Na'im Rodman give the Buffs a good starting point. All have starting experience and all have yet to hit their potential.
There are also a handful of other returnees who have shown glimpses of solid play, including Janaz Jordan, Justin Jackson, Lloyd Murray Jr. and Jayden Simon.
KEY NEWCOMERS — CU coaches are excited about the futures of incoming freshmen Ryan Williams (6-5, 260) and Tyas Martin (6-4, 320). They both fit the Buffs' recruiting profile for the position and have already shown some flashes in camp. Also new up front is transfer Blayne Toll (Arkansas).
IF ALL GOES WELL … Lang will be a critical piece here. If Lang takes another step forward, he'll give Colorado a versatile pass rusher and run defender who can consistently disrupt an offense. The continued development of Sami and Rodman will also be crucial, especially against the run — a priority for Colorado's defense this year.
But it will be more than a handful of players making a difference if the Buffs' goal of an improved overall defense is to come to fruition. Wilson is a big believer in a steady rotation of fresh legs, and that fits into Colorado's situational defensive scheme as well.
That means the Buffs will need some of those youngsters to turn that potential into production. If Wilson can craft a solid rotation that can be productive for four quarters, Colorado's defense will have a good start on becoming a solid unit from front to back.