Buffs Position Preview: Wells Leads Strong OLB Group
BOULDER — Colorado outside linebacker Carson Wells spent so much time in opponents' backfields last year, he could have been charged rent.
In six games, Wells recorded 17 tackles for loss — including 6.5 sacks — and led the nation in tackles for loss per game. He also notched five quarterback hurries, eight third down stops, five pass breakups and an interception.
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound junior was an easy choice as a first-team All-Pac-12 selection, and his return to the CU lineup is one reason college football guru Phil Steele has named the Buffs' overall linebacking corps the No. 7 group in the nation.
The big question for Colorado this year is who will step up and seize the job opposite Wells in OLB coach Brian Michalowski's group.
There are several solid candidates, each of whom gained some experience last season.
Freshman Joshka Gustav, whose main role was a pass rush specialist last year, played 91 snaps in 2020 and finished with a team-leading seven quarterback hurries. Junior Guy Thomas started in four games and finished with seven tackles; and junior Jamar Montgomery had 66 snaps on defense, including one start, and finished with four tackles.
Thus far in fall camp, all three have had their moments, but no one has yet stepped up to stake a clear claim to the other No. 1 spot.
"Carson's our most-established outside 'backer, a guy that's been a multi-year starter and has been very productive," head coach Karl Dorrell said last weekend after the first scrimmage of camp. "We know where he's at. The other guys, we feel really good about, but they're still pretty close. It's not like this night-and-day difference."
The three contenders for the spot opposite Wells all arrived in Boulder via different paths. Gustav, a native of Germany, moved to the United States in high school in order to have a better chance at a scholarship. Thomas spent two years at Nebraska, then played a year at Coahoma CC before landing in Boulder. Montgomery played two seasons at Independence CC before arriving at CU in 2019.
If there is no distinct separation in the group, Dorrell has indicated he'll be comfortable using a rotation, much as he did last year.
But the good news is there's some depth at the position, and it has been bolstered by the rapid development of true freshman Zion Magalei.
"It's good to have a few more guys that that can give us some
great reps and some great experience," he said.
POSITION COACH — Brian Michalowski is in his third season as CU's outside linebackers coach, and has tutored some of CU's outstanding defenders in that time. In 2019, he helped turn Davion Taylor into a third-round NFL Draft pick, and he has since played a big role in Carson Wells' development. He has also worked at Memphis, Wyoming and Arizona State.
KEY RETURNEES — The Buffs have a solid core of experience here, beginning with All-Pac-12 performer Carson Wells. Others with a healthy dose of experience include freshman Joshka Gustav and juniors Guy Thomas and Jamar Montgomery. Also back from last season is freshman Devin Grant, who had some solid moments in the spring and is also having a good fall camp.
KEY NEWCOMER — True freshman Zion Magalei has turned heads throughout camp thus far and could be a competitor for some playing time this year.
IF ALL GOES WELL … Wells will have another outstanding year in coordinator Chris Wilson's new defense, and someone will step up and separate himself as the starter opposite Wells.
But that's not a necessity. There is some benefit of fresh legs, and each of the players vying for a starting spot has some strong points. A rotation of several players depending upon down and distance could very well be what the Buffs utilize this year — and such rotations can also cause headaches for opposing offensive coordinators.
The bottom line is there is depth and talent — and now, those players vying for playing time have invaluable experience. This is a position battle that might not get settled in camp, and it's possible that someone could finally separate themselves from the pack a few games into the season.