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Buffs Position Preview: Secondary Has Experience To Lean On

Aug 25, 2021
Isaiah Lewis gives the Buffs experience at safety.

BOULDER — If experience is indeed the best teacher, the Colorado Buffaloes' secondary should be primed to take a big step forward this season.

A year ago, roughly half of CU's starting secondary had little or no previous starting experience.

This season, it is likely that every spot will be manned by a Buff with plenty of experience in his back pocket — a key for any position, but critical for a spot that is the last line of defense between the opposing offense and the end zone.

At corner, freshman Christian Gonzalez and junior Mekhi Blackmon return after starting every game last season. At safety, junior Isaiah Lewis and sophomore Mark Perry also return, with both also having multiple starts in 2020; and nickel back junior Chris Miller returns as well.

There's also some depth on the back end, with second-year freshman Toren Pittman and sophomore Ray Robinson getting some time in camp. At corner, sophomore Nigel Bethel Jr. and freshmen Tyrin Taylor, Kaylin Moore and Nikko Reed have also flashed, and all could see some playing time.

There's no doubt coaches are expecting big things from Gonzalez at corner. He started all six games last season as a true freshman — without the benefit of spring ball — and finished with 19 tackles, two third-down stops and two touchdown-saving tackles.

At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Gonzalez is long, lean and fast — the prototype cornerback. Now, he's aiming to turn his experience from last year into a much bigger 2021.

"I learned a lot just by how much faster the game goes," Gonzalez said of his initial college season. "It was definitely a hard transition coming from high school where nobody would throw to my side, and then come into college and get him picked on. But that's why I came here. I wanted to play early. It was a challenge but I learned you have to move on to the next play really quick."

Lewis, meanwhile, adds some steady experience on the back end. He led the team last year in pass breakups with eight and he also had eight third-down stops. He and Perry have both had solid camps, giving CU a nice tandem on the back end.

One number the CU defensive backs definitely want to improve this year is their interceptions. Colorado had just four interceptions last year, and one of those came from a linebacker.

One big key for the secondary will be the defensive line. As defensive coordinator Chris Wilson is quick to point out, a secondary is only as good as the defensive line in front of it. If the Buffs' big men in the trenches can get some consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, CU's defensive backs should be able to hold up their end of the bargain. 

POSITION COACHES — Brett Maxie coaches the safeties and is also defensive passing game coordinator. Demetrice Martin coaches cornerbacks.

Maxie, in his second year at CU, has 22 years of experience coaching in college and the NFL, coming on the heels of a 13-year playing career in the NFL. His NFL coaching stops have included San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas, Tennessee and Miami, and he coached Pro Bowl selections at nearly every stop.

Martin is also in his second year with the Buffs, with his previous collegiate stops including Arizona, UCLA and Washington. He is considered to be one of the top recruiters of West Coast talent.

KEY RETURNEES — Cornerbacks Christian Gonzalez and Mekhi Blackmon give the Buffs experience and talent on the outside. On the back end, safeties Isaiah Lewis and Mark Perry should be ready to take their game up a notch, and nickel back Chris Miller also has some solid experience under his belt. Other key returners include safety Ray Robinson, cornerback Nigel Bethel Jr. and safety/nickel Curtis Appleton. Bethel, Appleton and Blackmon all had one interception last season.

KEY NEWCOMERS — Freshmen Tyrin Taylor, Kaylin Moore and Nikko Reed had good moments in fall camp and could provide depth on the outside as they develop through the fall.

IF ALL GOES WELL … CU's corners will both take a big step forward from last year, Lewis will continue to grow at safety and Perry will add consistency to his game after a couple years of showing flashes of excellent potential.

This will be an interesting group to watch. A year ago, opposing teams picked on true freshman Gonzalez — and by the end of the year, he was making play after play. Blackmon has become more and more consistent, and Lewis was one of the pleasant surprises of 2020. There's also some talented, albeit young, players itching for their turn. Expect this group to be tested early — and if they respond, they'll build some great confidence for the Pac-12 portion of the schedule.