Personnel and What to Expect
Kay, well, needless to say, this Colorado defense is not the same defense that Washington went up against in the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game. Like, at all. For example, their most recent game was the win against Stanford, where the Buffaloes allowed less than 30 points for the first time in conference play. Previously, they’d given up 31 to UCLA, 35 to USC, 41 to WSU, 45 to Oregon, 35 to Arizona, and 31 to ASU.
The three most common personnel groupings in the film I’ve watched has been by far a 3-3-5 or 3-4 (shout out to non-nickel, old school-style formations), with their usage of both being versatile depending on their opponents’ offensive tendencies; against USC’s new air raid-ish offense, for example, they were almost exclusively nickel, while other, more balanced attacks like Oregon faced a Colorado defense whose formations would be equally balanced. Given how Washington tends to play, we can then expect a decent split of both 3-3-5 and 3-4, with maybe a few other looks thrown in.
In general, there aren’t any emphatic strengths or weaknesses, rather Colorado’s defense is simply mediocre across the board.
And, while there isn’t necessarily any one unit holding them back, there are units that are a bit worse than others. Which brings us to the defensive line.
Assuming we’re all in agreement that an offense’s or defense’s success begins with their lines’ ability to do their job, it makes sense that Colorado’s defense wouldn’t be doing too hot; watching film, they look to have quite a difficult time creating consistent pressure or, in some games, really much pressure at all. DE Terrance Lang is their sack leader with 4.5, and his counterpart Mustafa Johnson is right behind him with four, but they only have 17 on the year, or 1.7 per game. More noticeable than the stats, however, is just the eye test — snap by snap, Colorado’s opponents’ quarterbacks typically have lots of time and, related and equally important, space to set their feet and follow through.
Furthermore, their defense against the running game often doesn’t get very much push. This is likely exacerbated by the inexperience in the middle, with redshirt freshman Jalen Sami at NT, with him further backed up by a true freshman, Austin Williams. That being said, given the defensive focus of Coach Mel Tucker and the fact that both these human beings are certifiably gigantic (6’6”, 320 lbs, and 6’5”, 320 lbs), it wouldn’t shock me to see the line become a strength in the future. Just, not yet.
The issues they face with the running game seem to stem there, with opponents’ blocking at times able to get well into the second level. USC, in particular, gashed the Buffs on a handful of zone runs.
Onto those guys who have to deal with that, the linebackers predictably have the leading tackler on the team and 15th leading tackler in the country, junior Nate Landman with 97. Beside him in the middle is Akil Jones, with outside linebackers senior Alex Tchangam and redshirt sophomore Carson Wells alongside them and linebacker/safety hybrid Davion Taylor doing a bit of everything, too.
In the words of our sister site, Ralphie Report:
Davion Taylor is a superb athlete who until 2017 had never been a starter — not in his college career, but in his life. He’s the ultimate late bloomer who didn’t start playing football until he walked on at Coahoma CC in his native Mississippi. It took him a year of practice to go from electric athlete to the #7-rated JUCO prospect.
Considering their typical three down linemen, it’s intuitive that they typically send another outside linebacker to rush the passer as well, often lining up both on the line of scrimmage and dropping one of those into coverage to disguise where pressure will come from. In fact, while Colorado isn’t very successful in generating pressure, it’s not for lack of creativity in disguises, stunts, and the like. As a fan of football, I personally enjoy a lot of what the Buffaloes try to do in the pass rush, but as a Husky fan I’m glad they’re not consistently great at executing their objective.
For Colorado, while the creativity and disguises of their pass rush should be a strength in theory (and likely will become one as Tucker’s regime goes on), it opens up a weakness to be exploited by quarterbacks who can recognize it. Namely, when linebackers do line up so close to the line only to drop into coverage or glob onto their assigned player in man coverage, they can at times be both a mismatch (already typical, for a linebacker in man), and be physically in an awkward position to make up. The perfect example of this was Davion Taylor against Oregon, where he was showing pressure in the middle, instantly ran back post-snap in man coverage against Jaylon Redd, but was unable to put himself in a good position based on where he started. Hence, Justin Herbert was able to quickly lob a pretty easy touchdown over Taylor.
In the secondary, they don’t look like either a huge liability but they also don’t inspire much fear. Their performance overall feels kinda summed up by true freshman CB KJ Trujillo’s performance against USC — an interception and a sack made possible by the disguised pressure of multiple linebackers on the other side who ended up dropping back. On one hand, sure, he had two havoc-creating plays, but the interception was only made because USC QB Kedon Slovis broadcast his throw for too long and misplaced the pass on the inside shoulder, anyway.
Trujillo’s counterpart on the left side is Delrick Abrams, while safeties Mikial Onu and Derrion Rakestraw lead the team in interceptions with four and three, respectively, and former quarterback Sam Noyer has also converted to safety.
On one hand, the secondary aren’t crazy playmakers, but they also don’t look to make huge busted coverage accidents either other. If there is an exception to the latter, they can at times drift a bit to the edge of their zone and leave quite a bit of space for pass-catchers and quarterbacks to work with. (For example, a delayed tight end release with a bunch of space for an Oregon touchdown.) And, even when they don’t do that, their play is conservative enough where a quarterback with good anticipation can slice them up pretty well. It feels a lot like — this should make UW fans happy — BYU. Pretty much, even if there aren’t huge missed assignments all the time, there just always seems to be quite a bit of space on the field.
Overall, the defense doesn’t really mess up a bunch, but they’re not making many plays either. They don’t feel like they stop much, more delay the inevitable. That’s exacerbated by the fact that they aren’t consistent tacklers, which is further exacerbated by the fact that they aren’t powerful tacklers; when making contact with ball-carriers, more often than not said ball-carrier seems to drag the defender for some more yards, or at least fall forward. Even USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown trucked a linebacker. Otherwise, the occasional bad tackling will give better players many extra yards after catch or contact, and the disguised areas of the pass rush often leaves linebackers playing catch-up to get into their zone or in a bad position in man.
In the passing game, this feels like it could go similarly to BYU; while their disguised pass rush could occasionally mess with the Dawgs’ offensive line, I just don’t think they’ll all the sudden get consistent pressure. If that does happen, Jacob Eason — for all his troubles the last few weeks — has the anticipation and arm to do what... well, what he did against BYU.
Otherwise, because Colorado’s defensive struggles aren’t all based on one unit, Washington should be able to approach the game pretty evenly. Unlike defenses that have one super crappy aspect dragging the rest of the team down, it’s not like there’s a single focus UW should have to lean on. Subsequently, Pete and Hamdan should pretty much be able to do whatever they want. And whatever they want is usually pretty balanced.
Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.