Last season, a star-studded defensive unit led the Buffaloes to a bowl game, then crumbled under the pressure of top-ten opponents. But devastating losses in the Pac-12 Championship and Alamo Bowl could not change the feeling in the air in Boulder—the Buffs are on the verge of something special. Last year was the first glimpse of a Colorado team that won’t settle for four win seasons or a middle-of-the-pack ranking. For the Buffs in 2017, it’s Pac-12 Champions or bust.
One of the keys to Colorado’s successful defense was their disruptive secondary, but the group will look drastically different the next time they take the field. Outgoing seniors Akhello Witherspoon, Chidobe Awuzie and Tedric Thompson are all headed to the NFL. For most teams, the departure of three starters at one position would be devastating. For the Buffs, it’s an opportunity to get even better, and to show the world that last year was no fluke. This defense is here to be disruptive.
“I guess most people would say that since you lost a good amount of your secondary, that we would be weaker,” said sophomore defensive back Anthony Julmisse. “I feel like we got stronger because so many seniors left. We’re going over keys, we’re studying a lot together, and I feel like it’s been beneficial.”
Part of those defensive adjustments are in the hands of new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who took over for Jim Leavitt when he left for Oregon. Leavitt’s departure had a visible impact on Colorado. He left the Buffs prior to their bowl game, where the defense struggled mightily, allowing a 38-8 routes at the hands of Oklahoma State. Eliot was hired in January from Kentucky, and his task is to lead the Buffs’ defense back to another dominant season.
“He brings a different dimension,” senior safety Afolabi Laguda (Fo) said. “He’s definitely a good coach, he’s been around, and he knows what he’s talking about, so it’s good to acquire his football knowledge.”
Along with Eliot and new defensive coaches Ross Els and ShaDon Brown, the Buffs also have new leadership emerging within their defensive back unit. Junior Isaiah Oliver was a mainstay at cornerback last season, and Laguda started all 13 games at safety in 2016. Both are returning as leaders of the 2017 secondary, hoping to build on the dominant legacy of last year’s defensive backs.
“Everybody’s a leader, it just depends on when it’s your time to lead.”
Laguda was recently selected as a team captain for the 2017 season, but both he and Oliver will have a huge impact on Colorado’s secondary moving forward.
“Fo’s taken over the defense the most out of everybody,” said Julmisse. “Isaiah Oliver, he was the second guy behind Chido and Akhello so he’s stepped up big time.”
Each of the now veteran defensive backs approaches leadership differently. Oliver actively coaches the younger players, remaining involved in their development.
“I try to take the young corners and really teach them how to play the game,” said Oliver. “I teach them the techniques and what I look for on the field so that when they get out there, they can do the same thing.”
Laguda, on the other hand, appears almost thrust into his leadership role.
“I kinda just do what I gotta do and hope that the kids will follow, which they have,” he said. “I mean, everybody’s a leader, it just depends on when it’s your time to lead.”
Both Laguda and Oliver had a hand in Colorado’s defensive prowess and subsequent bowl game berth last season. Oliver had 13 pass break-ups, along with a forced fumble and an interception in 2016, while Laguda had 80 total tackles and a forced fumble.
The Buffs’ secondary thrived on their disruptive play style, with both Thompson and Witherspoon leading the nation in passes defended. Laguda hopes to continue that formula, focusing on interceptions during spring practice.
“I just want to create turnovers, get my hands on the ball as much as possible,” he said. “I believe I’m dynamic, I’m one of the best in the country, so getting this ball, getting these turnovers for this Colorado team is definitely going to help us win games.”
With so much of the Buffs’ future success in a pass-heavy conference resting on the secondary, the development of the younger defensive backs is just as important as veteran leadership.
“We’ve got some young guys who are going to step up,” Laguda said. “They’re just getting their feet wet right now, but we’re going against good receivers and good competition on offense, so they’re getting good, quality reps every day.”
Outside of Laguda and Oliver, the secondary will be composed of Julmisse, Nick Fisher, Ryan Moeller, Evan White, and junior college transfer Dante Wigley, among others.
Julmisse, who had a hand in every game last season on offense, defense or special teams, is primed to become a starting defensive back.
“Hopefully he’s going to be a mainstay at one of our corner spots,” head coach Mike MacIntyre said. “He’s athletic and big and physical, so hopefully he’ll keep coming on.”
Julmisse has impressed several teammates this spring as well. “(Julmisse) played a little bit last year and he’s playing a lot more this year,” said Oliver. “We’re really looking for him to make big strides and be out there every single weekend. He’s doing really well so far.”
The junior college transfer Wigley is setting himself apart early on as well. At Holmes Community College in 2016, he tallied 29 tackles and six passes broken up.
“I feel like (Wigley) has stepped up big time,” Julmisse said. “He has really grasped the system and he’s implementing everything that we’ve been telling him, so I’d like to see him flourish a little bit more.”
Another potential piece of the starting unit is Moeller, a junior who has lined up at both nickel back and a hybrid outside linebacker role. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2016 as a special teams player, in addition to 44 tackles, two pass break-ups and two forced fumbles on defense. He played in all 13 games, including nine starts and was the Buffs main starter at free safety in 2015.
Fisher, a junior, will also be in the mix. He notched 11 total tackles last season—including one of the biggest on a play late in the Washington State game—taking defensive snaps across eight games. In the 2017 Spring Game, he nabbed an interception on the first play of the game, flashing his potential to be disruptive in the secondary this season.
“Maybe most of America already forgot about those two (games), but we take that personally.”
Despite losing Awuzie, Thompson and Witherspoon, Colorado has plenty of competition in their secondary. Outside of Laguda and Oliver, the starters for the 2017 season are still being determined. They will likely feature a combination of Julmisse and Moeller, with Fisher, White and Wigley also seeing a decent number of snaps. No matter who starts, the Buffs are looking for redemption.
Colorado’s historic rise ended in disappointment last season. While they aren’t fixated on those games, the Buffs have chosen to use them as motivation.
“The Alamo Bowl was a great experience and everything, but we didn’t get the outcome we wanted,” said Oliver. “We don’t want to be a team that can just get to a bowl game, but can win a bowl game. So that’s something we’re working for from this day on. We’re going to get back to a bowl game and we’re going to win that bowl game.”
“Maybe most of America already forgot about those two (games),” said Julmisse, “but we take that personally. That’s been fueling a lot of us to take an extra step, burst through the line, get extra yards, stuff like that. It’s the little things, that’s what’s going to help us next December in the next bowl game.”
“We have the same goal as last year, and that’s to win a Pac-12 Championship.”
The Buffs will probably not meet their Big 12 foes, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, anytime soon, but they do have a rematch with their Pac-12 adversaries Washington on the schedule in September. The game will take place at Folsom Field, and CU is looking to even the score.
“There’s definitely some revenge in there,” said Oliver. “Having played the way that we did in the Pac-12 Championship game, on national television in front of everyone, we know that we’re better than that and we want to show that out there on the field.”
“We’re coming to dominate them, honestly,” said Julmisse. “I feel like we all have the same mentality about that, we don’t think of Washington too kindly around here right now.”
Laguda just wants the Buffs to focus on improving.
“Not having a win since November is just heartbreaking, you know? I think about football every day so I think about those losses,” he said. “I just hope these guys don’t forget about what happened to us last season.”
In the tradition of forgive but never forget, the Buffs are primed to cement their status atop the Pac-12 with another season of stellar defensive play.
“We have the same goal as last year, and that’s to win a Pac-12 Championship,” said Oliver. “We know what it takes to get there, but we don’t know what it takes to win yet. So we know we have to do more than we did last year, and that’s what we focus on every day, just come out here at practice and do a little bit more than what we did last year.”
Colorado made stunning strides last season, pulling themselves from the Pac-12 basement into the national spotlight. The Buffaloes dominant defense was paramount in leading them to a Pac-12 title fight and a top-ten ranking, a contribution that this year’s secondary will work to replicate as the Buffs make another run at a championship.