Colorado football coach Jon Embree is expecting a significant upgrade from his defense this fall and let's be honest: If the Buffaloes found themselves underfoot in the Pac-12 Conference for most of last season, falling much further in the league's defensive stats might put them underground in 2012.
They gave up a league-worst 63 touchdowns last fall, yielding 40 or more points six times and a league-worst 36.5 points a game. Those horrific numbers elicited this droll National Signing Day observation from Embree: "I felt bad for the opposing teams' cheerleaders, having to do all those pushups (after scoring on the Buffs). I'm hoping we can slow them down (this fall)."
From what he's seen through 11 spring practices, Pac-12 cheerleaders won't get near the upper body workout this season as they did last against CU - or so Embree is hoping. But he can't ignore these numbers: In addition to being last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, the Buffs were at or near the bottom in interceptions (11th), first downs allowed (11th), red zone defense (12th), and pass defense efficiency (12th). And for the record, CU was No. 10 in both total defense and rushing defense.
If you're thinking there's all kind of room for improvement, you've got company. At Thursday's conclusion of Practice No. 11 - a 41-play scrimmage bracketed by 7-on-7 passing work - I asked Embree where he had seen the most defensive improvement this spring.
"Tackling . . . there's been a vast improvement there," he answered. "And we've been better about when we get our hands on the ball and getting it, instead of having PBUs (passes broken up) or almost recovering a fumble. We're getting the ball."
And, he continued, "I see better communication back there; sometimes that's an issue with us . . . those are the biggest areas of improvement I've seen."
How spring improvement in those three broad areas relates to what happens this fall is TBD. But from a personnel standpoint there were some positives to be taken from Thursday's work. To name two, juniors Derrick Webb (linebacker) and Terrel Smith (safety/nickel) made head-turning plays that got Embree's attention.
Webb, said Embree, is "starting to play like a man. He had a couple of huge hits (Thursday) - one on the goal line to keep the offense from scoring on fourth down. He's playing fast; he's always been able to run, but he hasn't always been able to play fast. His mind hasn't been freed up. He's always thinking . . . he seems to be using his speed a lot better than he has in the past because I don't think he's thinking as much. I've seen a lot of good stuff out of him."
And Smith, who intercepted sophomore Connor Wood early in the scrimmage, is playing more under control, according to Embree: "You mean not running and just hitting anything? Yeah, he's doing a lot better hitting the guy with the ball. You can tell he's a little more comfortable. But a lot of the guys are . . . as coaches it's like a foreign language to the kids. It's good to have them understand what we're saying. They're playing faster; there's just a whole different comfort level."
Webb's speed and physical play - he's 6-0, 220 pounds - has allowed him to operate almost across the board at linebacker, although he's currently settled at the WILL (or weak side) linebacker. Like Smith, he said he's trying to play more under control: "That's one thing I've been trying to work on - when to turn it on, when to burst, having my eyes in the right place and being able to go make a play when I have to. I've tried to bring that to my game."
He's also figuring it's time to begin working his way into a leadership role on the defense. "I've been kind of trying to wait to get older before I start telling people what to do," he said. "But I'm a junior now; I don't have a lot of time left. I got two years to play and I want to make the best of these two years. And I've got something to say about it."
Webb's take on the defense's improvement is based on seeing more "bodies running to the ball" during spring drills and an emphasis on creating turnovers. "That's happened especially these last couple of practices," he said. "Coach Embree challenged us before practice to come out and give a better effort (in those two areas) and I believe the whole defense stepped up. The last two or three practices I've seen a better effort, intensity, running to the ball . . . and we've done pretty good with turnovers. We got two (Thursday) and like three or four last practice."
Webb said his strong hit at the goal line Thursday on running back Tony Jones exemplified the kind of pursuit the defensive staff has been emphasizing. "Team tackling," Webb said. "That's what coach (Greg) Brown (defensive coordinator) wants from us . . . D-linemen running to the ball, linebackers and DBs. If one person misses, another is right there - team tackling. A couple of other guys had (Jones) and I was just able to come in and clean up."
Embree was only half joking (maybe less) when he said Smith now was managing his fervor and not engaging in a bash-fest on every snap. "He knows I love to hit, and other people know I love to hit and make plays," Smith said, laughing. "But I'm not hitting anybody who's moving anymore."
That's because his spring comfort level with the defense in general and his assignments "is like a tremendous change for me," he said. "I know my calls and I'm not thinking so much out there. Last year I was. Now I'm just out there playing instead of thinking so much."
His assessment of the entire defense: "We're more cohesive now; we're playing with excitement. We're out there enjoying it. It's not just a job for us. We're actually loving what we're doing and we're loving doing it together. We're stopping the run, making more plays."
The pick he made Thursday resulted from being between a pair of receivers, waiting to see which one Wood was going to, "then breaking on the ball." Smith said he was getting an equal amount of spring at safety and nickel back, sharing duty at the latter spot with sophomore corner Greg Henderson.
BUFF BITS: Overall, Embree said the scrimmage "went really well. The defense got a turnover - a bad decision - but they were able to get it, which is good. We had some in-game scenarios and they did well in that. The offense looked really sharp when they got it going . . . I'm pleased with how it's been going this spring. The guys are responding and competing; we're doing things to them and doing things they haven't been used to doing (or) asked to do. But each day they've come out and keep getting better and working, so it's good." . . . . Of the afternoon's work extending beyond the 30 plays that were scheduled, he supposed, "So I'm in trouble. Whenever we go over like that it means we're having fun . . . things are going well. So I have a tendency to keep going." . . . . Among the afternoon's pleasant surprises: The newly acquired receiving ability of senior tight end Nick Kasa, who caught one of Wood's passes for a touchdown and was denied another when he was ruled to have stepped out of the back of the end zone. Kasa, who switched from defense late last season, "caught the ball well," Embree said. "He's struggled this spring but he made some really good catches in traffic, took some shots." . . . . Jones also continued his impressive spring running, scoring on a nearly 60-yard run after breaking free on the sideline . . . . In addition to singling out Webb at linebacker, Embree mentioned sophomore Brady Daigh: "We thought he was going to be a good player (last fall as a freshman) and he's picked up where he left off." . . . . After taking Easter weekend - including Good Friday - off, the Buffs resume practice on Monday. Their schedule next week has practices on Tuesday and Thursday preceding Saturday's spring game at Folsom Field.