(Note: Eighth in a series previewing the Buffs position-by-position during training camp. Today: Defensive backs.)
BOULDER - In college football, there's a best-case/not-so-good-case scenario in having a couple of cornerbacks hold down their positions for virtually three full seasons.
The best-case unfolds during the last of those three years when the corners are experienced and the position is solid. The not-so-good case arrives the season after that pair of three-year guys graduate - which is where the University of Colorado finds itself as the 2011 football season creeps closer.
If you're asking why depth wasn't being developed behind Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown over the past three seasons, consider this: The Buffaloes, circa 2008-10, weren't teams that fashioned nearly enough fourth-quarter cushions to allow Smith and Brown to take a seat, catch their breath and watch the younger kids cavort.
CU's current depth at corner, confides secondary coach Greg Brown, is "a work in progress, and it goes back to the fact that Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown started something like 27 and 28 games, respectively. So that's 56 games total. Basically, no other corner was on the field for the last three years, so no depth was developed.
"And that's no fault of those younger kids. It was tough to come in and take time away from those two. We're just faced with the reality of having graduated two top-flight corners who had manned the spot for three years."
So, say goodbye to Smith and Brown and hello to Travis Sandersfeld and Greg Henderson - a pair as new to their positions as their predecessors were experienced. (In Sandersfeld's case, though, an asterisk is required; he's a senior who knows the defense like the inside of his helmet and can play any position in the secondary. But he's never started at corner.)
Last spring, Greg Brown had six corner candidates auditioning for two jobs. "We were very up front with them; all the cards were on the table and they knew it," he said. "But nobody stood out."
So, he told them, "If nobody earned the jobs in 15 (spring) practices, they'd get another look in the fall. But in the meantime, we'll take two safeties over there as the starters and we'll give a good look at the five new guys."
That pair of safeties was Sandersfeld and Parker Orms. When preseason camp began, Sandersfeld stayed up, while Orms went down early with a strained calf and swelling in the same knee that was injured in last season's opener, sidelining him for the year.
Then, two of the five incoming freshmen were lost on the same day; Jered Bell went out with a torn ACL and Sherrard Harrington was diagnosed with a hip injury that would sideline him for a month or more. Brown said he's now left to "develop depth on the fly."
"It was a huge blow," he said of losing Bell and Harrington. "Both are big and can run. They were more than viable candidates - some way, somehow, in some form, both were going to have a chance to make a case for playing time."
As camp unfolded, Sandersfeld continued to make plays, while another of the five freshmen - Greg Henderson - made himself very easy to notice. Henderson, a 5-11, 185-pound Californian (Corona), was ranked by ESPN as the No. 10 high school corner in his home state. Sandersfeld and Henderson are scheduled to open in the opener at corner.
Brown on Sandersfeld: "He's played a lot of ball here, and he's smart as a whip. He played corner briefly as a freshman, then went to linebacker before he moved to safety. He knows the system and is trustworthy . . . he knows the angles, and he's long (6-0, 205) - which is what you look for in a corner. He's got the long body and long wingspan. That helps in a jump ball and on fade routes; it's a lot tougher to get over a big guy than a smaller guy."
Brown on Henderson: "It goes both ways for him: There's a need and he also has the ability. It's a nice fit. He was one of the five (freshmen) we'd look at and had no idea of who'd come to the forefront. But he did; he made the most of his opportunity and kept it. He's done a great job for a young kid . . . there's quite a bit of difference going from his high school scheme to a college scheme. He's smart and physically blessed with good body control - nice light and quick feet and will tackle. It's really what not to like about the guy."
An invited walk-on from Limon in 2007, Sandersfeld practiced all spring at safety before being summoned by Brown after spring ball and told he would open preseason camp at corner. Sandersfeld was surprised.
"Since I knew what I was doing, I kind of thought of it as me just being there and seeing if other guys could step up, could come in and take the position," Sandersfeld said. "It just turned out that I made some plays that helped me. Still, I've got a long ways to go, and if I mess up there's some guys that are pretty good behind me who can step right in. Now, it's a game of who can perform consistently."
In his position change, something Sandersfeld has heard continuously now resonates with him even more: "The coaches always say to know where your help is; I play to that more now," he said. "On some routes, if I get a good jump I can beat someone on it, but for me, knowing where my help is and playing to that advantage really helps me."
He believes playing safety demands more of a cerebral approach than playing corner because of the safeties' run responsibilities. "You have to read the run fit and see what the line's doing, then you've got to key to your guy," he said. "At corner, it's basically knowing what leverage to take - inside or outside, then you play that.
"I think at corner, the more you think about it, the worse it's going to get for you. I'd say safety is more of a thinking position; corner is a lot more reaction and footwork and knowing your angles. Safety is about angles, too, but (at CB) you need to have the good footwork and hip work to be able to turn on a slant."
Senior Anthony Perkins, a defensive co-captain along with inside linebacker Jon Major, said Sandersfeld's mental approach and his versatility aided him in the conversion to corner.
"He's one of those guys who's smart enough and athletic enough to play any of those positions in the back half," Perkins said. "He's just one of those guys who can play anywhere on the field. He's a great guy and a great teammate. Right now we need him to step up and play corner and he's stepped up and accepted that job. I'm confident in him. He's going to be where he's supposed to be and will compete."
Perkins started the first five games of last season at strong safety before suffering a knee injury that shelved him for the rest of the year and kept him out of spring drills. The knee is strong now, but he continues rehabilitation.
Perkins, said Brown, offers the defense "a coach on the field," while fellow safety Ray Polk is "a tough dude who can run and hit." Polk (6-1, 205) takes his role seriously; Brown tells of numerous days during spring and summer when he'd find Polk alone in the Dal Ward Athletics Center studying tape.
Said Brown: "He takes it to heart and thinks it through; he's very conscientious in learning both our defensive scheme and the opponent's offense."
Against Hawai'i, CU's opening opponent on Sept. 3, Brown's secondary will confront an offense that averaged 394.3 yards passing (No. 1 nationally) and 500.6 total yards (No. 6) last season. The Warriors routinely use four-receiver sets, putting defenses in nickel and dime packages for most of the game.
In getting an extra DB or two on the field, Brown says his "fingers and toes are crossed" in hopes of Orms being close to 100 percent: "If he's healthy, he helps us tremendously. It'll be a big, big plus - a huge benefit - if he can play."
But equally important in pass defense is pressure on the quarterback, and Perkins believes the Buffs will be able to make senior Bryant Moniz uncomfortable. Moniz led the nation in passing yards (360) and total yards per game (367.3) last season. His 39 TD passes also topped the NCAA in that category.
"We've got some guys up front - some really good defensive linemen and great guys off the edge," said Perkins, who recovered a fumble at the CU 2-yard line last season against Hawai'i in the Buffs' 31-13 win. "We've got two real smart, athletic linebackers in (Doug) Rippy and (Jon) Major. That's what we're hoping to do (pressure the quarterback). They're some great athletes, and defense is played with 11 guys. As a whole group, it's going to be on us to get the job done. I'm really comfortable with where we're at on defense. We're all excited; we're going to get after some teams."
And most teams will come after CU's corners, starting with Hawai'i, which attempted 42 passes (completing 27) last season in Boulder. "Yeah, that's going to happen because we're new," Sandersfeld said. "But I feel like as long we do what we've got to do and play to our strengths we'll be all right. We've got great safeties. Ray Polk has great speed and can help us out. But it's going to be a challenge for us, no doubt about that."
Added Perkins: "Obviously, from the outside looking in, you're going to see two brand new corners and you automatically think, 'that's their weakness.' But we're confident. We're going to go out and compete. We're excited for the opportunity. I hope teams come after us. I hope they try to attack us; that just gives us more opportunities to prove ourselves."
For the sake of their rebuilt secondary, might it be better for the Buffs to open against an opponent that doesn't throw 45 or more times a game? Don't even go there with Brown.
"We don't think twice about it," he said. "The way the schedule is presented to us, hey, that's who we're playing and who our focus is on. Let's tee it up and go. End of story."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Greg Brown, third stint at CU (seven seasons), first season under Jon Embree.
Returning starters: S Anthony Perkins, Sr.; S Ray Polk, Jr.; DB Travis Sandersfeld, Sr.; S Terrel Smith, Soph.
Returnees: CB Paul Vigo, Soph.; CB Jonathan Hawkins, Sr.; CB Parker Orms, Soph.; S Arthur Jaffee, Sr.; CB Ayodeji Olatoye, Soph.; CB Josh Moten, Fr.-RS; DB Vince Ewing, Jr.; DB Jordan Marquez, Fr.-RS.; DB Justin Gorman, Fr.-RS;
Newcomers: CB Greg Henderson, Fr.; S Will Harlos, Fr.; DB Jermane Clark, Fr.; DB River Thompson, Fr.; CB Kyle Washington, Fr.; DB Richard Yates, Fr.; DB Hunter Harrison, Soph. (joining team on Sept. 5); CB Jered Bell, Fr. (injured); CB Sherrard Harrington, Fr. (injured)
Key losses: CB Jimmy Smith, CB Jalil Brown.
Stat line: CU ranked ninth in the Big 12 last season in passing defense (110th in the NCAA), allowing 259.8 yards a game. Jalil Brown led the team in interceptions (three), with Sandersfeld next (two).
Bottom line: The Buffs' most glaring question entering preseason camp: Who will replace Smith and Brown as the starting corners? Sandersfeld and Henderson stepped up, and they will be called on to do it again quickly against pass-happy Hawaii in the opener. Depth behind Sandersfeld and Henderson still is being developed, so Greg Brown's best option is hoping his starters hold up and hold on to their jobs. The safeties - Polk and Perkins - are solid and will be counted on to help guide the new CBs through their break-in period. A healthy Orms will bring a considerable upgrade to the secondary somewhere, either at corner or nickel.
Next: Special teams.