(Fourth in a series of position-by-position previews of the 2014 Buffs to be posted on CUBuffs.com during preseason camp. Today: Defensive line)
BOULDER – After two-decades in the NFL as a player and coach, Jim Jeffcoat is no stranger to studying tape. He can’t kick the habit, nor does he want to. His job at the University of Colorado won’t allow it.
Even before he began preparing for the 2014 football season and his role of coaching CU’s interior defensive linemen, Jeffcoat knew one of the Buffaloes’ defensive shortcomings from 2013. And while watching even more NFL tape, sprinkled with re-runs of some of the college game’s better D-lines, Jeffcoat was smacked with an obvious conclusion:
“This holds true: All the successful teams usually have a good push inside with the interior guys. If you look at teams that have high sack numbers, they usually have good guys inside rushing the quarterback.”
Jeffcoat’s observation stands tall among his and the Buffs’ defensive priorities this season – get pressure on the passer from his interior linemen. Of course, CU defensive coordinator Kent Baer isn’t opposed to blitzing a linebacker or occasionally running a corner or safety into a QB’s face. But if he can get a consistent push from the inside and from his ends, those other more exotic calls become even more effective.
Jeffcoat, who played 15 seasons for the Dallas Cowboys and three for the Buffalo Bills, is solely focused this season on coaching CU’s interior linemen. Last season, he also was responsible for the defensive ends, but a spring assignment switch by coach Mike MacIntyre moved Andy LaRussa from coaching cornerbacks to defensive ends. Jeffcoat welcomed the help and LaRussa was fine with the move.
“It was an easy transition,” said LaRussa, who played defensive end in college and early on in his career had helped coached the defensive front as a graduate assistant.
“It helps,” Jeffcoat said of getting assistance from LaRussa. “We’re unique because most of our ends are hybrid – they drop, they rush. Now I can focus on the interior and give us a better advantage with those guys, get them learning techniques and schemes.”
That inside push on the QB that Jeffcoat seeks was lacking last season. Of the Buffs’ 17 sacks in 2013 – the Pac-12’s lowest total – only 31/2 came from players who exclusively played in the interior. Samson Kafovalu, who is listed on the inactive roster for camp, made three sacks but split time between tackle and end. Graduated end Chidera Uzo-Diribe’s four sacks was CU’s season high, with inside linebacker Addison Gillam contributing three.
At MacIntyre’s and his staff’s previous stop at San Jose State, Jeffcoat’s four D-line starters accounted for 35 total sacks, with each player ranking in the nation’s top 100 for the 2012 season. And Jeffcoat concluded his NFL career with 102.5 sacks. CU’s defensive linemen don’t question his credibility or much of anything else he offers them.
“He’s still showing us different techniques that will help us,” said junior tackle Josh Tupou. “He always shows us film of NFL players, guys with the Seahawks and defenses that have a good interior push. We don’t have too much of that at this point; we’re still working on it and just learning day-by-day. But by CSU (the opener against Colorado State on Aug. 29) we should be ready.”
Aside from Tupou, Jeffcoat has another returning starting tackle in junior Justin Solis. Specifically to add interior quickness and hopefully inside pressure, senior Juda Parker was moved inside from defensive end. After that trio, the interior experience slips, leaving Jeffcoat to look at freshmen (redshirt and true) to fill what he hopes to be a four- or five-man inside rotation that will prevent any one player from competing in more than 60 percent of the snaps.
“When we won Super Bowls with Dallas that’s what we did – rotate guys and kept them fresh,” Jeffcoat said. “The energy was unbelievable. I’m expecting them to play at a high tempo, be aggressive, but I don’t want any of my guys playing more than 60 percent because I want them fresh, going out with energy. I’m expecting them to be the best in the league.”
Jeffcoat calls Tupou, Solis and Parker “kind of my rocks. They’re starting to take the leadership role and help me. You can’t see everything and once you get your players to understand what you want and they can correct it for you, that helps a lot.”
Tupou (313) and Solis (305) are heavyweights with plenty of game experience, while Parker (270) has most of his CU experience at end and might list agility and quickness as his fortes.
Tupou, who is hopeful of dropping nearly 10 pounds before the opener, called having Jeffcoat focus on coaching the tackles “a great thing; guys get more one-on-one coaching. Some need that more than others. It’s especially good that he can work the freshmen, the younger guys. You can tell the older guys are learning and know what they’re doing and what’s expected of them.
“But we still have to bring the younger guys along. They haven’t gotten into a good fit and don’t have a good feel of how the defense is going to work.”
In LaRussa’s new area – end – CU loses last season’s sack leader (Uzo-Diribe) but returns three players with game experience: Jimmie Gilbert, Tyler Henington and De’Jon Wilson. Plus, redshirt freshman end Derek McCartney is coming off a productive spring and is likely to be in LaRussa’s rotation on the outside. Another solid candidate is redshirt freshman Markeis Reed, although a sports hernia will require surgery this week and sideline him for nearly a month. And Henington has been nursing a sore ankle.
“Whoever is ready to go (will rotate),” LaRussa said. “The more guys you have out there, if there’s no drop off, it makes it harder on an offensive line. Those guys aren’t rotating. If we can have the same production, the same athleticism, speed and knowledge play after play it’s going to make it a lot tougher on those guys. If they’re all ready then we’ll figure out a rotation and let them play. We’re young but we’ve got a lot of athletic ability in the group.”
Gilbert played in 12 games (261 snaps) last season and accounted for 11 tackles (8 solo), including one sack. Getting that experience as a freshman, he said, “really showed me the difference between high school and college ball. The guys are bigger and stronger and you can’t just bully them like you did in high school. Coming from Texas (College Station), everybody’s big but in college they’re way bigger.”
Weighing maybe 215 pound as a freshman, Gilbert is up to 230 now and still a rangy 6-4 with aspirations of “trying to put on more weight if I can.” Labrum surgery took him out of spring practice and left him “literally behind everybody,” he said. “I’m trying to get back in the groove and knock some rust off, improve my footwork, my hand placement, my get-off, my pass rush, run technique, my intensity – all of that.”
But Gilbert appears to be a quick study, according to LaRussa, and will factor into the mix of replacing Uzo-Diribe. “He’s going to be tough to replace, but hopefully we can a couple of guys to get his production,” LaRussa said. “We have to be stout and strong in pass rush situations. I think we have some guys who can rush the passer. But we have to make sure we stop the run first and get to those situations. Obviously we’d like to see increased numbers in sacks and tipped balls.”
QB pressure is on the mind of every defensive coach in the Pac-12 Conference. “You have half the quarterbacks up for the Unitas Award, you have to get quarterback pressure,” LaRussa said. “It’s the only way you’re going to succeed. No. 1, stop the run. But with great quarterbacks, you have to get pressure.
“Our first focus is always stopping the run but when we get an offense in a predictable passing situation we have to attack, get to the quarterback and make him feel very uncomfortable.”
That means pressure from anywhere the Buffs can muster it – but particularly from the inside.
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coaches: Jim Jeffcoat, second season on CU staff, interior line; Andy LaRussa, second season on CU staff, ends.
Returning starters: DT Josh Tupou, Jr.; DT Juda Parker, Sr.; DT Justin Solis, Jr.
Returnees: DE/T Samson Kafovalu, Jr. (inactive); DE De’Jon Wilson, So.; DT Tyler Henington, Jr.; DT John Paul Tuso, So.; DE Derek McCartney, Fr.-RS.; DE Aaron Howard, So.; DE Markeis Reed, Fr.-RS (injured); DE Jimmie Gilbert, So.; DT Bryan Wyman, Fr.-RS.; DE Garrett Gregory, Fr.-RS.; DT Clay Norgard, So.
Newcomers: DE Jase Franke, Fr.; DE Terran Hasselbach, Fr.; DT Eddie Lopez, Fr.; DE Michael Mathewes, Fr.; DE Christian Shaver, Fr.
Key losses: DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe; DT Nate Bonsu; DE Kirk Poston (left squad); DE Andre Nichols.
Stat line: Of the Buffs’ 17 sacks in 2013 – the Pac-12’s lowest total – only 31/2 came from players who exclusively played in the interior. Inside linebacker Addison Gillam contributed three and Samson Kafovalu, listed on the inactive roster for camp, also made three but split time between tackle and end. He’s currently on the inactive roster for personal reasons. Graduated end Chidera Uzo-Diribe’s four sacks was CU’s season high.
Bottom line: Bringing Andy LaRussa from coaching cornerbacks to coach the defensive ends should help with the instruction of a very young DE corps. That leaves veteran Jim Jeffcoat to concentrate on getting the most out of the Buffs’ tackles in hopes of generating more of an inside pass rush. To that end and to keep his players fresh, Jeffcoat wants to establish a four- or five-player interior rotation, with none of his guys playing more than 60 percent of the snaps. LaRussa wants at least that at end.