(Sixth in a series of position-by-position previews of the 2014 Buffs to be posted on CUBuffs.com during preseason camp. Today: Linebackers)
BOULDER – Last Friday morning wasn’t the prime time for Kent Baer to assess the speed of his University of Colorado linebackers corps. With full pads pulled on two days before, the Buffaloes were in the seventh of seven consecutive practices. Legs that had been lively a week earlier were laboring as if they were encased in concrete.
Still, as he surveyed players like Kenneth Olugbode, Addison Gillam and Woodson Greer III – the trio currently projected to be his starters – the overall improvement in speed at the position Baer coaches was obvious.
“They don’t look faster today because they’re tired,” said Baer, himself showing a few early signs of camp fatigue. “But, yeah, we’re faster at linebacker than we were a year ago. A lot of it is some younger guys stepping up and playing like they can and the speed work we’ve done in the off-season.”
Another factor: Year 2 in Baer’s defense finds his players more attuned to him, his scheme and its demands. Hardly a college football camp passes without someone saying “we’re playing faster” or “we need to” – and CU’s camp finds Baer’s guys punching the accelerator.
“We’ve gotten a lot faster . . . that’s what happens being in a defense for two years,” said Olugbode, a speedster who played three LB positions in five games last season as a freshman and came away with enough experience to be projected as a 2014 starter at the Will (inside) spot.
Olugbode seized his opportunities to play in 2013 when Baer needed a replacement for inside backer Derrick Webb and when Greer, a Sam (outside) backer, suffered a late-season stinger. “He’s done a tremendous job,” Baer said of Olugbode. “We didn’t know whether he would play last year, but we kept him on the travel squad and he ended up playing on kicking teams.
“The last four games he was forced to play three different spots. He’s a smart kid, very knowledgeable, and doesn’t make the same mistake more than once. He’s still got a lot to learn but he’ll be the guy who plays in that spot. He’s doing a great job.”
Selected by the coaches as last spring’s most improved linebacker, Olugbode called his first season “fast-paced and completely new for me. But now it’s beginning to slow down with more reps. You can see where you’ve got to go and your keys are easier to read.”
The keys he’s more clued in on now are the guards – “seeing them pull and knowing where the running back is. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned,” he said.
A chiseled 6-0, 210 pounds, Olugbode cites his speed and better use of his hands as now being his strong suits. He would like to add more weight without sacrificing any speed; more poundage and strength, he said, would allow him to be more productive inside the tackles.
Just as much as his speed, Olugbode’s knowledge of the defense in only his second season has impressed Greer. “Being as smart as he is, Kenneth plays like he’s a true sophomore who played more than he did last year,” Greer said. “He understands the defense, the little ins and outs. I think we can definitely be much better than last year at linebacker.”
Of the projected starters, two – Olugbode and Gillam – are sophomores. Greer is the lone senior and Baer’s assessment of him begins with the need for consistency. “They all need more (consistency) but with him sometimes the light will come on and you’ll go, ‘Wow,’” Baer said. “Then he’ll have the same defense or the same read and he’ll make an old mistake. It’s just about consistency with him.”
Of course, that’s not news to Greer, whose potential has been hyped by every CU coach he’s played for. Mindful that he’s about to begin his final season, he said most of the Buffs’ older players “are taking on bigger roles and are stepping up. I think we took it upon ourselves this summer to really understand the defense more so that when we got into camp we could work on more complex stuff that goes into our defense, go deeper into the playbook and be more efficient.”
Accepting that responsibility has boosted his leadership ability. “Helping younger players, if it’s watching film with them or sitting down for a couple of minutes with them, it’s something us as veteran linebackers have taken on as a responsibility,” he said, adding his next step is to be a more vocal leader. “I’m working on it. I’ll do it right (in practice) but I won’t speak up that much. Telling people when they’re right or wrong is something I’ve tried to work on.”
Aside from some typical freshman blunders last season in lining up, missing reads, etc., Gillam quickly moved past being a typical freshman. Baer has said Gillam’s physique (6-3, 225 pounds) reminds him more of a diver than a middle linebacker, but those comparisons end when the ball is snapped. Playing the Mike (inside) position, Gillam led the Buffs in tackles (119, 78 solo) and set school freshman records with those totals.
After a full season and full spring, Baer said Gillam “has gotten so much better, but there’s still a lot to learn and he’d be the first to tell you that, I hope.”
Baer called Gillam “a great listener,” but added that Gillam might need to turn down the volume on himself when he makes a mistake. “That’s the thing he has to be careful with, he tends to get down on himself too much when he does something wrong,” Baer said. “A lot of those things that happen are maybe things maybe we’ve never seen before (from an offense). He has to learn to watch the tape and move on to the next thing.”
Behind Greer, Gillam and Olugbode is depth that Baer believes is adequate. He lists a handful “of guys who can play,” naming Brady Daigh, Deayshawn Rippy, Ryan Severson and K.T. Tu’umalo. But, he adds, “ten of the twelve teams we play are spread teams so you’re looking at four guys to play in the box.”
That usually means an extra defensive back or two (nickel, dime backs) with one replacing Greer, the Sam (outside) linebacker.
In addition to emphasizing speed, Baer puts a premium on toughness – and Olugbode believes the Buffs are discovering that nasty edge. “We get tougher each day,” he said. “We’re banging with those big linemen and that’s what we’re supposed to do – we’re linebackers.”
Faster, tougher, smarter in Year 2 should equal better, according to Greer: “I think we’ll be better. Everybody has made great leaps, but nobody else has seen that except for us. We just have to go out there and prove it on Aug. 29 (against Colorado State).”
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Kent Baer, second year on CU staff; also is defensive coordinator
Returning starters: ILB Addison Gillam, So.
Returnees: ILB Brady Daigh, Sr.; OLB K.T. Tu’uamolo, Sr.; ILB Thor Eaton, Jr.; OLB Woodson Greer III, Sr.; OLB Hunter Shaw, Jr.; OLB Kenneth Olugbode, So.; ILB Ryan Severson, So.
Newcomers: OLB Deaysean Rippy, So.; Lance Cottrell, Fr. (WO)
Key losses: ILB Derrick Webb, SLB Paul Vigo, SLB Tommy Papalion, SLB Lowell Williams
Stat line: Gillam didn’t waste time making a name for himself, setting a school freshman record for tackles (119, 78 solo) and leading the Buffs in that category. In all, he set seven CU freshman marks.
Bottom line: Defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Kent Baer puts a premium on speed, and his linebacking corps should be improved in that department this season. If a player can run and hit, Baer can use him – simple as that. Gillam can play sideline-to-sideline, as can Olugbode and Greer. Severson should push for playing time at the Will (inside) spot with Rippy possibly making a move at the Sam (outside) spot. When the Buffs need more beef inside, the 250-pound Daigh can provide it.
Next: Offensive line