BOULDER - On a Colorado defense that figures to be a lush green at several spots, Brian Cabral's position appears as an oasis of experience. And the way CU's veteran linebackers coach sees it, the Buffs need every ounce of that commodity that his group can provide.
If good fortune holds through August camp (and in football that's always sketchy), Cabral will open the season with two seniors - Doug Rippy and Jon Major - and one junior - Derrick Webb - as his starters. Contrast that with the secondary and defensive line, which likely will feature only one senior starter each (safety Ray Polk, tackle Will Pericak), and linebacker shapes up as the Buffs' reservoir of experience.
Cabral likes it that way.
"It has to be that way," he said. "Because one, just the nature of the position, you expect your linebackers to be the leaders. But two, we're going to be very green in front of us and behind us. My guys need to know how to lead on the field. That's probably our challenge for this season - to be the kind of leaders that this defense needs."
From what Rippy observed during summer conditioning work, these incoming freshmen are a different cut of Buff. He agrees that several of the players lined up in front and behind him and his LB mates might be first-year players, but he notes, "That really doesn't matter now. The attitudes and demeanor of some of these freshmen is different. These guys came from winning high schools and they know what it takes; they have the attitude that shows it. But it's still up to the veteran linebackers to show them how it's done."
Rippy (middle), Major (strong side) and Webb (weak side) have combined for 35 starts, with Major's 20 tops among the trio. He battled injuries for the first two years of his CU career, but started all 13 games in 2011. Still, Cabral says by late November Major wasn't as whole as he appeared: "He kind of limped through at the end. I'd like to see him have a full, fresh season. We need him to have a healthy year."
Ditto for the other two, especially Rippy, who missed nearly half (six games) of his junior season with a knee injury that required surgery and kept him out of spring drills. Rippy says he's considered "full go" for camp, but Cabral counters, "I'm not going to throw him 'full go.' I have to be smart in how I bring him back. I just want to bring him along and see what he can handle and how well he handles it. Everything (with his knee) is fine, solid . . . it's just a matter of bringing him back the right way."
Adds Rippy: "My knee feels good and my mind is clear; I'm ready to turn it on. I'm going to do everything the trainers and coaching staff asks me to do."
Webb can be a devastating tackler (he averaged 4.2 a game last season) and is a bona fide special teams standout. He was CU's special teams points runner-up (27) in 2010 and the leader (33) in 2011. Cabral is expecting "a bigger role" for Webb at his position as well as "greater consistency. He has a knack for making big plays, but at the same time we need for him to be a consistent performer."
The last recruiting cycle was one of those rare occasions when CU didn't sign a linebacker. It wasn't an oversight. Four linebackers were signed in the previous two classes, including three in 2011 and one (Lowell Williams) in 2010. The trio of 2011 signees - Brady Daigh, Woodson Greer III and K.T. Tu'umalo - all played last season, which Cabral termed "good news . . . the learning curve is a lot better with them having played and experienced the season as opposed to redshirting.
"That's really the group that I need to see the most progress from; I've got to keep my first group fresh. I do want to bring them along. I need them to be better at the end of the season from the beginning of the season. And that's true for us as a group, too."
Cabral was impressed with his underclassmen's spring work and their carryover desire to improve through the summer. "If they continue to grow and improve then I'm going to have a real solid group, a real solid corps of linebackers," he said.
Plus, he has received reinforcements in the form of a pair of former safeties - sophomore Kyle Washington, junior Paul Vigo - who have moved to the weak side position. One walk-on - Clay Jones (inside) - and a UC-Davis transfer - Scotty Jarvis (middle) - fill out Cabral's roster.
Washington, who averaged 2.5 tackles in eight games last season at safety, was a pre-spring addition to the linebacker corps, while Vigo moved after spring drills. So August camp offers Cabral his first look at Vigo in his new spot.
Nonetheless, Cabral says he's "seen enough of him to think that's a positive move for both of us - him and my position. I need some depth there. He's not lined up as linebacker for me yet, but I have every reason to believe that he can do the things we need him to do at that position. Just like Kyle Washington . . . I felt strongly about his ability to step into that position."
As for improvement from his group in general, Cabral wants to see "continued progress in understanding what we're asking them to do and then executing it well. We went through a lot of learning processes last year; now I just want to be able to see them execute it."
While he acknowledges there is no substitute for experience, Cabral believes the defense's expected youth will be off-set by ability. "Yeah, they're going to be young," he said, "but they're also going to be talented. There's a difference. We feel very strongly about the talent in this class. We expect them to grow game by game . . . stay healthy and grow fast."
"I'm real excited about the defense, but real excited about the whole team, too," Rippy added. "The leadership over the summer was great, just a great attitude all the way around. But it's practice time now; it's time to let your actions speak. There's been enough talking. We just want to get out there and play. Right now that's what it comes down to."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Brian Cabral, 24rd season at CU, 23rd as a full-time assistant.
Returning starters: OLB Jon Major, Sr.; MLB Doug Rippy, Sr.; WLB Derrick Webb, Jr.
Returnees: OLB Lowell Williams, Soph.; WLB Kyle Washington, Soph.; MLB Clay Jones, Fr.-RS.; MLB Brady Daigh, Soph.; OLB Woodson Greer III, Soph; WLB K.T. Tu'umalo, Soph.; WLB Paul Vigo, Jr.
Newcomers: MLB Scotty Jarvis, Soph. (transfer from UC-Davis).
Key losses: WLB Patrick Mahnke, OLB Liloa Nobriga (left program), ILB Jermane Clark (released during camp).
Stat line: Major was the Buffs' leader last season in total tackles (85) and ranked second in tackles for loss (seven, including three sacks). He also was tied for second on the team with six third-down stops.
Bottom line: The venerable Cabral has another good linebacker corps returning, but a possible question mark is how quickly Rippy returns to form after the knee injury that shortened his 2011 season. Major and Webb have loads of experience, and Daigh, Tu'umalo and Washington, who switched from safety, were among the defensive bright spots last season as freshmen. One of Cabral's camp priorities will be developing depth, but there appears to be enough players to help him out. Tu'umalo got six games worth of experience as a freshman DB last season and Greer, who at 6-3, 225 looks the part of a linebacker, played in three games. Staying healthy as a group is key.
Next: Special teams.
BUFF BITS: Score one for the defense. Actually, score six for the defense. That's how many turnovers the 'D' collected in Thursday afternoon's practice. Of course, it was a bittersweet occasion for coach Jon Embree, who said his offense "had its moments, but the defense is continuing to get a good job of getting turnovers." Along with sophomore corner Greg Henderson, freshmen corners Yuri Wright and Kenneth Crawley had an interception each - their first of camp. "I was beginning to wonder," Embree joked. He said the "D" is "beginning to get a little bit of swagger about them. (But) we've got to get going offensively consistently. We have our moments, we're making some big plays. But as a coach you don't want one side dominating. I'm not sure the defense dominated, but I want less turnovers." . . . . Linebacker Kyle Washington missed Thursday's work with a concussion suffered the previous day. He will be held out a few days, Embree said . . . . Visitors to Thursday's practice included former CU punter Andy Mitchell and former linebacker Marcus Burton. Former coach Gary Barnett dropped by on Wednesday afternoon . . . . The Buffs are in full pads on Friday afternoon for the first time this camp. A morning walk-through is scheduled again, but it might be offense only. Embree said the defense's performance on Thursday afternoon had earned a morning off - if that unit's coaches wanted it.