The Colorado defense wasn't the only reason so many close games slipped beyond the Buffs' grasp last fall, but it was a major one. Improvements were made, and the blowouts of 2013 transformed into close heart breakers in 2014 (the USC and Oregon contests notwithstanding) but this unit will need to take another stride forward if the Buffaloes of 2015 are to win multiple conference games. Under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt I believe they're prepared to do that.
Reports out of camp this summer indicate that Leavitt will be implementing his 3-4 base scheme piece by piece, as players develop and opportunities arise. He'll likely complement that set with 4-3 and 4-2 looks as well. Everything begins up front and Colorado's lack of depth and struggle to contain the run since joining the Pac-12 have been well documented That worm may finally turn this fall, at least slightly.
While the Buffs currently lack a bona fide nose tackle to anchor the interior, the move to primarily three down linemen will free up Jimmie Gilbert and Derek McCartney on the outside to fully utilize their athleticism and drop back into coverage or rush the edge. If Justin Solis, Eddy Lopez, and most importantly Samson Kafovalu, who by all indications is having a great camp, can boost their play on the interior and occupy multiple opposing linemen Leavitt should be able to throw out much more varied looks and packages. Any amount of uncertainty the Buffs are able to instill in the opposing quarterback will be meaningful.
The middle of the field sees the return of Colorado's two leading tacklers; Kenneth Olugbode and Addison Gillam. This pair provides steady on-field direction and are quick and agile to the ball. Gillam will need to find his freshman form, and stay healthy, if this defense is to reach its ceiling this season. Behind the two upperclassmen lurks some promising young talent. Rick Gamboa should see a lot of run this coming season and, if the glowing reports out of camp are any indication, we can look forward to Grant Watanabe and N.J. Falo contributing in the years to come.
Crucially, the Buffs may be strongest in the secondary. Last year's unit was decimated by injuries, but this year Leavitt has some newfound depth to work with. Kenneth Crawley and Chidobe Awuzie have the corner spots locked up, aside from when Awuzie lines up as the nickel back in which case a very capable Ahkello Witherspoon will step in on the outside. John Walker will also likely see time in the nickel as he did last year. Tedric Thompson, Jered Bell, and Evan White will see the majority of the work at safety, with strong backups in junior college transfer Afolabi Laguda (my pick to have a surprisingly big impact and also my new favorite Buff), Marques Mosley, and Ryan Moeller.
Famously, this defense produced all of three interceptions last season, each belonging to Thompson. It follows, then, that the most important factor in this unit's quest for respectability will be the creation of turnovers. In order to be successful in a conference with such high powered attacks (and really at football in general), you have to take the ball away. Offensively, giveaways doomed the Buffaloes in crucial spots multiple times last season, this year the defense will need to claim their fair share. With a new scheme, new roles, and an increasingly opportunistic attitude I expect the Buffs to create more than a few of the critical turnovers that so often crippled them last season. Mike MacIntyre has preached playing freely and opportunistically since Day 1 in Boulder, it's now up to a more seasoned unit to execute.
Lastly, and not to be under valued by any means, is the passion and attitude that Leavitt brings to this team. Where Kent Baer was more reserved and distant, Jim Leavitt is in your face, flying around the field, and barking encouragement. I think it's become pretty clear by now that Leavitt is a guy that players will lay it all on the line for. He is completely emotionally, physically, and spiritually invested in his job and this team and as a player you have no choice but to reciprocate that attitude.
No team in the Pac-12 South grew any worse offensively over the off season, the Buffalo defense has a brutally steep road ahead of it. However, the bet here is that renewed health, increased strength, experience across the board, and Jim Leavitt will elevate this group to a markedly higher level. Really, there's no where to go but up at this point.