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The Colorado Buffaloes' 2016 football campaign was successful by pretty much any standard.
In addition to getting their first win against Oregon in 18 years, they won the Pac 12 South for the first time ever, and played in the Valero Alamo Bowl - which was their first bowl appearance in 11 seasons. More importantly, the Buffs went from being the laughingstock of the Pac 12, to being a serious contender for years to come.
One of the Buffs biggest strengths last season was their secondary. The backend of their defense was good enough for fifteen interceptions, and sent three of their starters - cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon and Chidobe Awuzie and safety Tedric Thompson to the NFL.
Although the secondary was one of the Buffs' strong points in 2016, it remains one of their biggest question marks heading into 2017. The concern isn’t unwarranted as in addition to losing three of their top starters to the NFL, secondary coach Joe Tumpkin, who coached the Buffs secondary from 2015-2016, resigned amid a alleged sexual abuse scandal.
His resignation was surely a tough pill to swallow for Tumpkin, the Buffs players, and the coaching staff. Tumpkin’s coaching technique and scheme, put together with his fiery attitude, were both major players in the Buffs turnaround from 4-9 two years ago, to 10-4 last season. Prior to being a large part of Colorado’s recent turnaround, Tumpkin was the defensive coordinator at Center Michigan from 2010 until he joined Coach McIntyre's staff in 2015.
Replacing Tumpkin will be former Campbellsville University standout linebacker ShaDon Brown. Like Tumpkin, Brown also has a proven track record heading into his time at Colorado. He spent last season as the secondary coordinator at Army, where he coached a defensive backs group which ranked sixth in the nation in pass defense, allowing a pedestrian 170.2 yards per game through the air. This was a Colorado like turnaround, as the unit was 48th in the nation the year before. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Brown’s lone season at Army, was that he was able to produce such good results from a unit that suffered mightily from injuries.
Most notably, he transformed true freshman prospects Elijah Riley and Jaylon McClinton from no name guys who were buried on the depth chart, to viable starters for many years to come. This was captivated in the team’s 38-31 Heart of Dallas Bowl victory over North Texas, where Riley recorded two interceptions.
Although Brown has proven that he could transform a young team into one of the most elite units in college football, he will have to do so again - albeit, to a lesser degree, in Colorado. One thing that will inevitably ease this transition is the fact that Brown coached under the familiar 3-4 scheme during his time at Army.
After losing three starters to the NFL, Brown will be forced to rely on the shoulders of junior defensive backs Nick Fisher, and Isaiah Oliver, and senior safety Afolabi Laguda, who have been impressive the past few seasons. Despite the question marks surrounding the secondary, the Buffs have both the depth and consistency to not only match, but surpass 2016’s performance.
Laguda in particular seems poised to have an absolute breakout season. In addition to his excellent instincts, and elusive closing speed, he has the Kam Chancellor like ability to peek into the opposing team’s backfield, read the quarterback’s body language, and stop a play before it happens. This was something that helped him record five tackles for either no gain or a loss, as well as three stops on third down last season.
Oliver has flashed solid, fluid hip rotation when in route with a receiver, and showed off his impressive ball skills at times - something that helped him to seven pass breakups, and an interception in 2016. This put together with his dazzling punt returning ability, lead me to believe he is ready to take the next step in becoming one of the elite players in college football.
Being that the Buffs have, two early heisman trophy frontrunner signal callers in their division in USC's Sam Darnold and UCLA's Josh Rosen, their secondary will minimally have to replicate 2016’s performance if they want any chance of contending this season.