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Colorado Football Defensive Preview
There's no other way to put it: they're not good.
Remember when Cal's offense was Cheez-It Bowl bad in 2018, but they somehow managed to score 49 points on Oregon State? Colorado has similar defensive stats to that OSU team. In fact, 2018 OSU is probably the best comparison I can think of when it comes to this Colorado defense.
The primary reason: their run defense is terrible. And there’s one good reason for that: they can’t tackle.
That 2018 OSU team finished the season 2nd to last in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game, with 294.2 yards allowed/game. 2022 Colorado is currently last in the FBS, with 303.0 rushing yards allowed/game. Looking at the total defensive stats doesn’t look much better: Colorado is bottom-3 in the FBS in opponent yards/game with 517.6 yards/game (2018 OSU was bottom-2 with 541.4 yards/game, but they have 2018 UConn to thank for setting new FBS record defensive lows that year to keep them from the bottom).
When I was browsing through the Pac-12 stat book earlier this week, I was surprised at just how many opponents set individual and team season-highs in games against Colorado (total offense, passing yards, passing TDs, fumbles recovered, QB sacks, … the list goes on and on, and Colorado owes Jaydn Ott a debt of gratitude for saving them from also holding the record lows in the rushing categories as well). Teams have no problem setting season-high rushing yards against Colorado because they just simply cannot tackle well.
That 2018 OSU team had the same problem. Counting “missed tackles” is an inexact science, but PFF says that 2018 OSU had 105 missed tackles out of 407 successful tackles (20.9% missed tackles). Through 5 games so far, 2022 Colorado has 58 missed tackles out of 175 successful tackles (24.9% missed tackles). For what it’s worth, that extrapolates to full season of 139 missed tackles with 420 successful tackles. That terrible 2018 OSU defense was missing one in every five attempted tackles, while 2022 Colorado is missing one in every four attempts.
Even worse, Colorado hasn’t even played most of the top teams in the conference yet: they still have games against Utah, USC, Oregon, and Washington in the weeks to come. UCLA’s running back, Zach Charbonnet, averaged 11.6 yards per carry against Colorado, and the only reason that number isn’t higher is because they stop counting those yards after you cross into the endzone. What do you think Jaydn Ott and Cal will do?
Let’s take an example. Minnesota is a good team, but they are playing their backups at this point in the game. Despite this, opposing teams routinely get to the second level of the defense:
This explains why Colorado’s leading tackler is a safety, and 5 of their top 7 tacklers are defensive backs.
Colorado’s defensive struggles can probably be traced back to attrition: they lost talented players, and have no one to replace them. Heck, I spent my entire 2021 Colorado article talking about players who are no longer there (which sucks, because I was really hoping to sneak some copy/paste into this one). Nate Landman and Carson Wells were great linebackers, but they’ve graduated. They had some solid cornerbacks in Christian Gonzalez (a future NFL Draft pick, someone I think will go surprisingly high) and Mekhi Blackmon, but they lost both of them to transfer (Oregon and USC, respectively). Mustafa Johnson is gone from the defensive line.
With all that said, I am going to do my best to look for positives here (although the one real positive is in the linebackers section, in case you want to skip ahead).
Colorado is currently in the bottom-3 in the FBS in sacks per game, posting an abysmal 4 total sacks in 5 games (and 3 of those 4 sacks belong to one linebacker). None of those sacks belong to anyone on the defensive line. You might think that Cal’s offensive line is bad, but I suspect they’re about to have their best game of the season statistically-speaking.
So anyway, here’s the defensive line.
There’s the veteran defensive tackle, Jalen Sami, who once saved a touchdown with a forced fumble:
The edge rusher, Guy Thomas, once beat a block to get a tackle for loss:
Colorado is merely 6th-to-last in the FBS in TFLs, so this is technically something they’ve done a nonzero number of times.
Oh look, here’s the backup edge rusher also getting a TFL:
Here the freshman defensive end Aaron Austin got pressure on QB Jayden de Laura, which is as close to a sack as you’re going to get on this guy here:
If you asked me before the season to name Colorado’s defensive line, the one name I would have got correct would be the defensive end Terrance Lang. There’s no highlights of him here, because he’s been a ghost so far this season. Per PFF, in 202 snaps so far this season, he has 2 QB hurries and 13 tackles (and 3 missed tackles). I’d post a highlight if I could, but I don’t have any.
Finally, I can talk about the one positive on this defense: West Virginia transfer LB Josh Chandler-Semedo.
As hinted at earlier, Colorado has posted an abysmal 4 total sacks as a team, but 3 of those belong to Chandler-Semedo. PFF apparently hates him, but I suspect that PFF grader is taking out his anger from the Colorado defense on pretty much everyone: Chandler-Semedo is being dinged with a coverage grade of 44.9, but posted 71.7 and 74.1 coverage grades in previous seasons at WVU. I don’t recall him doing anything in coverage, let alone busts in coverage to knock him down from the standard 60.0 to a 44.9. PFF also gave him a 42.7 rush defense grade, even though he had 78.1 and 78.4 rush defense grades in previous seasons at WVU. Ignoring wacky PFF grades, he doesn’t miss tackles at a clip anywhere near his teammates and has the second most run stops on the team (second to another decent linebacker, Quinn Perry), so go figure.
Chandler-Semedo is not often in a pass-rush role, but when he is, he’s been successful:
He’s about as a sure of a tackler as you’re going to get on this defense, so if he can get his hands on the QB:
As a linebacker, if you’re going to shoot a gap, you need to make sure you don’t miss. This is actually a very impressive play to get a TFL on UCLA’s RB Zach Charbonnet, a player who probably forces more missed tackles than anyone else in the Pac-12:
Actually, let’s consult PFF for this one. The first thing I notice is that the running back with the 3rd highest run grade in the FBS is actually Cal’s Jaydn Ott, which shows that not all PFF grades are terrible (Charbonnet is #7, for what it’s worth). According to PFF’s “missed tackles forced” stat, my initial guess was correct, Charbonnet has more missed tackles forced (27) than any other player in the Pac-12 (he’s actually tied with Oregon’s Bucky Irving, although Charbonnet did it in 5 games while Irving did it in 6, so I think it’s fair to give Charbonnet the tiebreaker here). And because I know you’re curious, Ott is 3rd in the Pac-12 with just 1 fewer “MTF” than those two (also in 5 games, not 6) — but to Ott’s credit, you probably aren’t forcing missed tackles when you’re 20 yards past the safety on your way to the endzone. Boom.
Sorry, forgot I was supposed to be talking about linebackers here. Of the linebackers not named Josh Chandler-Semedo, the middle linebacker Quinn Perry is probably playing the best so far, with a good number of run stops without that many missed tackles. I don’t have any highlights here, but imagine an MLB doing MLB things. Robert Barnes is the “Money” linebacker, which is essentially just a coverage linebacker to match up with the tight end. I really thought he’d be making an impact here, but again, I’d post highlights here if I had any.
This is another section that’s going to be difficult to write. Isaiah Lewis (UPDATE: Isaiah Lewis is reported to be OUT with an undisclosed injury) is Colorado’s best defensive back, and probably the only one with pass coverage skills:
But even he’s had his struggles this season:
Across from him is East Mississippi CC transfer Jeremy Mack Jr. I do my best not to trash non-Stanford Pac-12 players (California Big Ten opponents are fair game this year), but I find it hard to find positives with Mack’s play.
I mentioned earlier Colorado’s struggles to beat blocks. Well, check out this block from Air Force’s 5’7” 190 lbs. wide receiver to seal the edge:
Probably not surprisingly, Jeremy Mack leads the team in missed tackles with 13 (at a 38.2% clip, per PFF).
The next leading missed tackler The strong safety Trevor Woods is one of those safeties that likes to hit people rather than wrap up.
It’s great if it works:
But not so great if it doesn’t:
Colorado also has less than ideal communication in the secondary:
Not going to dig too deep into the PFF stats for this, but pretty much every starter in the secondary has a missed tackle percentage of at least 20%. If you want to know why opposing running backs always have their best game against Colorado, it’s because the defensive line can’t plug gaps, and the secondary can’t stop anyone that reaches that second level.
Colorado’s smallest margin of defeat was by 23 points to Arizona (43-20 L), a team that Cal beat by 18 points. The Colorado defensive line can’t get pressure, the linebackers struggle to fill run gaps, and the secondary looks like they’re trying to tackle a guy that’s been drenched in grease. The only way I can see Jaydn Ott not having a big game is because Wilcox is content with his 24-3 lead, and decides to let a different running back rack up yards as he saves Ott for Washington (as he lets Colorado come back and make it 24-17 for some reason). I just can’t picture a game where Ott doesn’t hit at least one homerun. Cal could surely move the ball through the air if they wanted to, but most teams have instead opted for the easy yards on the ground instead. Colorado has been a dumpster fire, and the only way I see Cal losing this game is by becoming an even bigger dumpster fire, which just shouldn’t happen.
You can find my full clips here.