August 10, 2007

State of the Buffaloes' secondary

BOULDER, Colo. - After ranking 94th in the nation in the pass defense last season, defensive backs coach Greg Brown is looking for marked improvement from his unit this fall.

The pieces appear to be in place. The Buffaloes return two All-Big 12 caliber players in the secondary and three other players that started games in 2006.

Senior cornerback Terrence Wheatley is one of 35 players listed on the preseason watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's best defensive back. He finished third in the Big 12 with five interceptions last season. Coach Brown tutored two Jim Thorpe Winners - Deon Figures and Chris Hudson - at CU in the early '90s. What does Wheatley have to do to add his name to the list?

"I think Terrence will be the first to tell you that he would trade any individual award for having a winning season but as far as the award goes, a lot of it is going to depend on shear numbers," Brown said. "You have to intercept a lot of balls; they can't be just pass breaks ups.

"Another big part of it is what type of team is he playing on? Is he on a team that is winning a lot of games? Terrence does have the ability. He is faster than the other two (Figures and Hudson) and he has good ball skills like those guys did."

The battling for the starting cornerback spot opposite Wheatley is still an open competition, but Ben Burney has been running with the first-team defense since spring ball. He has 23 games of experience under his belt, including two starts at safety last season.

Burney is the second fastest player on the team, based off summer testing. He ran a 4.49-forty.

"We know that T-Wheat is lock down all the time so everyone is trying to come get my spot [as the starting right cornerback]," Burney said. "That means I have to pick up my game and work hard."

"Ben Burney has got the upper hand because that is how he finished spring," Coach Brown explained. "But we are not ready to crown anybody the King yet. That is why we have fall camp. Ben is going to have to step up and hang on to it.

"We also have Cha'pelle Brown, who has come on strong after playing receiver during the spring. We have a couple younger guys, redshirt freshmen Jalil Brown and Jimmy Brown[/db]. And Gardner McKay is back at corner. So it's good healthy competition."

At safety, Ryan Walters established himself as one of the better players on CU's defense last fall. He finished tied for fifth on the team with 57 tackles and was named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week after his strong performance in the Buffaloes' win over Texas Tech.

Coach Brown encouraged all of the players in his unit to try boxing as a recreational sport in the off-season. Walters was the only one to take on the challenge.

"Ryan is one tough dude and he is a good boxer," Brown said. "He tells me he thinks it will help him on the football field. He was so good at boxing that they wanted to schedule a couple fights. It conflicted with our workouts and the season but it wouldn't surprise me if he took it back up in the off-season and get in a few bouts. He is naturally a tough, tough guy and a good athlete."

The other starting safety spot is still up for grabs. "Lionel Harris got to play a lot when J.J. Billingsley was hurt last season but D.J. Dykes (transfer from Idaho) is right with him," Coach Brown explained. "They are going to continue to battle for that other starting spot at safety."

Three scholarshiped true freshmen - Lamont Smith at cornerback and Anthony Perkins and Anthony Wright at safety - are just trying to adjust to the college level.

"Any freshman coming in, your head is going to be swimming at first," Coach Brown said. "There is a lot to think about. This is a lot different than high school. You have to learn our language and be able to communicate. It takes a while and once they get it, they can start to let their ability shine through."

Notes from Friday afternoon's practice

*** Friday's practice was the first conducted in full pads, and it was the first full squad workout.

*** As is often the case early on during preseason camp, the defense is ahead of the offense. There was very little production out of the offense during 11-on-11 work on Friday afternoon. "Tempo was good," Coach Dan Hawkins said. "Everything was good, just no execution on offense."

*** Freshman Nate Vaiomounga is working at the Will linebacker position after practicing at safety early on during camp. "We think he is an excellent tackler and we are going to put him down closer to the line of scrimmage and let him play linebacker like he did in high school," said Coach Brown.

*** After having just six healthy bodies to work with during spring ball, offensive line coach Jeff Grimes' unit consisted of 18 players on Friday. That number will increase to 20 on Saturday when Erick Faatagi and Keenan Stevens join the mix. Both have missed practice this week due to complications with their summer school schedule.

*** Ryan Miller continues to work at both offensive tackle and offensive guard. Fellow true freshman offensive lineman Erick Faatagi worked in some at guard with what appeared to be the first-team offensive line during 11-on-11s.

*** According to Hawkins, Sunday's scrimmage is going to be more "game like" than a typical preseason scrimmage. "We will try to get the coaches off the field, get a few drives going just so we can kind of get in the flow and get going," he said. "We will hopefully be in a situation where, depending on what the offense ends up doing, they will get used to kind of playing. We'll have them go through a couple 8-10 play drives regardless of what happens. It would be good for those guys to get that kind of work in."

*** The Buffaloes will practice twice on Saturday, at 9:00-11:30 am (in pads) and 4:00-6:00 pm.

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