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UCLA Football at Colorado Defensive Preview: The Toughest Defense in the Conference

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Colorado is the most balanced team in the Pac 12, making the most of what they have and using it effectively.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday's game is going to be a tough one. I never thought I'd say this, but Colorado is ranked 12th in total defense according the NCAA statistics, making them #1 in the Pac 12. The Buffs were definitely a dark horse this coming into this year, but now they look nothing like the team that joined the Pac 12 in 2011. We're seeing an extremely balanced program with success in every facet of the game. Right now it looks like Fafaul will be getting the start, and he is going to be up against the best defense in the conference. Let's break down this side of the ball.

Defensive Line

Going into the 2016 season, the Colorado defensive line looked big, experienced, and intimidating. There were a lot of expectations that many ignored, but actually played out this season. Colorado runs a three-man front, and these guys are no joke. According to CUBuffs.com and Defensive Line Coach Jim Jeffcoat,

"The beauty of it is when we come off the bus people will look and go, 'Whoa.' They'll see these guys (his D-linemen) because they'll be the first ones off . . . we do have some physical looking guys with Josh, Samson, Jordan - they're all 300 (pounds) or 300 plus."

Averaging 300+ is something the Buffs are extremely proud of this year, meaning they can line up against any offense and give them a run for their money. The front three are all seniors, and that experience is showing. Defensive end Jordan Carrell has 30 total tackles so far this year, including four for a loss of 21 yards total. He had seven tackles against Oregon, and matched that number two weeks later against USC. Senior defensive tackle Josh Tupou had been suspended for the 2015 season due to "team violations", and essentially used that as a redshirt year. He earned reinstatement and even played rugby while he was off the team to stay in shape. He came back strong this year and has 28 recorded tackles so far this season. Junior Samson Kafovalu scared Bruin fans last year when he recovered a fumble and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown, pulling Colorado within five points of tying the game. He is one of the smaller guys (only 260 pounds), but added 15 pounds of bulk in the last year. This front line reminds me of Stanford (before the implosion)--big and experienced. I fully expect a battle up front, and I really hope our offensive line has made some progress since the loss to Utah. If they haven't, Thursday is going to be ugly.

Linebackers

Colorado had stiff competition in Spring and Fall camps at the linebacker position. Senior Kenneth Olugbode was selected by his teammates as one of the five captains for the 2016 season. He has a whopping 65 tackles this year, with 14 of those coming against then #4 Michigan in week three. Sophomore Rick Gamboa caught his first pick six this year against Oregon State and has 44 recorded tackles. Senior Jimmie Gilbert had a career-high eight tackles last year against the Bruins, and has had continued success this year, including five forced fumbles and seven sacks.Junior Christian Shaver is listed in #1 and #2 spots for linebackers, because he can play both the strong and weak side. He has only played in three games so far this season. Redshirt Junior Addison Gillam has had one heck of a comeback story after battling an unknown illness, family problems, and a microfracture surgery. He is an impact player and makes a huge statement even if he isn't on the field for the entire game. Much like the front three, we see more experience, and something that cannot be understated: balance. This team is talented across the board and has no weak spots.  Even though no one is a first round draft pick, they are utilizing the talent they have to its maximum potential, and then some.

Secondary

Another area where Colorado is stacked with experience is the secondary, and senior defensive back Chidobe Awuzie is no exception. According to his bio:

A legitimate All-American candidate, as well as for postseason hardware such as the Jim Thorpe Award (one of 39 on the official preseason watch list for the top defensive back in the nation), as well as the two honors presented to the nation's top defensive player (one of 88 on the list for the Bronko Nagurski Award and one of 90 in the hunt for the Chuck Bednarik Award). He is also listed as the No. 89 player overall in the Top 100 College Players by nfl.com, the 19th-ranked defensive back and the No. 11 cornerback. He was a unanimous preseason second-team All-Pac-12 choice by the major preseason publications (Athlon Sports, Lindy's College Football and Phil Steele's College Football, with the latter ranking him as the No. 11 cornerback in the nation). He was the co-recipient of the Eddie Crowder Award as selected by the coaches for his outstanding leadership during spring practices.

He has tackles in every game of the season and has made quite a name for himself as a rising star on many draft lists. Senior Tedric Thompson was named Pac 12 Player of the Week after the Buffs played Stanford where he had two interceptions for thirty yards, and he also had ten tackles against USC. Junior Afolabi Laguna has had a breakout season with highlights such as 11 tackles in addition to forcing one fumble and returning another fumble nine yards - the forced fumble and recovery being the first of his career against USC, and an interception against Arizona State. Senior Akhello Witherspoon opened his season with five pass breakups in the first three games, which tied for the second most among any FBS defender through three weeks. He is credited with a fumble against USC, which is one of four caused by this unit. This group is tough and definitely a force to be reckoned with. Just on paper, I can already see penetration through our offensive line and strong match ups on our wide receivers.

Analysis

Something I really feel the Bruins lack is development and making the most of what you have. Colorado is the epitome of the opposite--working with the personnel, designing schemes around them, and developing players to their maximum potential. Stars mean nothing if you do nothing with them, and I think we are seeing this play out. Our weak offensive line has gotten one quarterback hurt and will need to make some serious progress if they want to salvage what is left of the season. I'm hoping we can come out strong and have a good showing on Thursday because I'm sick of losing by a touchdown or less. No more moral victories.

Go Bruins!