The UCLA Bruins have been talked about as being one of the youngest teams in the country. This week’s opponent the Colorado Buffaloes have a role in the youth conversation as well. Colorado has an extremely inexperienced defense this year with over half of their defensive starters being underclassmen or recent transfers.
The Buffs are at the bottom of the pack nationally, ranking 125th in total defense and allowing an average of 486.9 yards per game. Opponents have scored 37 touchdowns in eight games and total about seven yards per play. If UCLA was ever going to take advantage of a lesser defense, this week is it.
On top of youth, Colorado has also seen an exodus of players since head coach Mel Tucker took the reigns this year. Specifically on defense, safety Aaron Maddox and linebacker Jacob Callier left the team recently. According to the Denver Post, Maddox had suffered a leg laceration during their game against Air Force and just returned to game action two weeks ago. Now he’s gone. There is always the expectation that a few players will leave with the introduction of a new coach and Colorado is no exception.
Despite their weaknesses, UCLA will still need to play up and not relax with a weakened opponent. Let’s look at the CU defense.
The three men up front are definitely prime examples of the youth on the Colorado football team with redshirt freshman Jalen Sami at tackle and junior transfer Mustafa Johnson and redshirt sophomore Terrance Lang on the ends. Johnson is definitely emerging as a leader on defense despite the fact that he was sidelined for two weeks earlier this season with an ankle injury. He had the game of his life back on September 7 against Nebraska, recording eight tackles, three tackles for a loss of 21 yards, three third down stops, three sacks, and one forced fumble. He started as the defensive captain in that game and was deservedly named Pac-12 Player of the Week. UCLA’s offensive line is really going to have to hold tight and keep this guy from getting to the Bruins’ quarterback.
True freshmen Austin Williams and Na’im Rodman may also see some game action, as Sami and Johnson may still be nursing injuries and will need breaks during game time.
The linebacking corps has a little more experience with at least three upperclassmen starting. Redshirt senior outside linebacker Alex Tchangam came to the Buffs from the junior college ranks and actually didn’t play football in high school. Despite that, he was selected to the first-team All-Bay 6 League selection from the Northern California Football Conference while at De Anza College and he recorded three tackles, one pass break up, one third down stop, one tackle for zero, and one quarterback hurry in Colorado’s win against Arizona State this year.
Juniors Nate Landman and Akil Jones should start as the Buffs’ inside linebackers with Landman leading the team by a mile in total tackles at 81. He is also credited with four tackles for a total loss of 10 yards and he has been able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks twice.
Additionally, redshirt sophomore Carson Wells will be at outside linebacker. He had originally competed with Collier for the starting job. Wells missed part of last season with an injury, but has turned into an impactful edge rusher for the Buffaloes’ defense which relies heavily on the pass rush. According to the Ralphie Report, he was one of the more important players on defense going into this season.
Colorado also has a hybrid linebacker/safety position they call the “star”, which should be occupied by redshirt senior Davion Taylor. Taylor is third on the team with tackles at 44, and he has also broken up three passes and recovered a fumble.
From this unit, Landman is definitely going to be the one to contain. While the CU defense is in a rebuilding stage, Landman is still on a roll.
Leading the team in pass break-ups is junior transfer corner Delrick Abrams Jr. and redshirt junior strong safety Derrion Rakestraw. Rakestraw actually started his Colorado career as a wide receiver. So, he definitely understands what he is defending and has the speed to keep up with receivers. It’s no surprise that he has been able to pick off opposing quarterbacks twice this year.
Graduate student and strong safety Mikial Onu has snagged four interceptions this season and has also notched three pass break-ups. He actually played his first three years of eligibility with Southern Methodist University. During his junior year, he was named to the Preseason All-American Athletic Conference team and finished his career there with 192 tackles.
While this defense is definitely green and rebuilding, there is absolutely no reason for UCLA to breathe easy or take the win for granted. The Bruins need to show up, do their job, and play they way they did last week in the first three quarters against Arizona State. If that happens, UCLA will have a three-game win streak.