ENGLEWOOD — Ask any football player and they’ll tell you replacing the top two tacklers on a team, especially two senior linebackers who rank in the top-10 in school history, is an arduous task. But that transition is even more difficult when the unit is learning new calls, gap assignments and formations, as well switching from a 3-4 base scheme to a 4-3.
Those players will also tell you at the end of the day though, it always comes down to playing with speed and attacking the line of scrimmage. In CSU’s second scrimmage of spring practice, which wrapped up their 10th practice in three weeks, the Rams’ defense was finally able to play with the aggressiveness and fire that new defensive coordinator Tyson Summers has preached since he arrived this winter.
They were beaten at times by big passing plays, which has been a known Achilles heel for this group over the past three years, but more often than not, it was the defense controlling the line of scrimmage and laying hits on the offense.
“We’re getting better, and we’ve improved from the last scrimmage to this scrimmage,” senior safety Kevin Pierre-Louis said. “That’s always a good thing because you don’t ever want to take a step back. You want to keep improving and that’s what the coaches are always talking about.”
The highlight of Saturday’s 109-play scrimmage came in the “overtime” period, where the defense stuffed the offense on five out of the first six plays from the two-yard line, including a monster hit from sophomore linebacker Kiel Robinson.
The defense also forced three turnovers — an interception by senior safety Trent Matthews, a fumble recovery from senior Terry Jackson and an acrobatic bobbling interception from 6-foot-5, 305-pound defensive tackle Justin Hansen. Those turnovers, coupled with a handful of big hits and sacks, are the type of plays that show the payoff of the physical style Summers has instilled in the group from day one.
“Those plays provide a lot of energy because last year, those turnovers were what we were lacking,” Pierre-Louis said. “So the fact that we are working on that right now, and we’re seeming to get it is huge because it’s not even fall camp yet. We need to get better at it in fall camp, but we’re already a step ahead of where we were and that’s a really good thing.”
The sacks, and pressure on the quarterback in general, was something players will admit was missing from the team’s attack last season. And it’s also something they believe will build more and more confidence as they move on to next week’s spring game and into next season.
“Those sacks always help the defense,” pass rusher Joe Kawoluk said. “It helps out the guys who are in coverage, so it’s always a good thing when we can either get to the quarterback or at least disrupt his throw.”
Saturday, the defense limited CSU’s rushing attack to just 111 yards on 47 carries, and held ball carriers Jasen Oden Jr. and Dalyn Dawkins in check with the exception of a long run from Dawkins against the No. 2 defense. Instead of wondering whether or not they were making the correct read or playing tentatively because of the learning curve associated with their new scheme, the defense was able to play downhill, physical football, something linebacker Deonte Clyburn said has been preached all spring.
“We’ve been way, way, way more physical this spring,” linebacker Deonte Clyburn said. “There’s a lot of live periods during practice, not only during scrimmages, and it takes a toll. But (Coach Summers) is doing it for the good of this team.”
Despite all the positives, players and coaches alike lamented the big plays they allowed and ultimately chalked it up to a little bit of over-thinking in pass coverage.
“I thought we improved from the last scrimmage, and I thought we improved our execution,” first-year head coach Mike Bobo said. “Defensively, I thought we ran to the ball harder and hit harder, but we’re still giving up way too many big plays in the passing game. They did a nice job of bowing their necks at times and holding the offense to field goals, but we need to get some guys healthy in the secondary and they’ll help.”
Next up for CSU are the three final practices of the spring before Saturday’s Green and Gold spring game at Hughes Stadium. The game kicks off at 11 a.m.