CU position preview: After transfers, Buffs leaning on youth in secondary The Denver Post

Earlier this week, both of Colorado’s starting cornerbacks from 2021 earned recognition on the preseason Pac-12 all-conference second team.

Unfortunately for the Buffaloes, both of them – Mekhi Blackmon (Southern California) and Christian Gonzalez (Oregon) – are now playing elsewhere. So is safety Mark Perry, who is now at TCU.

The decisions by that trio to transfer could impact CU this year, but the Buffs aren’t dwelling on it. They’re too busy trying to get their young defensive backs ready for a season that is now about five weeks away.

“To be honest we don’t talk about the people that are not here,” cornerbacks coach Rod Chance said in the spring.

This summer, BuffZone.com is previewing each position group for CU and in this installment, we look at the defensive backs.

The CU secondary will look dramatically different this year, with three of the four starters gone. The only returner is senior safety Isaiah Lewis, who has 15 career starts. The rest of the secondary has a total of seven career starts – spread among five different players.

Among the 16 defensive backs on scholarship, seven are true freshmen and six are sophomores.

Despite the challenges and the youth, CU comes into preseason camp, which begins Tuesday, excited about the talent.

“The young secondary is playing well,” head coach Karl Dorrell said as spring practices wrapped up. “It seems like every practice, they’re creating turnovers.”

At safety, CU will lean on Lewis, a sixth-year senior and two-year starter.

“In the meeting room, on the practice field, he has been really, really good in that (leadership) respect,” safeties coach Brett Maxie said.

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Meanwhile, true sophomores Tyrin Taylor and Trevor Woods are expected to fill significant roles after getting their feet wet last year. In spring, both expressed the confidence they gained last year and the difference it has made.

“Last year, sometimes I’m second-guessing myself,” Taylor said. “But now, I’m really in the scheme, I really can go out there and just leave everything behind me, just go out there and play.”

Junior Jaylen Striker, junior college transfer Jeremy Mack Jr., and true freshmen Dylan Dixson, Oakie Salave’a and Xavier Smith are also vying for playing time. Walk-ons Ben Finneseth and Jordan Woolverton were impressive at times in spring, as well.

At corner, the Buffs are even less experienced, but there is confidence in the talent.

Junior Nigel Bethel Jr. was playing well as a third corner in 2021 before an injury sidelined him the second half of the season. And, there are high hopes for true sophomores Kaylin Moore and Nikko Reed, who flashed their talent in reserve roles.

Sophomore Toren Pittman and a quartet of true freshmen provide the depth at corner.

“I kind of see them all as being young guys right now,” Chance said. “But it’s good to see those guys and the best thing about them, they show up with a growth mindset each day. Hungry for coaching, never turn it away. And it really just forces me to give them more and more each day by coming up for extra time, extra meetings, extra film.”

Driving the entire secondary, Chance said, is the desire to prove that while they don’t have experience now, they’ve got the talent to succeed on game days.

“(They want) to prove themselves, not to me, not to fans, not to the program but to themselves, that they’re everything that they said they are,” he said.

Position: Defensive backs

Returners (2021 statistics)

Cornerbacks

  • Nigel Bethel Jr., Jr., 6-feet, 170 pounds (1 start, 151 snaps, 9 tackles, 3 pass breakups)
  • Kaylin Moore, So., 5-10, 180 (2 starts, 134 snaps, 7 tackles, 1 PBU)
  • Toren Pittman, So., 6-4, 185 (played 9 games, all on special teams)
  • Nikko Reed, So., 5-10, 175 (1 start, 199 snaps, 8 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 PBU, 1 INT)
  • Trey Ortega, So., 6-0, 190 (walk-on)

Safeties

  • Isaiah Lewis, Sr., 6-0, 205 (10 starts, 635 snaps, 79 tackles, 2 INT)
  • Jaylen Striker, Jr., 6-3, 200 (injured in 2021)
  • Tyrin Taylor, So., 6-2, 175 (2 starts, 257 snaps, 10 tackles)
  • Trevor Woods, So., 6-1, 195 (1 start, 139 snaps, 23 tackles, 1 PBU)
  • Austin Dahlke, R-Fr., 6-1, 190 (walk-on)
  • Ben Finneseth, R-Fr., 6-1, 200 (walk-on; converted from WR)
  • Anthony Lyle, Sr., 6-0, 200 (walk-on)
  • Jordan Woolverton, R-Fr., 6-2, 195 (walk-on; converted from QB)

Additions

Cornerbacks

  • Simeon Harris, Fr., 6-0, 175
  • Keyshon Mills, Fr., 6-1, 190
  • Jason Oliver, Fr., 6-0, 170
  • Joshua Wiggins, Fr., Fr., 6-1, 175
  • Liam McGannon, R-Fr., 5-10, 175 (walk-on)
  • Braden Keith, Fr., 5-10, 170 (walk-on)

Safeties

  • Dylan Dixson, Fr., 6-2, 190
  • Jeremy Mack Jr., So., 6-0, 190 (transfer from East Mississippi C.C.)
  • Oakie Salave’a, Fr., 6-4, 210
  • Xavier Smith, Fr., 6-2, 185

Losses

  • S Curtis Appleton (graduated; 88 snaps, 5 tackles)
  • CB Mekhi Blackmon (transferred to USC; 8 starts, 515 snaps, 50 tackles, 5 PBU, 1 INT)
  • CB Christian Gonzalez (transferred to Oregon; 12 starts, 781 snaps, 54 tackles, 5 TFL, 6 PBU)
  • S Chris Miller (graduated; 1 start, 45 snaps, 4 tackles)
  • S Trustin Oliver (transferred to Central Arkansas; 18 snaps, 1 tackle)
  • S Mark Perry (transferred to TCU; 12 starts, 761 snaps, 72 tackles, 2 TFL, 4 PBU, 3 INT)
  • S Ray Robinson (graduated; 8 snaps, 1 tackle)

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