Mike Hankwitz’s toughest decisions this season will be a delight to make.
After lacking both depth and experience at the safety position most of last year, the Colorado Buffaloes defensive coordinator has five players capable of starting at the two positions this season. His only problem will be deciding how to use them.
Recent injuries to two of those five has made the verdict easier for now, but Hankwitz said personnel at safety could change from week to week this season as soon as the players all get healthy.
“If we had that problem at every position, we’d be fortunate because competition brings the best out of everybody,” Hankwitz said. “You have guys fighting for a position who can’t afford to relax because they know that other guy might move ahead of them.
“Excellent competition gives us excellent depth. That’s really the best of both worlds.”
The face of the position is junior J.J. Billingsley, who missed most of last season with knee injuries and all of spring drills with academic issues. An aggressive, instinctive player, Billingsley quickly reclaimed his role as the most explosive and opportunistic safety during fall camp.
“Having J.J. is going to help a lot,” Barnett said. “He adds a lot to our defense.”
If the season began today, junior Tyrone Henderson would start opposite Billingsley with coverage-specialist Tom Hubbard — a senior and former walk-on who came on strong late last year — backing him up.
However, injured safeties Dominique Brooks (ankle) and Ryan Walters (knee) both expect to be back at full speed by the second game of the season at the latest, and both should see plenty of playing time this season.
“We just look at it as depth — something we didn’t have last year,” Brooks said. “We all know it’s going to be good for us.”
Although each safety possesses his own specialty — Walters and Billingsley have a knack for the ball while Hubbard, Henderson and Brooks are better schematically — Hankwitz said it’s difficult to use each according to their strengths without tipping his hand to opposing offenses.
“You can do that to a degree, but if you overdo it, then people will know what’s coming,” he said. “They will start to pick up the tendencies.”
As a result, Hankwitz said he and secondary coach Craig Bray will open the competition at the position each week, and simply pick the best players to start. Although the other safeties will likely play some kind of role, Hankwitz doesn’t believe in a set rotation.
“I’ve been in situations where we had a rotation and guys started thinking they were entitled to playing time and they didn’t always compete,” Hankwitz said. “They didn’t always have that sense of urgency you get when guys are competing.
“Whoever is performing the best will dictate who plays the most. You have to reward those guys.”
The message is already clear to those battling for playing time. Billingsley said he realizes the smallest mistake could send him to the bench, and the others said they take every play as if their roster spot depended on it.
“This is definitely the most competition we’ve had at safety in a long time,” Henderson said. “Every time you look behind you, you’ve got competition. It makes you battle very day just to keep your job.”