BOULDER — The Colorado defense is sick of the jokes.
Ever since the 2003 season, when the Buffaloes 4-2-5 defense crumbled like a card house in a hurricane, CU’s defense has become a weakness exploited by writers, deejays and opposing offenses.
But after a year spent re-adjusting to a more traditional 4-3 alignment — a process that, combined with youth and injury, caused almost as many bumps as the year before — the Buffs feel this is the season the CU defense finally pulls itself out of the punchline.
“We see this year is a chance to prove everybody wrong,” senior nose tackle Vaka Manupuna said. “At the end, we’re the ones who will be laughing in their face.”
The squad has a lot to prove before they can claim any payback, however. Although Colorado hasn’t had a statistically dominant defense since 1998, when it held its opponents to 17.5 points and 296 yards per game, the past two years have been atrocious.
In 2003, the Buffs allowed more than 281 passing yards per game, last in the Big 12, and 432.1 total yards a contest. Last season, they improved to 11th in the conference in pass defense (260.2 ypg), but were eighth or lower in every other major defensive category.
CU defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, hired after the struggles in 2003, said this preseason his squad is thinking less about the scheme and more about making plays.
“I think our whole defense is more comfortable and confident in what they’re doing,” Hankwitz said. “There was familiarity because we did the same things last year, so they didn’t have to learn everything from scratch.
“We feel like we’re a lot further ahead. The real test isn’t going to come, though, until we play somebody. That’s when you really know where you’re at.”
The defense was also limited last year due to uncertainty after secondary coach Vance Joseph left in April and wasn’t replaced until Craig Bray took over in June. CU coach Gary Barnett said the difference this year has been like “night and day,” a progression he said can be attributed to the team adjusting to Bray.
“We don’t have people running free (in the secondary),” Barnett said. “Everybody knows where they’re going.”
The biggest reason for optimism this year, however, is experience. All but two of the projected starters have played starting roles in the past, and with the exception of defensive tackle and cornerback, each position has proven depth.
Most of the team’s best players — names such as J.J. Billingsley, Thaddaeus Washington and Brian Iwuh — are on the defensive side of the ball. Also, the defense features two of the team’s most exciting freshmen, linebacker Marcus Burton and tackle George Hypolite, who are both expected to see playing time right away.
“We’ve got guys back, and everybody is experienced,” said senior James Garee, who moved from end to tackle this spring. “Everybody has been flying to the ball.”
Experience doesn’t necessarily mean dominance, however. Hankwitz is careful about his predictions until he gets a chance to see his defense face a real opponent.
“They understand more of our defense and they’re in better positions now. There is less thinking and less uncertainty,” he said. “But they still have to make the plays once they get there.”
It’s not realistic to think the CU defense this season will improve to the point where it challenges the numbers produced by conference stalwarts Oklahoma and Texas. However, the Buffs will be content with any step forward.
And if they can achieve that, at least they can quiet the laughter.
“If you want to be one of the top teams in the nation, you have to have one of the top defenses in the nation,” Garee said. “Last year was an improvement over the 2003 defense, and if we can make the same jump or bigger this year, we’re that much ahead.”