On a team with one of the fewest numbers of seniors in college football, it should come as no surprise that there are a number of freshmen making big contributions to Colorado this season.
For much of the year, those contributions have come from the offensive side of the ball and on special teams.
Freshman quarterback Brendon Lewis and several freshman wide receivers have played a major role in CU’s recent wins over Oregon State and Washington.
Earlier in the season, freshman Trevor Woods blocked a punt and returned it for touchdown, sparking the big second half in the Buffs’ win over Arizona.
But on defense, it’s been a handful of upperclassmen that have come up big for Karl Dorrell’s team.
In the win against Washington on Saturday, that wasn’t the case.
As Nate Landman and others continue to miss time with injuries, it was one freshman corner and two transfer linebackers that made the crucial plays to allow CU to win a game that the stat sheet suggested they had no business winning.
Cornerback Nikko Reed and linebacker Robert Barnes came up with important interceptions, while linebacker Jack Lamb had a scoop-and-score fumble recovery for a touchdown.
“This week we found someone that can start making some plays and everybody started to rally,” Dorrell said Monday. “This team is learning to become a team. They’re learning to cover up for areas where one side of the ball is struggling or poor special teams play. They’re starting to understand that anything can happen at any moment that can change the complexion of the game.”
Both Barnes and Lamb came to CU in the offseason from Oklahoma and Notre Dame, respectively, but didn’t play a big role early in the season with veteran CU linebackers Landman and Quinn Perry playing the bulk of the snaps.
But with Landman out, the two transfers are getting their chances to get more snaps and are improving each week.
“I have to give both those guys credit because they were grad transfers that came here and probably didn’t start the season with the hopes that they were expecting, which was being starting [players] and being integral parts of our defense,” Dorrell said. “Now that they’ve both been playing extensively these last four or five weeks, you can see that their abilities and their comfort levels are really starting to flourish right now. That’s been a big silver lining with Nate’s injury. Those guys have been caught up to speed and are starting to make some plays that they’re capable of making.”
In the secondary, Reed has managed to impress and work his way onto the field in a cornerback room that includes Mekhi Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez. He’s been impressing the coaching staff ever since he arrived in Boulder over the summer.
“His confidence and attitude is off the charts,” Dorrell said. “He came in that way. When he was here this summer, he wasn’t intimidated about ‘Wow this is college football, I made it.’ He came in saying, ‘I fit right in, I can compete, I can help this team.’ Ever since he’s stepped on the field, he’s had that attitude and he’s been able to perform. Him making that play in the end zone, he’s done that in practice. He’s done it with some of our best receivers. He’s just a true competitor. He always has a knack of being around the football. You haven’t seen him as a returner. Wait until he returns and he’ll have a chance to do that this week with Brenden Rice being out. You’re going to see a little bit more of what Nikko Reed can do because he’s a dynamite athlete and he’s very confident.”
The Buffs are going to need Reed and the rest of the defense as they wrap up the 2021 season on Friday in Salt Lake City against a very talented Utah team that will play for a Pac-12 championship the following week.
CU is still winless on the road and this might be the toughest test of them all for a very young team that will need to learn from these experiences as it grows over the offseason.
“We have to learn how to win on the road,” Dorrell said. “We’ve had some discussions on that, but that’s going to be a major point going into this offseason about what that looks like and referencing a lot of the games we had this year where we had a chance to be in control of games and we didn’t finish for one reason or another. Those are things that we’ve got to talk about and understand that our performance on the road is something that’s different. You have things that are against you from an environment standpoint, but you have to utilize that as a source of strength. That’s something this team will learn over the course of this offseason.”