Coach Prime has assembled one of the most fascinating rosters in the history of college football after he flipped Colorado’s roster this off-season. While some players stand out from the rest as obvious starters, there are multiple positions that are wide open as we approach the 2023 season.
Last week on the DNVR Buffs Podcast we revealed our latest projected starters for the season so taking that one step further, here are projected offensive and defensive depth charts before camp starts later this summer.
Easily the most straightforward position group to project on the roster. Sheduer Sanders became Colorado’s starting quarterback the second Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders was hired. Not only is Sheduer the clear choice for CU’s starting quarterback in 2023, but he is also the best quarterback the Buffs will have had in years, probably decades.
Behind Sheduer, it gets a bit muddy. Colorado has three incoming freshmen behind #2 and it’s anyone’s game to become the backup quarterback. Ryan Staub and Colton Allen were in Boulder for spring practices this year and have the early lead over Kasen Weisman. Considering that Allen is a walk-on, Staub is the early leader to back up Sanders this year.
There was a debate about who would be Colorado’s starting running back a month ago, now it’s clear that Alton McCaskill will be Colorado’s lead back. When McCaskill runs out of the tunnel against TCU on September 2nd, it will be 16 months since his ACL tear in April of 2022. He was a freshman phenom at Houston and could become Colorado’s driving force on offense this season.
Kavosiey Smoke is the obvious number two back, he transferred in from Kentucky as a grad transfer and will be looking to make an impression on NFL decision-makers this fall. He only had 302 touches while at Kentucky but averaged 5.6 yards per touch.
After McCaskill and Smoke, things become more situational. Dylan Edwards could be the next man up in some down and distances but Anthony Hankerson is another battering ram who could spell McCaskill or Smoke. Charlie Offerdahl has earned the chance to get some carries as well and could solidify himself a role for offensive coordinator Sean Lewis during pre-season camp.
Coach Prime said shortly after he was hired that he wanted to build this team from the outside in so it’s no surprise the wide receivers are the strongest offensive unit in terms of talent, depth and pedigree.
Travis Hunter says he won’t be coming off the field so we will see how far Coach Prime allows him to back up that claim but he’s the Buffs’ best player. When Hunter is on the field at wideout, Sean Lewis will have specific plays and packages designed around him as the two-way phenom continues to flesh out his game.
Jimmy Horn Jr., Xavier Weaver and Javon Antonio have the most game experience and will be lined up interchangeably at all receiver positions. Willie Gaines, Tarvarish Dawson and Jaylen Ellis are also burners who should also rotate in to keep up Colorado’s minimum speed offensively.
The wildcards at wideout are the incoming four-star freshman in Omarion Miller and Adam Hopkins. Either or both could prove their talent enough this fall to become key offensive cogs or could take a redshirt.
Walk-ons Cole Boscia and Chernet Estes impressed throughout spring practices and should make appearances at some point this season as well.
If the Buffs had to play a game today, Louis Passarello would be their starting tight end. Passarello’s size and impact as a blocker forced tight ends coach Tim Brewster to take attention and awarded the former 2020 three-star his number during spring practices.
That being said it wouldn’t be a surprise to see sophomores Elijah Yelverton, Caleb Fauria or Erik Olsen emerge as the starter this fall. There’s always the possibility of Coach Prime adding another transfer player to compete for a starting role in the coming weeks as well.
Starting with the tackles, it’s hard to deny the size, length and game experience of Gerad “Tank” Christian-Lichtenhan and Savion Washington. While Tank got his first starts at left tackle halfway through the 2022 season, he has consistently been the starter at left tackle since Coach Prime and his staff arrived in Boulder. Washington was coached hard this spring and battled Jake Wiley for first-team reps but Washington has been penciled in as the starting right tackle since he announced his commitment to Colorado.
On the interior, Van Wells was Colorado’s best offensive player last season and has been snapping the ball to Sheduer since the quarterback’s arrival in Boulder last winter. Tyler Brown was an All-SWAC player for Jackson State last season and has become the Buffs’ leader in the weight room, he will start at left guard. Right guard is a much more open competition. Landon Bebee arrives as a grad transfer and performed well at left tackle for Missouri State last year but he will have to make the transition inside and fend off Jack Bailey who was Kent State’s starting right guard last season.
JUCO transfers Kareem Harden, Isaiah Jatta and Jack Wilty could also factor in with Jatta being the favorite to make an impact and break into the starting rotation.
Shane Cokes is one of the leaders on this team and is looking to throw his name into NFL Draft conversations after joining Colorado as a grad transfer. At Dartmouth, Cokes was a second-team All-Ivy League selection that started all 10 games and had 53 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He will be one of the Buffs’ most important players on either side of the ball this season.
Leonard Payne possesses a 6-foot-3, 310-pound frame and will be the primary run stuffer and gap clogger for CU. Payne also arrives in Boulder as a grad transfer and will play a larger role this year for Colorado than he had been asked in his five previous years at Fresno State.
Chazz Wallace is another G5 defensive lineman looking to make the leap for Coach Prime and the Buffs this season. Slightly smaller than Payne, Wallace should be able to rotate in for Cokes or Payne throughout this season.
After those three, we have a group of young players hoping to crack the defensive lineman rotation in Bishop Thomas, Amari McNeil and JJ Hawkins. Thomas won scout team defensive player of the year last year for Florida State and is a legitimate athlete while measuring in at 6-foot-2, 290 pounds.
Colorado has lacked a dominant pass rusher for years and Coach Prime may have delivered one in former Razorback, Jordan Domineck. Another grad transfer along the defensive line, Domineck is coming off a 7.5 sack season for Arkansas and has flashed NFL ability on the edge. The Lakeland, FL native is listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds and should be able to be a factor not only rushing the passer but defending the run as well.
Former Seminole, Derrick McClendon is another big EDGE who proved his ability at Florida State. Coming in at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, McClendon and Domineck provide Colorado with proven bookends on the defensive line of scrimmage and have the track record to back up Buff Nation’s optimism regarding the EDGE rushers.
Taijh Alston is another big, experienced EDGE rusher who makes his way to Boulder from West Virginia as a grad transfer. Alston has been working through an injury this off-season but should factor in at the top of Colorado’s pass-rushing rotation and could push for a starting position.
Sav’ell Smalls is another big pass rusher who should rotate in and see the field often this season. Because of how multiple this defense is projected to look, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Smalls moved around and played in different positions throughout the season.
Jeremiah Brown and Deeve Harris are the smaller, more athletic pass rushers who should also see playing time but could be used more in coverage and as off-ball linebackers. Brown was a menace for Jackson State last season and flashed as a pass rusher picking up 10 TFLs and six sacks last year, expect him to be all over the field this fall.
Demouy Kennedy and LaVonta Bentley are obvious choices to start at linebacker this season. Bentley enters as a grad transfer who saw a significant amount of playing time at Clemson and Kennedy was a highly touted recruit who suffered a season-ending injury last year for the Crimson Tide. Bentley projects to be a more traditional thumper at linebacker who should man the defense and make the calls as the MIKE. Kennedy’s premier trait is his speed and once fully healthy, he should be collecting tackles sideline to sideline at WILL.
Brendan Gant is another former Florida State defender who offers experience and versatility to Charles Kelly’s defense. Recruited as a safety, Gant made the switch to linebacker despite being listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. While we should expect him to continue playing linebacker at Colorado, Gant could be a valuable player due to his ability to work out of the slot as a linebacker/safety hybrid.
Linebackers coach Andre Hart already confirmed during spring practice that Jeremiah Brown will be playing off-ball and on the edge this season. While he proved his potential and ability as an edge rusher last season, his tenacity, speed and disruptive playmaking ability will ensure Brown gets on the field one way or another.
Marvin Ham II and Isaac Hurtado earned their spots on the roster and their numbers from linebackers coach Andre Hart during the spring. While they may find themselves behind the incoming transfers on the depth chart, both should rotate in and play a decent amount of snaps for Colorado this fall.
Coach Prime has reinforced Colorado’s linebacking corps for the future with the commitments of 2023 recruits Kofi Taylor-Barrocks, Morgan Pearson and Victory Johnson. The Buffs have solid depth at linebacker so it wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise for one of these freshmen to crack the defensive rotation regardless, expect to see them contribute on special teams often.
Travis Hunter proved over the course of the spring that he is Colorado’s most talented receiver, but it only took one spring rep for him to prove he is also CU’s best cornerback. While battling through an injury and only playing in eight games for Jackson State last year, Hunter had 10 passes defended and two interceptions. He will be going toe to toe and locking down the best receivers the Pac-12 has to offer this season as he makes his mark as one of the nation’s best overall players.
While he will be a true freshman this season, I’m expecting Cormani McClain to emerge as the starter opposite of Hunter. The nation’s top cornerback recruit in the 2023 class, Hunter told McClain after Colorado’s spring game that they need him. It’s expecting a lot out of a true freshman but McClain has the length, ball skills and speed to play at a high level despite his youth. Even if it’s in the slot while he adjusts to the speed of college football, it will be hard to keep the talented Lakeland native off the field.
When Hunter is not on the field on defense, Omarion Cooper should slide in at outside corner. Cooper only started four games for the Seminoles last season but was expected to be a starter for Florida State in 2023. Now at Colorado, the Florida native will be given plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent against some of the most talented skill position players and quarterbacks in the country.
Jahquez Robinson and Kyndrich Breedlove only had limited opportunities to play in the SEC last season. Robinson was a former four-star recruit who was coached by Charles Kelly at Alabama. Now reunited with coach Kelly at Colorado, Robinson should see plenty of playing time especially as Travis Hunter fulfills his two-way duties. Breedlove should also reap the benefits of Hunter’s two-way ability and find himself on the field early and often in 2023.
After Breedlove, Colorado is quite thin at cornerback. The Buffs could use at least one or two more corners to round out their depth heading into the season.
While most defenses only start two safeties, Colorado is so deep at the position that we could absolutely see three or more safeties on the field at a time this season. Trevor Woods was Colorado’s best defensive player and cleaned up a massive amount of mistakes for the Buffs last year. He earned his number and should be a leader on and off the field as he grows and matures as a player.
Shilo Sanders played through injury last season but arrives in Boulder fully healthy and ready to bring some attitude and fire to Colorado’s defense. In 2021, Sanders was a second-team All-SWAC selection and was tied for second in the conference with four interceptions.
Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig was Sanders’ partner at safety at Jackson State and will be in the conversation to be a starter for the remainder of his time in Boulder. Silmon-Craig has the skillset to drop down in the box and play out of the slot to tilt the field in Colorado’s favor.
Rodrick Ward was a highly productive safety at Southern Utah who had four interceptions last year, he will certainly see the field and factor in the safety rotation.
The wildcard of this group is Vito Tisdale, a transfer from Kentucky who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. When healthy in 2021, he only started two games but quickly earned the respect of his teammates and the Kentucky fan base. When he steps foot on the field he will be over a year removed from his injury and will be looking to not only regain form but build upon the foundation he laid as a Wildcat.