Take it or Leavitt: Can new DC save Buffs defense?

Ryan Koenigsberg Avatar
June 17, 2015


Shane Dillion, Connor Wood, Jim Leavitt.

What do those three names have in common? Hype, and lots of it. All of them were basically declared the savior of the program before they did anything, or produced any results.

It’s natural, fans see a beam of hope and they clasp on to it. What else are you supposed to do during the long wait after yet another disappointing season? You can sit there, sulk, and be the guy who thinks it will always be this way (we all know that guy exists), or you can find something to rally behind, something to justify each sip of delicious kool-aid, something to say to that annoying guy two cubicles down, with the “Western Kentucky: 2014 Bahama Bowl Champs” pennant on his desk, who loves to tell you about how his Hilltoppers would smash your Buffaloes any given Saturday.

So this year you talk about the Buffaloes new defensive coordinator Leavitt, after all, on the surface it looks like one heck of a hire, the guy honestly would have been a legitimate candidate for the head coaching vacancy that Mike MacIntyre filled, he knows all about rebuilding a program. You read the message boards, you see all the great things that anybody who has interacted with Leavitt has to say, you follow him on twitter and consider running through your office wall every time he presses send. You’ve bought in, you have every reason to believe he can be a big part of this turnaround.

But if there’s anything we’ve learned from the other two names at the top of this article, it’s that Public Enemy was right… “Don’t believe the hype.”

While that would have been an awesome place to just stop and press “Publish,” I suppose we can delve into this a little deeper and see what history tells us about the type of impact Jim Leavitt really could make this season. Surely somebody is sitting there thinking to themselves, “but Leavitt is a coach, this is different than appointing a player the savior.”

I took a look at the biggest impacts made by defensive coordinators around the country, that were hired by an already existing coaching staff.

Brett Venables: Clemson

When Dabo Swinney hired Venables to become his new defensive coordinator after the 2011 season, Clemson ranked 81st in the country in scoring defense, giving up 29.3 points per game. In just one year at the helm, Venables helped cut that ranking nearly in half, pushing the Tigers all the way up to 48th in the nation, at 24.8 points per game in 2012. In 2013, the Clemson D had made in into the top 25, and last season the Tigers ranked 7th, giving up just 17.7 points per game.

Jeremy Pruitt: Georgia

After the 2013 season, the Georgia Bulldogs ranked 79th in the nation as they gave up 29 points per game. They were able to snag Jeremy Pruitt away from Florida State, who had the number one defense in the country, to coordinate their defense, and Pruitt made an instant impact.
In his first year on the job, Pruitt helped the Dawgs make a 54 spot jump, all the way down to 25th in the country, giving up nearly 8 less points per game (21.9).

Ellis Johnson: Auburn

After a shaky season as a head coach at Southern Miss, Johnson returned to his strong suit as a coordinator at Auburn, where he helped the team jump from 66th to 48th in scoring defense, cutting nearly four points per game off the scoreboard. Auburn’s numbers in 2013 are slightly inflated as well, as the defense took a couple games to gel early. The D came on strong at the end of the year, and helped the Tigers make it all the way to the national championship game.

John Chavis: LSU

In 2008, defensively known LSU struggled to stop opposing offenses, ranking 65th in scoring defense, giving up 26 points per game, so they ripped DC, John Chavis away from Tennessee, and it has paid off ever since.
In his first year as a Tiger, Chavis helped catapult the defense all the way up to 11th in the nation, cutting a whopping 10 points per game off of their average. Since the hire, LSU has gone as high as 2nd (11.3 ppg), in 2011, when Chavis won the Broyles Award as the nations top assistant, and only fallen as far as 21st.

These are just a few examples of coordinators who came in and made a huge difference right away, and while these teams obviously had a heck of a lot more talent than the Buffs, what those coaches did was maximize the talent they had, allowing them to make a big jump.

So if Jim Leavitt were to maximize the talent in front of him, how much could he realistically improve the Buffs?

Colorado ranked 120th in the country last year in scoring defense, just eight spots above the bottom of the country, the team gave up nearly 40 points every time out there. If the energic Leavitt could help the Buffs move up just 20 spots, a realistic possibility relative to the superstars above, this would mean shaving something like five to seven points per game off of the scoreboard, or getting the Buffs somewhere around 33 points per game given up, this would instantly put the Buffs in more games.

While the Buffs aren’t Clemson or Georgia, the cupboard is not bare for Leavitt on the defensive side of the ball, it seems CU finally has some depth in the secondary with a guy like Jered Bell coming back and adding to players like Evan White, Tedric Thompson, Chidobe Awuzie and even walk-on Ryan Moeller, who all saw action and showed flashes at safety last year.

At corner, the Buffs will have a four-year contributor in Kenneth Crawley, who will be helped on the other side by either Ahkello Witherspoon, who looked to be gaining confidence late last season, or even Awuzie, who can really play every position in the secondary.

(Pre-season buzz-phrase alert) As long as the Buffs stay relatively healthy, this shapes up to be one of the best secondaries they have had in years.

On the D-line the Buffs return almost everybody, including players with all-conference potential such as Josh Tupou and Derek McCartney, which has a lot to do with the fact they rank 13th in the country in percentage of tackles remaining, one of, college football analyst, Phil Steele’s favorite stats for predicting improvement.

The Buffs biggest concern on defense is the linebackers, one of Leavitt’s specialties. The main concern is whether or not junior Addison Gillam can return to the form of his freshman season, when he was a freshman all-american. Gillam has had several different health issues since then, making his status a big question mark this year. It’s basically as simple as this, healthy Gillam, respectable LB core, compromised Gillam, scary LB core.

If Jim Leavitt can maximize the talent he has in front of him, a 20 spot jump, or even more, is not out of the realm of possibility.

Recent history at Colorado tells you that putting huge expectations on any newcomer is a dangerous proposition, but I say go for it, Leavitt would not be the first coordinator to make an instant impact, everything we have seen and heard so far leads us to believe he is a great fit here at Colorado, and one thing is for sure, the extremely experienced former head coach isn’t going to let the pressure get to him.

So go ahead take it , beLEAV the hype.


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