Aug. 27—A year ago, defensive tackle Jalen Sami was motivated by the fact that he didn't like how he played during the 2020 season.
He redeemed himself last year with career highs in tackles (30) and tackles for loss (4.5) as a key to the Buffaloes' run defense.
Now a junior, Sami is motivated to get even better.
"That's definitely the goal," he said. "I've met with (defensive line coach Gerald) Chatman a lot and he's helped elevate my game to another level. I feel like every year that I played here at CU has been my best year. I just hope to build on top of last year, because I had some pretty good plays. It was just the start of what I'm confident that I know what to do. I'm pretty excited."
What has Sami most excited is not just his own potential, but that of the entire defense.
Many of the big names from a year ago — Mekhi Blackmon, Christian Gonzalez, Mustafa Johnson, Nate Landman, Mark Perry, and Carson Wells — are gone, but the Buffs believe they've got the depth and talent to make up for it.
"I think overall, as a unit, we've grown since last year," Sami said. "I feel like we matured and our young guys are stepping up to the plate. They're trying to take on more roles and responsibilities. I just can't wait to play. We have a different mentality this season, so I'm just ready for all of that."
Sami, defensive end Terrance Lang, linebackers Robert Barnes, Guy Thomas and Quinn Perry and safety Isaiah Lewis are the returning veterans who bring experience and leadership.
The Buffs dipped into the transfer portal to add linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo (West Virginia) and defensive end Chance Main (Incarnate Word). And, they'll lean on a host of young players at every spot to step up as they get their first opportunities to shine.
There may not be as many household names, but defensive coordinator Chris Wilson has been impressed with the makeup of the group.
"One thing that we look forward to this season is this: one of the things we kind of hold our hat on, we're a smarter team," he said. "Not only for players, but coaches. We're very well prepared. We've executed at a really, really high level. What they've done is they've invested in one another and that's been fun to see.
"So, we're going to be a smarter defense. Number two, they're going to be more physical. We like to use the saying, toughness is great preparation. We're really excited about the preparation. It's just going to make an even more physical football team than we were a year ago. That's how you have to play defense: smart and physical."
Sami, for one, is looking to be more physical this season and he feels better prepared because of the coaching he's received from Chatman, who was hired in March.
"We had a great offseason of training," he said. "Coach Chatman, he's getting us right with techniques, so you should be able to see it on the field."
Sami said he's confident in the veterans he's playing with, but also eager to see how the young players perform. The team philosophy of being smart and prepared is helping that young group.
"Coach Chatman has told them from the beginning that he doesn't care if you're a freshman or a senior or vet," Sami said. "If you're willing to play and you're out there busting your butt and just going out there competing every day he'll play you. That's been our mentality for this fall is competing against each other and trying to play.
"Our depth is going to be our strongest suit."
A look at each position on the CU defense
Linemen: Juniors Jalen Sami and Na'im Rodman both had their best seasons as Buffs a year ago and they've both had good offseasons as they aim to be even better. Both of them are keys to the run defense. Behind them, the Buffs will lean on some quality but inexperienced players. Senior Justin Jackson is in his third year at CU, but hasn't played a lot. Freshman Tyas Martin and Ryan Williams have a lot of potential.
Edge players: One of CU's deepest groups, it's led by senior end Terrance Lang and senior outside linebacker Guy Thomas. Both have all-conference potential. Seniors Chance Main and Jamar Montgomery are both eager to finish their careers on a high note. The younger group is led by Devin Grant and Alvin Williams, who have both flashed their talents in limited playing time.
Inside linebackers: Despite losing star Nate Landman to graduation, the Buffs are in good shape here. West Virginia transfer Josh Chandler-Semedo could be one of the top linebackers in the Pac-12. Seniors Robert Barnes and Quinn Perry have a lot of starting experience. After the top group, sophomore Marvin Ham II and freshmen Mister Williams and Eoghan Kerry have had good offseasons.
Cornerbacks: The top two corners from last year are gone, but the Buffs love the talent they have. Sophomores Kaylin Moore and Nikko Reed both got some experience last year and played well. Keyshon Mills and Joshua Wiggins lead a talented foursome of true freshmen. Junior Nigel Bethel Jr. should play a key role at corner or nickel when healthy.
Safeties: Senior Isaiah Lewis returns for his third season as a starter and he's the leader in the back. Sophomore Trevor Woods is expected to be the other starter and he's got big-time play-making ability. Senior Anthony Lyle, junior Jaylen Striker, sophomore Jeremy Mack Jr. and freshman Dylan Dixson will fight for playing time, as well. Tyrin Taylor is likely to start in the nickel/star role, with Mack as a top backup.
Projected depth chart
Pos — First team (Second team)
DE — Terrance Lang, Sr., 6-7, 290 (Chance Main, Sr., 6-4, 250)
DL — Jalen Sami, Jr., 6-6, 325 (Justin Jackson, Sr., 6-2, 275)
DL — Na'im Rodman, Jr., 6-2, 305 (Tyas Martin, Fr., 6-4, 340)
OLB — Guy Thomas, Sr., 6-4, 235 (Jamar Montgomery, Sr., 6-2, 250)
ILB — Josh Chandler-Semedo, Sr., 5-10, 225 (Eoghan Kerry, Fr., 6-3, 230)
ILB — Quinn Perry, Sr., 6-2, 245 (Mister Williams, Fr., 6-0, 250)
ILB — Robert Barnes, Sr., 6-2, 230 (Marvin Ham II, So., 6-1, 225)
CB — Nikko Reed, So., 5-10, 175 (Joshua Wiggins, Fr., 6-1, 175)
CB — Kaylin Moore, So., 5-10, 180 (Keyshon Mills, Fr., 6-1, 190)
S — Isaiah Lewis, Sr., 6-0, 205 (Jaylen Striker, Jr., 6-3, 200)
S — Trevor Woods, So., 6-1, 195 (Anthony Lyle, Sr., 6-0, 200)
NB — Tyrin Taylor, So., 6-2, 175 (Jeremy Mack Jr., So., 6-0, 190)
SNAPSHOT: CU defense
* Chris Wilson (3rd season): Coordinator/outside linebackers
* Rod Chance (1st season): Cornerbacks
* Gerald Chatman (1st season): Defensive line
* Brett Maxie (3rd season): Safeties
* Mark Smith (2nd season): Inside linebackers
Five to watch
* S Isaiah Lewis: Led CU in tackles last year and is, by far, the most experienced member of the entire secondary.
* LB Quinn Perry: CU's second-leading tackler a year ago has stepped up his game and his leadership this offseason.
* CB Nikko Reed: Looked good when he got a chance to play last year. Now he's in a starting role and the Buffs need him to step up.
* DL Jalen Sami: He had his best season as a Buff last year and is one of the most important players up front.
* OLB Guy Thomas: As the Buffs look to generate more of a pass rush, Thomas could be the leader of that. He's got the potential to have a breakout season.
Numbers to know
* 15 — Players on the CU defense that have started at least one game in a Buffs' uniform. Defensive end Terrance Lang has the most (27), while lineman Jalen Sami has 24.
* 40 — Passes defended (breakups plus interceptions) by the Buffs last year, the second-lowest total in the Pac-12. They had 31 breakups and nine interceptions.
* 59 — Plays of 20-plus yards allowed by the Buffs last year, the most in the Pac-12. CU also gave up the most plays of 20-plus yards in 2020 (42).
* 74.4 — Scoring percentage for CU opponents in the red zone last year. The Buffs ranked second in the Pac-12 in red zone defense, preventing scores on 11 of the opponents' 43 trips inside the 20-yard line.
* 106 — Tackles in the last two seasons for safety Isaiah Lewis, the most among all returning players for the Buffs. He led them with 79 tackles last season.