CU Buffs developing depth, versatility in secondary

Colorado cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin typically likes his defensive backs to be versatile players, but that might be more important this year.

“You don’t know who’s gonna be in your locker room from one day to the next,” Martin said Monday in a virtual press conference after CU’s 15th practice of the preseason. “Just crossing fingers that everybody’s there that you’re counting on.”

CU Buffs developing depth, versatility in secondary
Colorado cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin said coaches are cross-training many of the defensive backs to play multiple positions.

As CU prepares for its first season under head coach Karl Dorrell — along with first-year secondary coaches Brett Maxie and Martin — position flexibility has been a point of emphasis.

“It’s something I’ve always done that I took pride in, too,” Martin said. “You’re just not a corner or you’re just not a safety. We’re defensive backs.”

Less than two weeks before the Nov. 7 season opener against UCLA (5 p.m., TV: ESPN2), the Buffaloes are still figuring out their depth chart in the secondary, and it includes several players who could line up in different spots, including:

  • Junior Chris Miller has been a corner during his career, but is projected to start at Star (a safety/outside linebacker hybrid) and has worked at safety.
  • Junior Mekhi Blackmon has played cornerback and nickel, but also works at Star.
  • KJ Trujillo started seven games at corner last year as a true freshman, but is also practicing at safety.
  • Sophomore Mark Perry is projected to start at strong safety, but can also play Star, where he lined up last year.
  • Senior free safety Derrion Rakestraw, a nine-game starter last year, sophomore Jaylen Striker, a junior college transfer, and true freshman safety Toren Pittman are all practicing at multiple spots.

“All of those guys are back there playing multiple positions, so it’s fun to see because the more they understand the defense and the pieces that fit, the better we all benefit,” Martin said.

For now, the Buffs appear to be set with Perry and Rakestraw as starting safeties and Miller at Star, but cornerback is an ongoing battle, with Trujillo, Nigel Bethel, Mekhi Blackmon, Christian Gonzalez, Tarik Luckett and Striker.

“Every day is an open competition, so those guys are all battling,” Martin said. “We’re trying to develop a group of core guys.”

Part of that development is the versatility.

“I think one thing that’s really awesome is coach Dorrell, (defensive coordinator Tyson) Summers and coach Maxie have given me an opportunity to cross-train guys and we try to teach everybody everything,” Martin said. “Obviously the situation right now with the pandemic … you’ve got to be ready for whatever. You’ve got to have guys that can be able to be true DBs, not just cornerbacks.”

The ability to do that stems from having some natural instincts, and several CU defensive backs have that, Maxie said.

“It’s very important to have instincts because you’re not going to be able to show players every route, every run in practice,” Maxie said. “There’s going to be some things that they’re going to have to get on their own.”

Having several defensive backs with experience on offense helps.

Rakestraw and Luckett both came to CU as receivers before converting to defense. In high school, Blackmon was an all-conference receiver and Miller was one of his team’s leading receivers. Gonzalez caught 65 passes for 956 yards last year at The Colony (Texas) High School. Perry was a running back, racking up 905 yards and 14 touchdowns on 104 carries (8.7 yards per carry) as a senior.