Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Colorado

Nov 17, 2018; Boulder, CO, USA; Colorado Buffaloes linebacker Nate Landman (53) and nose tackle Lyle Tuiloma (72) tackle Utah Utes running back Armand Shyne (6) in the first quarter at Folsom Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

Colorado Buffaloes

Head Coach: Karl Dorrell (first season, replacing Mel Tucker, who accepted the head coaching position at Michigan State) 

2019 Record: 5-7

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Laviska Shenault, Jr., WR, Jacksonville Jaguars – 2nd Round, No. 42 overall

Davion Taylor, OLB, Philadelphia Eagles – 3rd Round, No. 103 overall

Arlington Hambright, OL, Chicago Bears – 7th Round, No. 226 overall

Overview: Any team facing a switch at head coach is facing a great deal of change – especially in these unprecedented times – but Karl Dorrell and the Colorado Buffaloes are getting a later start on this process than any other staff in the country, as he only agreed to rejoin the team as head coach February 23 – a little less than two weeks after Mel Tucker abruptly left town for Michigan State.

While the timing has certainly complicated matters, make no mistake, Dorrell is well qualified for the position, spending five years at his alma mater UCLA as head coach from 2003-2007 and nearly all of his time since in the NFL, coaching receivers (his college position), quarterbacks or both.

And, of course, this is a homecoming of sorts for Dorrell, who first jumped into the coaching profession by serving as the receiver coach at Colorado under Bill McCartney back in 1992. And, after spending a year coaching this position at Arizona State, Dorrell returned to Boulder in 1995, teaming up with his former quarterback Rick Neuheisel at UCLA to serve as offensive coordinator and receivers coach again for the next three years, before taking on quarterback tutoring duties as well in 1998.

Unfortunately, Dorrell’s qualifications do not make his job much easier. The Buffaloes finished last year out of the postseason and just 3-6 in the conference with an offense ranking 100 out of the 130 FBS teams (averaging 23.5 points per game). And remember, that was with the 42 overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft, Laviska Shenault, Jr., drawing coverage with strong-armed, Senior Bowl invitee Steven Montez (now a member of that professional football team in Washington) hurling the ball to him. Replacing both will be a huge challenge.

And the defense – Tucker’s specialty - was only slightly better, checking in 96 and allowing 31.8 points to opponents.

Colorado does return intriguing NFL-caliber talent with seniors Nate Landman and Mustafa Johnson leading the charge. Both are proven difference-makers at this level and current mid-round 2021 NFL draft candidates.

Given all of the turnover on offense, however, just duplicating last year’s 3-6 record in conference would be impressive.

With the Pac-12 opting to cancel out of conference games due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Colorado’s season will begin September 26, hosting the defending Rose Bowl and Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Nate Landman, ILB, 6-2, 230, 4.75, SR

Recruited out of the talent-rich state of California by then-Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre, Landman has proven one of the few sources of consistency for the Buffs since, standing out on special teams and defense, alike, as a true freshman in 2017 before emerging as an All-Pac-12 performer each of the past two years.

Though Landman only finished his first season on campus with a total of 17 tackles, four of them came behind the line of scrimmage – just two behind team leaders with hundreds more opportunities.

As such, there were high hopes for Landman’s game taking off in 2018. He lived up to those hopes and more, exploding for a team-high 123 tackles while also leading the Buffs in tackles for loss (13) and sacks (four), earning Second Team All-Pac-12 honors from the AP and Phil Steele, as well as honorable mention by the conference’s coaches.

A year ago, scouts fell in love with the raw athleticism demonstrated by outside linebacker Davion Taylor (a third round pick by Philadelphia), but Landman was again, easily, Colorado’s most productive and reliable defender, registering 137 stops – the most here since 2007 – and jumping up to First Team all-conference honors by the AP, Phil Steele and the league’s coaches.

Voted the best defensive player on the team by two different coaching staffs at the conclusion of his sophomore and junior campaigns, Landman enters his senior season a little bit like Cal cornerback Camryn Bynum – a well-known difference-maker to Pac-12 fans and NFL scouts – but relatively unknown and certainly underrated by many outside of the west.

Strengths: Ultra-productive tackling machine. Locates the football quickly, showing the key and diagnosis skills to get an early jump on the action. Trusts his eyes and attacks gaps, breaking to and through the line of scrimmage like a running back.

Best attribute may be initial recognition and downhill closing speed. Can hit the line of scrimmage like he’s shot out of a cannon, surprising opponents.

Isn’t reliant on initial quickness to surprise would-be blockers, however, showing patience to let runners commit and is comfortable in traffic. Lower body strength and awareness show up when taking on blockers, as Landman does a nice job of anchoring at the point of attack. He sprawls effectively, creating a wall and slipping off of would-be blockers for effective drag-down tackles at the point of attack. When spinning away from contact, Landman quickly relocates the ball and takes sharp angles to it. Brings his hips as a hitter, leaving his feet to deliver forceful collisions. Generally a reliable wrap-up tackler who uses his long arms well to lasso, including in pursuit. Good hand-eye coordination trip up ballcarriers seemingly out of his grasp, as well as when punching the ball out or reacting to it in the air.

Isn’t the most nimble in coverage but shows good route awareness and quick reactions to tipped passes, breaking up six and intercepting half of them the past two years… Top marks off the field. Dedicated to the weight room, gaining in strength and mass each year in Boulder…

Voted a team captain in 2019 as a junior and is expected to maintain this role in 2020.

Weaknesses: Could be seen as a bit of a ‘tweener, at this time. A bit slim for the middle with just average muscular development. Could stand to gain some upper body and grip strength. Despite statistics suggesting otherwise, Landman is not as effective in coverage as he is in run support. He is a bit stiff changing direction, leaving him flat-footed and left in the dust, at times. Like most linebackers, he is quick to read run, taking aggressive steps toward the line of scrimmage and being forced to scramble to get back into position on play-action. He shows just average straight-line speed, struggling to recover once out of position… Also, the lack of ideal lateral agility forces Landman to lunge at ballcarriers near him, resulting in some big hits but some missed tackles, as well. Exacerbates the missed tackle issue with occasionally relying on his knockdown power and failing to wrap securely, something which showed up at the goal-line in 2019 vs. Utah (watch the last snap of the first clip), as well as in previous years.

NFL Player Comparison: Ben Gedeon, Minnesota Vikings – At 6-2, 244 pounds, Gedeon is slightly larger than Landman and certainly was not as accomplished at the collegiate level, starting just one year at Michigan before earning a fourth round pick by the Vikings. Like Gedeon, however Landman is a traditional run-stuffing linebacker who compensates for his lack of elite athleticism with smarts, toughness and reliability.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Fourth Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Colorado:

1. Nate Landman, ILB, 6-2, 230, 4.75, SR

2. Mustafa Johnson, DT, 6-2, 290, 4.95, SR

3. William Sherman, OT, 6-4, 305, 5.20, JR

4. Terrance Lang, DE, 6-6, 275, 4.90, JR

5. K.D. Nixon, WR, 5-08, 190, 4.45, SR

6. Dimitri Stanley, WR, 5-11, 185, 4.45, rSoph

7. Alex Fontenot, RB, 5-11, 195, 4.50, rJR

8. Chris Miller, CB, 6-0, 190, 4.50, rJR

9. Akil Jones, ILB, 6-0, 230, 4.85, SR

10. Kary Kutsch, OG, 6-4, 310, 5.10, SR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates