Mismatched cornerbacks spark Colorado's defensive growth

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

They are perhaps the most dissimilar pair of cornerbacks in the Big 12.

Tall, angular Jimmy Smith and squat, speedy Cha'pelle Brown provide Colorado with one of the conference's best pairs of cover corners, even if they are complete physical opposites as football players.

"It's kind of funny the two of us are out there," the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Smith said. "We'd don't look much alike. But we do like to play in this defense and it's getting more comfortable for both of us."

The growth of the cornerbacks, former roommates and still best friends, will be pivotal as the Buffaloes attempt to confound skeptics and challenge for their first Big 12 North title since 2005.

If they get there, Smith and Brown will be key players as they face an almost constant bombardment in the pass-happy Big 12.

Colorado's unusual press coverage -- a marked contrast in today's game of college football which is overrun by zone defenses and a more conservative approach -- will have a role in any success this team has.

"It's a challenge for us, but it's a lot of fun," said the 5-foot-7, 175-pound Brown. "We are almost in more press (defense) than anybody in the country. We like to take the approach that we're an aggressive defense and we like to challenge other teams. They have to beat us."

Smith has particularly thrived in spring and summer workouts. He has the prototypical size to play cornerback in the NFL and he is adding the techniques as he becomes more proficient in the defense. He made three starts last season and racked up 39 tackles.

He's been called the team's fastest player by Colorado coaches. And as he becomes more accustomed to playing "on an island" in the press defense, he's becoming more confident.

"When you have a 6-foot-2 corner like me, it's tough for those guys to get off the line and get into their routes," Smith said. "It messes with them and their receivers because they can't get off the line. I definitely see those guys get frustrated as the game goes on. Corners get away with a lot of things in that five-yard zone close to the line of scrimmage. I try to get them mad and frustrated and off their game."

The play of the corners helped the Buffaloes lead the Big 12 in pass defense, surrendering 215.3 yards a game and 16 touchdown passes. Putting those numbers into context, Colorado ranked 72nd nationally. And in few other conferences do teams face the consistent barrage of high-powered passing attacks as in the Big 12, where no other defense ranked higher than 89th in pass defense.

But having confident cornerbacks who have worked together gives the Buffaloes additional confidence in their pass coverages.

Smith turned his season around last year, making a game-saving tackle that against Iowa State and having strong late-season games against Oklahoma State and Nebraska. He punctuated his season with a fumble recovery for a touchdown against the Cornhuskers.

"I know my confidence is up," Smith said. "I know I have to go out and perform and it seemed like everything started coming together for me last season. I feel much better out there."

He's been learning from the play of Brown, one of the steadiest members of the Buffaloes' team and the most veteran player of the secondary with 37 career games and 24 starts.

Brown led all returning Buffalo defensive backs with 84 tackles. And he had a knack for big plays, leading the team in third-down stops (14), passes broken up (10) and was tied for the team lead with two interceptions.

During the spring, he overcame a bout with giardia, an illness caused by a microscopic parasite the typically gets into a person's system by drinking contaminated food or drinking tainted water. It caused Brown to lose about 15 pounds.

But he says he's recovered and is ready to contribute to a secondary which should be an underrated strength for the Buffaloes.

Coach Dan Hawkins had been extremely confident in this group, which he has a stated goal of "10 wins and no excuses."

That confidence has also infused Brown with a similar attitude.

"We do have no excuses this year," Brown said. "It's been that way around here too long -- too many excuses about us being too young or whatever. I'm on my last year and I'm ready to go out and finally accomplish the goals that we've set."