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Under Jim Leavitt, Colorado's defense has come of age

When Jim Leavitt was hired as the defensive coordinator at Colorado prior to spring practice in 2015, he wasn’t really sure what he was getting into. He had been out of college football for five seasons and spent the previous four as an assistant coach on Jim Harbaugh’s staff with the San Francisco 49ers.

He definitely didn’t have the time to watch bad Pac-12 football.

“I had no understanding,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about them.”

So, he turned on the tape and started studying a team that in 2014 ranked last among Power 5 schools in yards allowed per play (6.55) and third to last in scoring defense (39 points per game). After coaching All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman on one of the NFL’s best defenses in his previous job, this would be a definite change of pace.

“I’ve been in very difficult situations. My whole resume says that,” Leavitt said. “I don’t worry about what we do or do not have. I figured there would be some good things and some bad things.”

At Colorado, they preach The Rise. That’s something Leavitt knows a thing or two about.

The last time he arrived at a new job on a college campus, there was no tape at all. As has been well-documented, Leavitt was the first coach in program history at South Florida when it began play in 1997 as an independent in what is now the FCS level. He shepherded the program to FBS after four seasons and for a week in 2007, USF was ranked No. 2 in the AP poll.

His time at USF came to a messy finish, but Leavitt, who on Monday was named a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, could again soon find himself a coveted candidate for head-coaching jobs as result of the role he has played in turning around the Colorado defense.

“Coach Leavitt has done a good job. We had really good players that were young and he came in and has helped keep developing them,” coach Mike MacIntyre said. “With him and [safeties coach] Joe Tumpkin and [defensive line coach] Jim Jeffcoat and [cornerbacks coach] Charles Clark, they’ve all done a good job of bonding together on defense and motivating those guys. Jim has done a really good job of organizing it and coaching it and bringing energy.

“But the No. 1 thing is you have to have players and we have good players on defense.”

The Buffaloes finished the regular season as the Pac-12’s No. 1-ranked defense in yards allowed per game (323.8), No. 1 in yards allowed per play (4.67) and No. 2 in scoring defense (18.8). They have allowed the third-fewest yards per pass attempt in FBS (5.4) and the lowest completion percentage among Power 5 teams on passes of 10 yards or more downfield (29 percent).

In Colorado's 27-22 win against No. 22 Utah on Saturday, Utes quarterback Troy Williams completed just 13 of 40 passes for 160 yards and was picked off twice. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon said Leavitt called on them to play press coverage on the outside about 80 percent of the time as the front seven attacked the box.

That works because Colorado’s secondary is among the most talented in the country.

Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is a generating a lot of interest from NFL scouts and was named the team’s co-MVP with quarterback Sefo Liufau, but Witherspoon and safety Tedric Thompson also have developed into all-conference candidates and sophomore cornerback Isaiah Oliver is the next in line.

Among Power 5 programs, only Auburn (62) has broken up more passes this year than Colorado (60), but no team has more disrupted dropbacks (109), which is a stat that combines sacks, interceptions, passes defended and pass breakups. Witherspoon ranks No. 1 nationally in pass breakups (17), Thompson ranks fifth (14) and Awuzie is No. 40 with nine.

They face a difficult test Friday night in the Pac-12 championship game as No. 5 Washington comes in with one of the nation's best quarterbacks in sophomore Jake Browning and a pair of equally dangerous receivers in John Ross and Dante Pettis to go along with a rushing offense that led the Pac-12 in rushing yards per carry in conference play (5.80)

Leavitt's brief assessment: "They have no weaknesses."

The same can be said about his defense.