One of the biggest keys to the University of Colorado’s turnaround from being a Pac-12 punching bag to becoming the South division champion and a top-25 team was a rejuvenated defense, led by defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. Although Leavitt is now out of the picture his replacement, D.J. Eliot, is picking up right where Leavitt left off. Eliot also shares many of the same philosophies as head coach Mike MacIntyre – philosophies that were at the core of CU’s remarkable rise in 2016.
“Our defense is going to be the same scheme,” Eliot told Mark Johnson in a sit-down interview with Buffs TV. “You know, we ran a 3-4 at Kentucky.”
Eliot joined the Colorado staff in January after Leavitt departed to take the defensive coordinator position at Oregon. Eliot was the DC at Kentucky from 2013 to 2016, facing some of the toughest offenses in the country in the Southeastern Conference. His Wildcats surrendered 440 yards per game in 2016, but he inherits a Buffaloes team that is coming off a top-20 season in terms of total defense. The Buffs ranked 17th in the nation, allowing 338 yards per game. Eliot plans to maintain that same style of play and emotional charge MacIntyre has been instilling over the past four seasons.
“We’re going to be able to attack,” Eliot said. “We’re going to bring different rushers to confuse the quarterback. The kids are going to play fast. We’re going to emphasize on fundamentals. We’re going to make sure that we take the field prepared. Our players are going to play every play like it’s their last play.”
It’s that approach that helped guide Colorado to 10 wins and a Pac-12 South title in 2016. Colorado’s 10 wins were as many as the team had combined to win over MacIntyre’s first three seasons at the helm. The turnaround, Eliot says, was something everyone in college football enjoyed watching.
“The view was, here’s a group of guys that have been fighting now for four years to get over the hump [and] have been close many times. Here’s a head coach that’s had success in turning around programs at San Jose State. To see them fight and compete and be able to finish like they did was not only a great thing for them, but for all college football programs to see that,” he said.
However, it’s not as though the turnaround came as a surprise to Eliot.
“I’ve actually known Coach MacIntyre for a long time,” Eliot said. “I was a young coach [at] Texas State in 2002 and I had the opportunity to go up and meet with some coaches for the Dallas Cowboys and I spent all day with Coach MacIntyre in a room and we just talked [defensive back] play. And then that night we went out to eat. So I’ve been following him for a long time. Here’s a guy that’s coached in the NFL, that’s coached under Bill Parcells, who’s had success everywhere he’s been, has been able to turn [around] two programs – San Jose State, Colorado – has what it takes to be a great coach of all-time and I’m excited to work for him.”
Eliot is already echoing one of MacIntyre’s mantras throughout the remarkable 2016 season: Players make plays.
“You know, the game of football is meant to be played with passion and emotion, and that’s what we’re going to emphasize with our players. We’re going to make sure that these guys understand the concepts, that these guys understand situations in football. And we’re going to do everything that we can to put them into position to make plays,” Eliot said.
He’s already sharing that vision with the next wave of Buffaloes. With national signing day just around the corner, Eliot knows how important it is to maintain a positive relationship with recruits who may have been recruited by other faces.
“Recruits like to know, especially on defense, who their defensive coordinator’s going to be,” Eliot said. “So I’ve been going around and meeting all the defensive recruits. I’ve been able to meet some last week that came on campus. I’m going around this week getting in front of every defensive recruit so they can know who they’re coordinator’s going to be here at Colorado and I expect from our players and our recruits and what they can look forward to.”
The Buffs are expected to have one of the top recruiting classes in the Pac-12 and the best in MacIntyre’s history. That group will inherit some great expectations after last year’s turnaround, but that’s exactly where Eliot expects the CU football program to be.
“One, it’s a great program. Coach MacIntyre’s done an excellent job. He’s a fabulous coach. [Two], it’s a place that’s always been special to me and my family. So the combination of a great program, great coach [and] being in Colorado at CU, for us, has been just a perfect fit.”
At 40, Eliot, who graduated from Wyoming, sees the Colorado as somewhat of a homecoming.
“We feel like we’ve come home. [My wife is] from Westminster; she went to Northglenn High School. We’ve been vacationing in Colorado our entire marriage. I used to come up here as a kid. This is a special place to us and we feel really good that we’re here.”
Buffs fans can feel confident that their new defensive coordinator will not only be deploying the same X’s and O’s as his predecessor, but also that he brings the same enthusiastic mindset as the current head coach who has helped the program return to national prominence.
Featured Video Credit: Buffs TV