Blueprint for another Colorado overhaul: Fix a broken line, save
ESPN Senior Writer
- College football reporter.
- Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
- Graduate of Northwestern University.
ESPN Staff Writer
- ESPN staff writer
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- Graduated from Central Michigan
Dec 7, 2023, 07:00 AM ET
Rapper Master P, wearing sunglasses and a Colorado hoodie under his sport jacket, posed for pictures. Terrell Davis, the former Super Bowl MVP running back for the Denver Broncos, milled around with other notable ex-athletes.
Colorado coach Deion Sanders, the man responsible for all the Buffaloes buzz, took his pregame lap around the field, flanked by police, private security and his son Deion Jr., who was pointing a camera toward his father to capture footage of Year 1 under Coach Prime.
The scene on Colorado’s sideline before a Nov. 4 game with Oregon State featured some of the same elements of earlier contests at Folsom Field — celebrities, cameras and a palpable excitement — but the overall mood had changed.
Colorado had started 3-0 and had captivated the college football world, but its fortunes had turned since then. The team had lost four of five. Sanders had switched offensive playcallers, a decision that shocked many coaches who respected CU offensive coordinator Sean Lewis. The team’s personnel warts, masked by outstanding individual efforts and, as it turned out, an opening schedule featuring average opponents, were laid bare.
Colorado would lose to Oregon State 26-19, a game blighted by poor offensive line play and odd coaching decisions. Star quarterback Shedeur Sanders left the field with a towel over his head. The Buffaloes, who had been college football’s team of September, went on to go 0-for-November, completing Sanders’ first season at 4-8.
On Dec. 3, 2022, Colorado hired Sanders because the team had bottomed out, finishing 1-11. Sanders engineered a historic roster overhaul, as Colorado stretched the limits of the transfer portal. The team added an FBS-high 86 new players, while returning an FBS-low three starters. Sanders’ first season brought unparalleled attention to Colorado and undeniable improvement on the field, but also exposed deficiencies that must be fixed for the Buffs to become a true contender. Almost exactly a year later, Colorado has reached another junction.
“We comin,'” Sanders repeated throughout his first year in Boulder, a phrase now displayed on Colorado T-shirts and hoodies, and a rallying cry for Buffaloes fans.
But where is Colorado going? A vital offseason looms, perhaps just as important as the first one under Sanders. The Buffs must fortify their weaknesses, make several coaching staff hires, replenish a recruiting class that has taken hits and prepare to join a new league (the Big 12).
After talking to sources at Colorado and around the Pac-12, here’s a look at four priorities for Sanders and the Buffs as they look ahead.
Better in the trenches
Save ’24 recruiting class
Big 12 transition
Build off momentum
Improve offensive line, get stronger in trenches
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
When Colorado’s whirlwind winter and spring in the transfer portal subsided, the team produced a roster with clear upgrades at spots such as quarterback, wide receiver and cornerback, but also a potential albatross position: offensive line. Most of Colorado’s portal exits could be viewed as addition by subtraction, but losing several veteran offensive linemen — Austin Johnson (Purdue), Casey Roddick (Florida State), Jake Wiley (UCLA) — proved difficult to overcome. Roddick would earn honorable mention All-ACC honors with the Seminoles.
The Buffs returned two starters in tackle Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan and center Van Wells, as well as transfers with experience such as Savion Washington and Jack Bailey from Kent State. But overall, the incoming offensive linemen weren’t as gifted as other positions. CU had concerns about the line entering the season, and even amid a 4-1 start, the Buffs allowed 31 sacks and 52 tackles for loss.
The problem never went away: Colorado allowed three or more sacks in each of its first 11 games and six or more tackles for loss in nine contests. Shedeur Sanders was sacked an FBS-high 52 times, despite missing the season finale at Utah because of a fracture in his back, according to a video posted by Deion Sanders Jr.
An offensive line fix is different and more difficult than at other positions. Both Christian-Lichtenhan and Wells recently entered the portal. Depth will need to be built through development of current players, some of whom didn’t see the field much this season.
“Are they going to just try to go portal again?” a Pac-12 coach said. “If you try to go portal for the O-line, you’re making a huge mistake, because I don’t think there are any portal O-linemen. There are a few, but the ones that are out there, they want a lot of money. They want to get overpaid.”
Although Deion Sanders is planning another roster reshape for 2024, he also said, “We’re not an ATM.”
“At some point, you have to develop, teach and develop,” a Pac-12 defensive coordinator said. “There’s some good high school offensive linemen out there, but it’s a rarity that you find true freshman to start on the O-line. It’s such a learning curve, and their bodies have got to get where they need to be.”
Colorado suffered a blow in recruiting when Talan Chandler, its only committed offensive line prospect, flipped to Missouri on Nov. 19. Chandler had been committed to Colorado since February, and was initially drawn to Sanders and the excitement around the program. He stayed committed to the Buffs until he was offered by Missouri, his home state school.
“My flip is definitely more about Mizzou. I mean, Mizzou is my dream school,” Chandler said. “Just being able to stay close to home; it’s three hours from where I live, and all my family can go to games.”
Shedeur Sanders, who has not declared whether he will return next season, will need much better protection in 2024 to avoid injury and maintain his production. Colorado also likely will seek greater balance on offense. The Buffs ranked last nationally in rushing yards per game — 68.9, 7.2 yards less than any other FBS team — but also 119th in rushing attempts (345).
Colorado also had some challenges on the defensive line. The Buffs rank 106th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (176.4), and allowed more than 200 rushing yards in half of their games.
“The game is won in the trenches, on both sides,” a Colorado source said. “We just didn’t have enough gas in the tank to finish, particularly with the big people.”
Salvage ’24 recruiting class
Colorado’s recruiting class was always going to be smaller, because of the volume the staff brought in through the transfer portal in the previous offseason. The coaches have to balance their total scholarship numbers and stay under the total limit of 85.
Entering Thursday, the Buffs only had eight high school commitments in their 2024 recruiting class, tied for the fewest among all Power 5 teams with Michigan State, Houston and Boston College. Colorado sits outside of ESPN’s list of the top 50 recruiting classes, compared to the 2023 class when Sanders and his staff signed the No. 23 overall class.
To be fair, Sanders has delivered some late recruiting heroics before. He flipped five-star Travis Hunter from Florida State to Jackson State in the 2022 class and then flipped five-star corner Cormani McClain from Miami to Colorado in January. And on Thursday morning, Colorado received a commitment from ESPN 300 lineman Jordan Seaton, the No. 19 overall recruit.
It’s unclear if Sanders has a card up his sleeve this time, but at the moment, he has seen more recruits leave than join his 2024 class. Colorado added a big commitment from ESPN 300 athlete Kamron Mikell in November.
“First time I met him was [on a visit] and it was like [meeting a celebrity and a coach],” Mikell told ESPN in September. “I think recruits are drawn to that; people see him as somebody who turns us kids into believers. He makes everyone believe in themselves. In college there are a lot of confidence boosters and drainers and he tries to be that booster.”
Who Sanders is and what he brings will be appealing to some recruits, but as Colorado faltered, confidence from some recruits began to waver.
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Colorado lost a commitment from Danny O’Neil, the lone quarterback in the class. O’Neil had developed a strong relationship with Lewis during his process.
After Lewis lost playcalling duties just before the Oregon State game, O’Neil sensed Lewis was likely on the way out. Last week, San Diego State hired Lewis as its new head coach. Lewis almost immediately offered O’Neil a scholarship.
“Coach Lewis was the main reason I chose Colorado, so knowing he wasn’t going to be there made me take a step back and make sure that it still checked all the boxes for me and my family,” O’Neil told ESPN. The staff also lost a commitment from 2025 ESPN Junior 300 quarterback Antwann Hill, who decommitted a day before O’Neil decommitted. Hill had planned to reclassify to the 2024 class and enroll early, but decided to stay in the 2025 class and back off of his commitment.
Colorado’s recent coaching changes could further impact recruiting. In addition to Lewis leaving, tight ends coach Tim Brewster, who shifted into an analyst role when analyst Pat Shurmur became the playcaller, resigned to become tight ends coach at Charlotte. Defensive ends coach Nick Williams left the program last weekend. Lewis is hiring Colorado offensive line coach Bill O’Boyle, who had come with Lewis to CU from Kent State, and Darian Hagan, a longtime Colorado assistant and former national championship-winning quarterback, who moved into a support staff role under Sanders. Hagan will coach San Diego State’s running backs.
“Tim Brewster was one of their best recruiters, [Lewis] was one of their best recruiters, they got rid of him,” a Pac-12 coach said. “I don’t know what that’s going to look like.”
It’s not all gloomy for Colorado, though. The Buffs are hiring Oklahoma analyst Phil Loadholt to be their offensive line coach, and they got the commitment from Seaton. There are several other highly regarded 2024 recruits still available. The staff is in the mix for ESPN 300 defensive end King Joseph Edwards out of Georgia, the No. 275 prospect overall. Colorado is also pursuing ESPN 300 safety Dre’lon Miller, the No. 85 recruit.
“This is where the scouting department, where they start doing their thing,” Sanders said after a season-ending loss to Utah. “Everything you see that we have a lack thereof, a deficit, we’re going to fill that need. … We’re getting ready to start cooking. We’re getting ready to go pick up that grocery.”
Just two weeks until the early signing period, Colorado is again using the transfer portal to add talent to the roster, and Sanders is ready. The offensive line is the big focus, but there are needs across the board. While the portal is a useful tool to manage rosters, eventually Sanders and his staff must build more momentum on the recruiting trail to start growing the foundation of the program.
“The hard part is you can’t turn over that roster again,” a Pac-12 coordinator said. “Half the guys you brought in were transfers, and [the majority] can’t transfer anywhere.”
Prepare for Big 12 transition
On Sept. 2, Sanders made his Colorado coaching debut in a Big 12 stadium, stunning defending national runner-up TCU 45-42. In 2024, Colorado will return to the Big 12, where it was a charter member, and where it remained until joining the Pac-12 after the 2010 season.
In July, Colorado became the first of four Pac-12 schools to depart for the Big 12. Sanders, who had lived primarily in Texas and raised his family there until becoming a college coach, was among the key stakeholders supporting and driving the move. After the season finale, Sanders said he was “tremendously happy” to be making the move to the Big 12.
Conference changes are often rocky, even for programs going through much less transition than Colorado has under Sanders. The four new additions to the Big 12 in the 2023 season — BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston — combined to go 8-28 in conference play. A Colorado source described the team’s 2024 schedule as “extremely competitive,” although a Pac-12 coach at another transitioning school said the move to the Big 12 shouldn’t be as extreme as the one to the Big Ten for departing league members USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington.
The Buffs won’t be sneaking up on any of their future Big 12 opponents.
“What a lot of people missed with Colorado is they thought they beat last year’s TCU team,” said a coach who faced Colorado. “They were like, ‘That was the national championship runner-up,’ and it really wasn’t. Everyone kept trying to come up with different ways to justify who [Colorado was], and no one wanted to say they’re just average.”
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There should be down-the-road benefits for Colorado in the Big 12, including the ability to play games consistently in Texas and even occasionally in Florida, where Deion Sanders is from. Colorado’s top two recruits in Sanders’ first class — McClain, from Lakeland, Florida, and running back Dylan Edwards, from Derby, Kansas — hail from states in the Big 12’s footprint.
“It’s a more conducive time zone for us,” a team source said. “That fits us. And from a staff standpoint, we’re going to areas that we’re more familiar with. We’re very excited about it.”
The conference shift also provides an opportunity for Colorado to further define its identity.
Colorado’s first staff under Sanders had a mix of coaches he brought from Jackson State and others, like Lewis and O’Boyle, who had no connection to him before coming to Boulder. As a source close to Sanders said of the coaching staff, “Very rarely do you get it 100 percent right the first time around.”
Sanders’ network throughout the football world, not just the college scene, broadens coaching candidates. Shurmur, a longtime NFL coach, is set to remain Colorado’s offensive coordinator, and Sanders after the Utah game praised his performance and how he had communicated with Shedeur Sanders since taking over playcalling.
But there will be some new faces on staff. Last month Sanders said Warren Sapp, the Hall of Fame defensive lineman, will come aboard in 2024.
“He’s going to be invaluable to what he brings to the table,” Sanders said of Sapp on his radio show. “The [players] are going to love him. … The recruits as well.”
Sanders and those in and around Colorado often point to their approach as pioneering and distinct, the type that makes people uncomfortable. The Buffs are entering a new league, but they also can figure out how to set themselves apart.
“It just feels like they’re still trying to find their way,” a Pac-12 coach said. “Like, who are they? Who do they want to be?”
Build off momentum
Colorado’s season ended on a down note, but the team clearly had its bright spots, on and off the field, which can be accentuated.
“They’ve got a chance to be really good,” a Pac-12 coordinator said. “It seems like there’s turmoil over there, but I think Prime actually does a really good job. Their skill players, they’re as good as damn near anyone we’ve played. They’ll be fine.”
Shedeur Sanders had a record-setting debut season at Colorado and ranked 19th nationally in passing yards (3,230) and tied for 12th in passing touchdowns (27), despite missing the last game. He will be one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in 2024.
Colorado also excelled at wide receiver, as Xavier Weaver, Jimmy Horn Jr. and Travis Hunter — the remarkable two-way star who this week won the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player — all had at least 57 receptions. Horn and Hunter are eligible to return, although tight end Michael Harrison (31 receptions, 5 touchdowns) entered the portal earlier this week.
Hunter, despite missing three games because of a lacerated liver, led the team in pass breakups (5) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (3) as a cornerback. Safety Shilo Sanders, Deion’s son and Shedeur’s brother, is eligible to return after leading Colorado in tackles (70) and forced fumbles (4). Other productive defenders such as LaVonta Bentley, Trevor Woods and Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig are eligible to return in 2024.
“Real football enthusiasts, football people know what we are doing here,” Deion Sanders said last month. “A lot of people think we’re just losing, but you have to find a win in the midst of a loss. Football people understand what time it is without looking at their watches.”
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Sanders repeatedly praised his team’s resilience in games, even ones in which it fell short. Colorado was outscored in each of the first three quarters this season, but held a 116-85 edge in the fourth. The Buffs rallied in losses to USC and Oregon State, although they also squandered a 29-0 halftime advantage against Stanford, and blew four leads in a three-point loss to Arizona.
Other than lopsided road defeats to Oregon and Washington State, the Buffaloes battled, which Sanders acknowledged after the finale at Utah.
“You have nothing to hang your head down with,” Sanders told the team, in a video posted by Well Off Media. “One thing about the Boulder faithful, you gave them all hope, and they cannot wait until tomorrow and the next day and the next day, to see what we build. I’m proud of y’all.”
The spotlight will remain on Boulder. Sanders appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” earlier this week to discuss the new season of “Coach Prime,” which will air on Prime Video. KFC is still airing commercials featuring Deion Sanders with his children. Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter will enter 2023 as two of college football’s most recognizable players.
Colorado sold out all of its home games for the first time in school history and likely will remain one of the hottest tickets — and top ratings-grabber on TV — in 2024.
“Our head coach is maybe the greatest marketer in this industry, as an individual,” Alec Roussos, Colorado’s associate director for administration and chief of staff, told ESPN in October. “So for us, it’s how do we align our marketing efforts, so when [Sanders’] brand raises, the University of Colorado’s brand also raises. You can never rest on your laurels.”
Sanders brings eyeballs to Boulder, but he’s not there just to help merch sales and ticket revenue. After the Utah game, Sanders said he could “see around the corner,” and could sense the team’s progress but also that more was needed to take the next step.
“I could not prosper if I didn’t glean from what transpired this season,” Sanders said. “I could not be who I am if I didn’t have these tasks at hand. I’m truly thankful. This is not the first challenge I’ve had in my life, but I know how I finish.
“I know how this is gonna end.”