Tuesday, June 25, 2024

By David Ubben, Bruce Feldman and Justin Williams

Deion Sanders stood in front of the Colorado football team in the visiting locker room moments before the Buffs took the field for their season finale last Saturday at Utah. The head coach was decked out in all black, save for a pair of custom gold Nike shoes.

The season began with the Book of Genesis, he told his team, but now Colorado had reached the Book of Revelation.“There’s a lot of folks that started out great and done one thing at the end to just mess it all up. There’s a lot of folks that started out bad and did one thing at the end to make it all good,” he added, nodding his head.

“You can make everybody forget every dern thing today. And it could be a heck of a plane ride (home).”

Instead, Colorado lost to the Utes 23-17, completing a fall of biblical proportions. The Buffaloes closed the season with six losses in a row and eight in their last nine games.

They were the toast of college football in September. Coach Prime was a phenomenon, seen everywhere from “60 Minutes” to national California Almonds ads. Daily sports talk pondered whether Shedeur Sanders — Deion’s son and the Buffs starting quarterback — was a Heisman Trophy contender and the best NFL prospect at his position and lauded wide receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter for resurrecting the two-way star. Fox and ESPN’s Saturday pregame shows jockeyed for position on the scenic Boulder campus, much like the celebrities and influencers on Colorado’s sideline.

In a sport regularly dominated by blue bloods and familiar storylines, Colorado and Coach Prime were an injection of new energy. Love it or hate it, and there was plenty of both, people tuned in, and Sanders played to the crowd. He pounded the table at his postgame news conference following Colorado’s season-opening upset of TCU and asked: “Do you believe?”

Deion Sanders mania was at its peak — then came losses. How did he respond?

But now, after a 4-8 season that exposed the holes in Colorado’s roster and in Sanders’ ability to pull the right strings from the sidelines, a different question might be asked: Will Colorado be any better in 2024?

“We didn’t accomplish what we wanted, but we accomplished what we needed. I think hope is instilled, tremendously, in this city, in the student body, within this team, within this building and you see the direction that we’re headed,” Sanders said before his team’s loss to Utah.

Yet across the sport, others don’t have such a rosy outlook for the Buffs. What ailed the team — dreadful play along the offensive and defensive line, a lack of depth across the roster — is not easily fixed, and there are expected to be key departures from Sanders’ coaching staff.

The Athletic spoke with six coordinators and assistant coaches within the Pac-12 Conference, all of whom were granted anonymity to speak candidly about an opposing program. Their assessment of Year 1 of Sanders at Colorado included the necessary caveats for how he brought a jolt of energy and attention to the long downtrodden program. However, they were largely pessimistic that Year 2 was going to bring significant improvement. Said one coach:

“It’s gonna get dark for Colorado.”

Sanders famously added 69 new scholarship athletes to the roster this season out of a total of 85, offloading a number of players he inherited from a 1-11 Colorado team in 2022. Of those newcomers, 57 were brought in after spring practice, an unprecedented turnover of an FBS program.

Sanders loaded up on skill-position talent via the transfer portal, most notably with Hunter and his sons, Shedeur and Shilo, all of whom followed him from Jackson State. But the depth behind them was paper-thin and, more critically, the talent brought in along the offensive and defensive lines was subpar.

“They were loading up on all these skill players, but they weren’t getting great players on the line,” said a Pac-12 assistant. “Offensive line-wise, they didn’t take a single coveted guy out of the portal.” That coach also noted that four of the defensive linemen Colorado brought in were not good enough. “We didn’t pursue them,” he said.

Said another Pac-12 assistant: “They were horrible on the front. They couldn’t protect (Shedeur). He was getting massacred in our game. It’s really hard to do anything when you can’t block anybody.”

Colorado finished the season second-to-last among 133 FBS teams in sacks allowed with 56 and last in rushing yards per attempt at 2.31.

The combination of no running game, poor pass blocking, injuries and playing from behind made for a brutal formula. Shedeur needed pain injections late in the season and struggled to grip a ball after a hit against Washington State. He sat out the Utah game with a “fracture in his back,” according to a video posted by Deion Sanders Jr.

Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders couldn’t finish the season due to injury. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)
“They have a lot of speed outside, and their receivers were just as good as anyone we played. It was really just that the offensive line was so overmatched and they didn’t have a tight end at all,” said another Pac-12 assistant. “Not having a tight end who can block was a bigger deal than a lot of people think. That really hurts an offense. They didn’t have any answers in protection because of that.”

Shedeur could declare for the NFL Draft but is expected to return to Colorado for 2024. The 2023 season showed that he gives the Buffaloes a chance. But poor line play can dash that chance just the same. Earlier this season, as the hits on his son piled up and frustrations simmered, Sanders forecasted the cure: “The big picture is you get new linemen. That’s the picture, and I’m going to paint it perfectly.”

Colorado is set to add Jackson State transfer Tyler Chandler Brown, who sat out this season when the NCAA refused his request for immediate eligibility. Beyond that, the team has just one offensive lineman committed in its 2024 recruiting class — three-star junior college transfer Issiah Walker Jr. — with three weeks before the early signing period.

The next transfer portal window opens Dec. 4. One coach, referencing his experience, projects roughly 30 Power 5-quality offensive line starters to enter the transfer portal in a typical offseason. “There are 65 Power 5 schools,” that coach said. “There’s no way in hell you’re gonna get a whole new line for Shedeur.”

Unless you really pay for it. But Sanders said last week that “we’re not an ATM,” alluding to the growing impact of name, image and likeness (NIL) earnings on players’ transfer decisions. “We want players that want us,” he added. “Trying to convince somebody and doing that, being held hostage financially, we ain’t with that.”

Even if Colorado could go the NIL route, offensive line is a position group where experience and continuity matter. Michigan, which won the Joe Moore Award the past two seasons as the nation’s best offensive line, ran out a starting five against Ohio State last Saturday that featured all seniors or graduate students with 203 combined starts.

“It’s a developmental position,” said one Pac-12 assistant. “It took us like three, four years to have a middle-of-the-pack O-line. It takes time to do that. They have to stick it out and develop.”

Recruiting sizzle was a big part of the Sanders appeal when he was hired, and there was an immediate payoff: The Buffs’ 2023 class was rated 29th nationally by the 247Sports Composite, including the top-rated transfer class. But that momentum seems to have slowed, at least with high school recruits. Colorado’s 2024 class currently features nine commitments and ranks 65th nationally.

On Monday, the lone 2024 quarterback commit — Danny O’Neil from Indianapolis — decommitted, citing the “possibility of coaching changes and instability across the board” in an interview with the Indianapolis Star. Earlier this month, two four-star commits from the 2025 class — athlete Winston Watkins, who committed the day Sanders was hired at Colorado, and quarterback Antwann Hill Jr. — backed out of their commitments to the Buffs. ​​Talan Chandler, a three-star 2024 offensive line prospect from Nevada, Mo., who committed to Colorado in February, flipped to in-state Missouri earlier this month.

Wasserman: Deion Sanders’ poor recruiting results major issue for Colorado’s build
There was a belief after Colorado announced it would move to the Power 5 that the Buffs would soon be contenders. Now?

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