Year 2 of Deion Sanders’ Colorado project is underway, and Sanders’ signature bravado, leaning into and furthering expectations, is already echoing through the offseason.
The Buffaloes went 4-8 last season to improve on the 1-11 team he inherited, though they lost eight of their final nine games.
With the College Football Playoff expanding from four teams to 12, Sanders said last month his team can “definitely” make the field this season.
“Last year, we were seven points away from seven to eight more wins. We just didn’t know how to win,” Sanders said during an appearance on Fox Sports 1.
Unlike last season, when he shook college football by welcoming 87 new players, Sanders’ roster didn’t undergo a total overhaul. But he’s still going to deal with a lot of turnover. Colorado’s coaching staff has four newcomers and other changes. The Buffaloes have welcomed seven high school prospects and 24 transfers. That transfer class ranks fifth nationally, but just one school (Louisville) added more transfers this offseason. Overall, Colorado’s class ranks 22nd, according to 247Sports’ Composite Team Recruiting Rankings.
“I can honestly say we fulfilled all the needs,” Sanders said. “We fulfilled the need on the offensive line. You’re probably going to see a whole new offensive line. You are probably going to see a new defensive line. We had some good safety play. We got to step it up with the linebackers.”
In Sanders’ world, multiple YouTube channels continue to chronicle the program. He attended Super Bowl week festivities last week along with sons Shedeur and Shilo, both stars for the Buffaloes. Earlier this month, he stopped by the Colorado class named for him with a curriculum built around his leadership and style of brand building.
Shilo and Shedeur were absent from a team meeting to appear in a fashion show in Paris, though Deion Sanders later said the meeting was primarily for newcomers and both had permission from their head coach/father to miss.
Sanders has forecasted multiple times that Colorado will make more additions after spring football, when the second transfer portal window opens.
“What’s my biggest attractability? Skill positions. So we build it from the outside in, not the inside out,” Sanders told DNVR at the Super Bowl. “That’s why you saw all the skill positions and all that, and they balled out. We were garbage on the inside. So what do we go out and do now? The second phase of this building process is now you build it from the inside out, because you already got it on the outside.”
So with all the changes, here’s a closer look at Colorado and its altered roster and staff as it prepares for 2024 and its return to the Big 12.
“We could have definitely been a bowl team,” Sanders said. “We made noise, but now we’re going to make some sounds.”
Deion Sanders believes Colorado will rise in 2024. Opposing coaches predict ‘hard times’
Sanders is embracing being a program defined by the NFL. That’s a somewhat rare strategy because college football and the NFL are very different sports.
Former NFL head coach Pat Shurmur, who was promoted to offensive play caller at midseason after joining the staff just before the 2023 season began, is now full-time offensive coordinator. Before last season, Shurmur hadn’t been on a college staff since 1998.
And after a search that lasted more than a month, Sanders recently turned to Robert Livingston, a longtime secondary coach with the Bengals, as his defensive coordinator. This will be Livingston’s first time as a play caller and as an on-field coach at the college level.
Robert Livingston officially joins the staff as our new Defensive Coordinator.
— Colorado Buffaloes Football (@CUBuffsFootball) February 9, 2024
The changes from 2023 are notable: Offensive coordinator Sean Lewis was considered one of the better offensive minds in the game, but was demoted midseason and landed the San Diego State head coaching job in November. Sanders had plucked him from his head coaching job at Kent State before last season. Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly came from the Jimbo Fisher/Nick Saban coaching tree. He gave up play-calling duties at Colorado to become co-defensive coordinator at Auburn, his alma mater, under Hugh Freeze. Colorado finished last season No. 99 in the FBS in yards per play and No. 115 in yards allowed per play.
The Buffaloes also have a pair of first-time position coaches in Phil Loadholt at offensive line, where drastic improvement is needed, and Vincent Dancy, a Colorado analyst who was promoted to outside linebackers coach after Nick Williams, the staff’s best recruiter, left for Syracuse.
Sanders also pulled Jason Phillips out of the CFL to become his receivers coach. The Texas native who played with Sanders for the Atlanta Falcons coached at a variety of programs before joining Sanders’ staff at Jackson State in 2021. Sanders made room for him by bumping Brett Bartolone to tight ends to replace Tim Brewster, who left for Charlotte this offseason.
Apparent impact: Downgrade
It’s still Shedeur Sanders’ show after he threw for 3,230 yards, 27 touchdowns and three interceptions in 2023.
In a recent interview with DNVR, Shedeur Sanders expressed displeasure at the offense he played in under Lewis last season. The scheme, a cousin of the system Art Briles popularized at Baylor, has a passing game built around choice routes that read a defense’s look after the snap and attack it where it is vulnerable.
Shedeur talks about the disconnect on offense last year
“That just wasn’t my style of play” pic.twitter.com/VhwtWxwQJA
— DNVR Buffs (@DNVR_Buffs) February 9, 2024
“That just wasn’t my style of play. I like definite things,” he told the site. “It’s too many variables. I don’t like having all the variables.”
It does beg the question of why Deion Sanders would embrace a system his son and star quarterback wasn’t comfortable with, but Shedeur Sanders’ comments seem to indicate Colorado will move toward something more identifiable to Shurmur.
Colorado, which turned to true freshman Ryan Staub when Shedeur was injured late last season, is still thin but added Walter Taylor from Vanderbilt and Destin Wade from Kentucky. Both have limited game experience.
Apparent impact: Broke even
Improving this group was the biggest emphasis of the offseason after Colorado gave up 56 sacks last season, more than all but one FBS team and five more than any Power 5 team. The Buffaloes also ranked last nationally in yards per carry, though that number was dragged down by lost yardage on sacks.
Starting center Van Wells and starting tackle Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan went in the transfer portal quickly after the season and both landed at former Pac-12 rival Oregon State.
Five-star freshman Jordan Seaton, the nation’s No. 1 tackle prospect in the Class of 2024, is the biggest addition after a dramatic recruitment.
Colorado proved to be right path for 5-star OT Jordan Seaton: ‘Why not bet on myself?’
The Buffaloes added five more offensive linemen. Tyler Johnson, a transfer from Houston, is the top-rated, as the lone four-star of the group. After transferring from Texas, he started two seasons at guard for the Cougars, earning third-team All-AAC honors in 2022. Last year, he gave up just 10 pressures and one sack, per Pro Football Focus.
Yakiri Walker, a native of DeSoto, Texas, who transferred from UConn, leads a group of three-star transfers. He gave up just 15 pressures and one sack a season ago. Justin Mayers arrived from UTEP and gave up just nine pressures and a sack last year.
Khalil Benson transferred in from Indiana, where he surrendered 38 pressures and a sack last season. That was the sixth-most pressures allowed among FBS tackles. Phillip Houston started all 12 games at Florida International last year, surrendering five sacks.
So will this offensive line be better? The Buffs will need Seaton to make an immediate impact, though offensive line is usually a developmental position. There figures to be a learning curve and a need for time to develop chemistry.
Apparent impact: Upgrade
Dylan Edwards (321 yards, 1 TD) is back, and the Buffaloes didn’t add any transfers, but added three-star running back Micah Welch out of Georgia. Power back Anthony Hankerson (319 yards, 1 TD) transferred to Oregon State, and Kavosiey Smoke moved on.
Hyped Houston transfer Alton McCaskill redshirted last season as he continued to recover from a knee injury and could be a factor.
Apparent impact: Downgrade
Colorado’s strongest position group last season might be improved. The Buffaloes bring back two-way star Travis Hunter and Jimmy Horn Jr., as well as Omarion Miller, who broke out with 196 yards receiving in a loss to USC. While Colorado lost leading receiver Xavier Weaver and Michael Harrison, a walk-on who caught 31 balls and five touchdowns last season, it added Will Sheppard from Vanderbilt and LaJohntay Wester from Florida Atlantic as a pair of huge pickups. Sheppard caught 152 passes for 2,067 yards and 21 touchdowns in four seasons with the Commodores. Wester caught 108 balls for 1,168 yards at FAU last season and led the AAC in receptions and receiving yards.
Speedy four-star high school prospect Drelon Miller could find a role. Colorado also replaced Harrison with Chamon Metayer, a four-star transfer prospect with prototypical size at 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds. He caught 23 passes and five touchdowns for Cincinnati last season. Also added: NC State receiver Terrell Timmons Jr. and Cordale Russell from TCU.
Apparent impact: Upgrade
No position group got a better transfer haul, though it has to replace a lot. Jordan Domineck (team-high 12 TFLs in 2023) and Taijh Alston (5 TFLs) had just one year of eligibility and won’t return, but Colorado picked up a trio of four-star transfers and three more transfers from major conference schools.
B.J. Green II from Arizona State had 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in three seasons. He was initially slated to play for Washington but flipped to Colorado after coach Kalen DeBoer left for Alabama. Sanders was his youth coach in Atlanta.
Samuel Okunlola transferred in from Pitt after making six tackles for loss and five sacks last season. Quency Wiggins played in nine games the past two seasons for LSU’s loaded defensive line and had seven tackles last season.
Taurean Carter and Chidozie Nwankwo came from Arkansas and Houston. Carter played in 33 games over three seasons and started five with 25 tackles and 3.5 TFLs. Nwankwo started nine games and played 33 in three seasons and had 5 TFLs and a sack last season. The Buffaloes also added Anquin Barnes, who played in two games in three seasons for Alabama.
Apparent impact: Upgrade
The Buffaloes won’t have any proven linebackers as returning starters and will need to lean on less accomplished transfers, having added a trio of three-stars.
Jaylen Wester, the brother of receiver LaJohntay Wester, also came from FAU. He started five games last year and played in 11, making 55 tackles, 7.5 TFLs and a sack.
Edge rusher Nikhil Webb Walker started four games last year for New Mexico State and had 5.5 TFLs with three sacks and 24 tackles.
Keaten Wade, whose twin brother and quarterback Destin also transferred to Colorado, played in all 12 games last year for Kentucky, making 35 tackles and 3.5 TFLs. He was a four-star prospect out of high school.
LaVonta Bentley, a Clemson transfer who made 68 tackles and was second for the Buffs with 11 tackles for loss last season, is off to the next level. Marvin Ham, a holdover from the previous staff, left the team and was rated a four-star transfer and has yet to announce a new home.
Derrick McLendon was the only other major loss for the group, though it will also be without Juwan Mitchell, who flashed with 25 tackles in two games early in the season but fell out of the playing rotation.
Apparent impact: Downgrade
No position group returns more talent.
Safety Shilo Sanders and two-way star Hunter both return. Trevor Woods, a holdover from the previous staff who moved around from safety to linebacker last season, also returns. He may still be needed at linebacker, but had key interceptions in wins over TCU and Colorado State last season.
Four-star transfer safety Preston Hodge arrives from Liberty after making 48 tackles with eight pass breakups and two interceptions. Three-star corner DJ McKinney made 38 tackles and five PBUs at Oklahoma State. Safety Herman Smith also reunited with Sanders after leaving Jackson State for Idaho State the past two seasons.
Colorado loses Rodrick Ward, but Cam’Ron Silmon Craig is back, and so is Arkansas transfer Myles Slusher, who had a second consecutive season marred by injuries.
Corner Kyndrich Breedlove transferred to Purdue, but the Buffs added four-star high school prospect Kamron Mikell, an athlete who likely will play corner.
Apparent impact: Upgrade
What it means
Sanders pointed out that the Buffaloes suffered only two true blowout losses. But the idea that seven or eight losses could have gone either way is a generous interpretation. Plus, Colorado narrowly beat a TCU team that finished 5-7, and the Buffs would have lost to Colorado State if not for an improbable late rally. And they needed a last-second field goal to beat Arizona State.
Colorado coughed up a 29-0 lead in a home loss to Stanford, and being relatively competitive in games isn’t quite the same as being close to seven or eight more wins.
The good news is Colorado’s 2024 schedule features five ranked teams in The Athletic’s preseason top 25 but just two in the top 10, and neither Utah nor Oklahoma State will enter the season as contenders for the national title.
The Buffaloes roster should be slightly improved, but the changes on the coaching staff could mean a learning curve with a new defensive system and likely some changes on offense under Shurmur.
Experience and continuity are the markers of the most successful teams in the sport, and Sanders’ coaching staff will lack that in 2024.
So while the offseason work continues, the question lingers: Will the roster be improved enough to make up for any shortcomings around Sanders on the sideline and to deliver on Sanders’ promises for his second season?
(Top photo of Shedeur Sanders, Deion Sanders, Shilo Sanders and Deion Sanders Jr. at NFL Honors in Las Vegas: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)