By Grace Raynor, Manny Navarro and David Ubben
Ryan Staub had visited Colorado three times before Deion Sanders took over as head coach.
Outside of the red, shiny new McLaren parked on Folsom Field, everything else on campus looked pretty much the same to Staub two weekends ago.
“(Deion Sanders) was coaching at Jackson State so I don’t know if he had enough time to make that many arrangements,” said Staub, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound three-star quarterback from Stevenson Ranch, Calif. Staub committed to Colorado last January and was one of seven holdover recruits from Karl Dorrell’s staff who signed with the program Wednesday.
“It definitely looked the exact same, but it didn’t feel the exact same,” he said. “There’s a new energy and a new message in town. That’s obviously Coach Prime and what he’s kind of conveying to the whole world. What he’s going to do here, he’s just gonna bring change. And he’s gonna win.”
Sanders, who stands out much like a $400,000 sports car on a football field, has a long road ahead of him in trying to turn around Colorado’s downtrodden football program.
— Ryan Staub (@_ryanstaub) December 13, 2022
The Buffaloes were 1-11 in 2022 and ranked 63rd nationally in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite — only four spots better than Sanders’ former team, Jackson State.
The recruiting class Sanders signed Wednesday featured 14 high school recruits and 10 transfers. Only five of the 24 signees were blue-chip prospects coming out of high school, but it’s also been only two weeks since Sanders was hired. Late Wednesday night, Jackson State corner Travis Hunter, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2022, announced his decision to transfer to Colorado, and several of his former JSU teammates should soon be joining him in the Rockies.
Colorado’s recruiting class currently ranks No. 53 nationally, but its overall rank — which includes transfers — is No. 29. The Buffs’ overall rank was No. 58 in 2022 and No. 65 in 2021.
So, what was it like for the first batch of recruits to get wooed to Colorado by Coach Prime?
“Really, we were just kind of getting to know each other,” said Staub, who spent about 20 minutes with Sanders during his official visit weekend. “It basically got to the point where Coach Prime told me, ‘Get on Twitter and start recruiting your future teammates.’ That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
Since Sanders was hired on Dec. 3, the Buffaloes have hosted two recruiting weekends: one from Dec. 9-11 and another from Dec. 16-18 before Monday’s dead period began.
Sanders was back and forth from Mississippi to Colorado as he split time with his Jackson State team ahead of the Tigers’ Celebration Bowl appearance. But after the game ended Saturday afternoon, Sanders flew back to Boulder, where he caught the last 90 minutes of a three-hour dinner at the Colorado team facility, complete with macaroni and cheese, green beans, blackened shrimp, fried chicken and dinner rolls, according to three-star cornerback signee Carter Stoutmire. A DJ was on hand, which prompted a few of the more gregarious recruits to start dancing.
But despite Coach Prime’s flashy personality, Saturday night felt more like a “cookout” than a “party,” said former Western Michigan defensive end Marshawn Kneeland, who is now considering Colorado as a transfer destination. Save for the McLaren and Aston Martin luxury cars on the field for the ever-anticipated photo shoot, there was a relaxing vibe to the visit.
— Marshawn Kneeland (@MarshawnKneela1) December 18, 2022
Even Sanders’ entrance was understated.
“(He) just walked in,” said Kneeland. “Don’t get me wrong: There’re cameras on him at all times. (But) he just walked in: ‘What’s up?’ It didn’t feel like a head coach, if that makes sense. It felt like a father or an uncle. You know what I mean? It wasn’t like, ‘Oh I’ve got to be pressured to not say the wrong thing.’ It’s just like, ‘This is my peoples.’”
Kneeland, who has since visited UCLA, said he spent about 30 minutes with Sanders in his office as Sanders made his rounds with recruits. When the two of them sat down, Sanders had a series of cards that contained Kneeland’s information, including his stats.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I need you.’ And after that, it was like, I don’t know what else anybody can say to make you feel more at home, to make you feel more wanted,” Kneeland said. “It’s definitely a feeling that can’t be reciprocated anywhere else.”
Kneeland said he got the sense that Sanders is more humble now than he was as a player when he was making his name high-stepping up and down the field. His personality can be hard to explain, though, other than, “You just have to see it.”
“His personality is just different from most coaches. I can’t say all (coaches) because I haven’t met all of them,” Kneeland said. “It’s like when he talks, it’s similar to, I want to say how everybody looks at how Jay-Z talks in the rap industry. He knows what he’s talking about. He knows what he’s doing. He’s been there, done that. He was the greatest. So it’s like, he has that extra pizazz, if you will.”
Indeed, Sanders’ resume seems to be striking a chord with recruits who say there’s something different about the potential of playing for the only active college football head coach who is in the Hall of Fame as a player.
Stoutmire, whose father, Omar, played with Sanders and Colorado cornerbacks coach Kevin Mathis for the Dallas Cowboys in 1997, said his future coach — once the top prospect in the state of Florida — has a unique ability to relate to current recruits.
Perhaps three-star wide receiver signee Asaad Waseem summed it up best: “He’s Coach Prime. He played under a legendary coach in Bobby Bowden. He has a gold jacket, College Football Hall of Fame. It’s just different knowing you’re going to play for somebody who did it, got to where you want to go.”
Sanders may not have had much time with the most recent group of visitors, but the rest of the Buffaloes’ staffers made sure recruits had a memorable experience.
Stoutmire, who played at Prestonwood (Texas) Christian, said he and fellow recruits arrived around 3 p.m. on Friday. Stoutmire and his family first drove around campus to catch a view of the mountains. Then it was back to the hotel to get ready for dinner at local Italian restaurant Pasta Jay’s.
Saturday brought a facility tour, a photo shoot with the luxury cars and lunch at the facility. Because the photo shoot took about an hour-and-a-half, Colorado split recruits into two groups so that one could tour campus while the other posed for photos.
Stoutmire said he had never seen a McLaren, let alone sat inside of one, and wasn’t sure if the Buffaloes acquired the cars via an assist from boosters or a local dealership. Regardless, they were a nice touch. “I mean, athletes care a lot about cars. Athletes are all about style,” he said. “So I’d say that helps out a lot with getting athletes there because they know that the program has money and (that the school) would be able to help them get to the next level.”
Kneeland added: “The photos definitely came out great, which is lovely. I know I only posted a couple of them, but there were a lot.”
Saturday afternoon, both groups went to Colorado’s football cafeteria for lunch, where several televisions were tuned into the Jackson State game as Stoutmire munched on lemon pepper wings, barbecue chicken, brisket and cornbread. Each time Jackson State scored or made a big play, the room erupted with cheers.
And by Saturday night, Sanders was in town and making his rounds. That’s when Deuce Roberson, a Colorado Springs native and junior college transfer from Snow (Utah) College, informed the coaches that he was ready to commit. Roberson took an unofficial visit with fellow Snow College teammate Isaiah Jatta, a three-star offensive tackle who is the No. 19 juco prospect in the 247Sports Composite.
Jatta, who had already used all five of his official visits and therefore also visited unofficially, stayed with Roberson as the two commuted back and forth to campus. He, too, committed and signed Wednesday.
For all of the flash Sanders brings to Colorado football, the recruiting operation felt rather low key, according to several of the recruits. Kneeland said he even took an Uber from the airport to the school after he landed in Denver, about 30 miles from Boulder. That doesn’t mean Colorado didn’t impress, though.
“I’d say a lot of us were actually a little bit starstruck of like, how nice everything was, because we had an idea of what I was gonna expect, but it was honestly more than what I expected,” Stoutmire said. “Everything that I saw out there — just the campus and stuff and how nice everything was.”
And of course, Sander’s personality came out in full force.
“Deion’s dope. Deion’s a very personable guy,” said Cal transfer tight end Champion Johnson, who committed along with his younger brother Victory Johnson. “Everyone loves to talk to him. I don’t think I’ve seen him not smile yet. Honestly, I like to match people’s energy, and his energy was an energy I really enjoyed to match.”
Sanders has already flipped four-star running back Dylan Edwards thanks to their long-standing relationship, giving him a top-200 national prospect at the running back position. His quarterback position is in good shape as well, with the arrival of his son Shedeur from Jackson State. There’s also Staub, who committed to Colorado over SMU.
Now it’s time for Sanders to turn his attention to the February signing period, which gives him more time to establish relationships with high school coaches and unsigned prospects. On Wednesday, 247Sports reported five-star cornerback Cormani McClain, the nation’s No. 2 prospect out of Lakeland (Fla.) High, had been in contact with Sanders and Colorado.
Flipping a prospect of McClain’s caliber would send shockwaves through the recruiting world — just like last year when Sanders flipped Hunter from his longtime commitment to Florida State.
Carter Whitson, who coached Colorado edge signee Taje McCoy at Putnam City (Okla.) High, believes Sanders will engineer a quick turnaround and will get “more than people would think that he could bargain for” out of his players. He commended Sanders for hiring a quality staff that will take care of the X’s and O’s so that Sanders can presumably play the CEO role.
Over the last 10 years, Whitson said, Colorado has been “Rutgers or Kansas,” in terms of routinely producing teams that struggled.
“Name somebody that’s done it better on social media. And what do these kids do?” Whitson said. “If I asked Taje, (if) I’d say, ‘Hey, have you watched any Deion Sanders film?’, his answer would be, ‘Yes, I’ve seen him on TikTok.’ It wouldn’t be, ‘Oh yeah, we saw his highlights on SportsCenter, we watched it over and over again.’ That’s what my generation would say.
“Those guys, I think they’ll do it right. They’ll do it fast. And we’ll see what happens after that.”
(Photo: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)