BOULDER, Colo. — When Alton McCaskill gets a spare moment in Colorado’s locker room, he looks around and studies the name plates above the lockers and silently matches them to the faces sitting beneath them.
Fewer than three months ago, the former Houston running back became arguably the highest profile transfer addition among 56 post-spring newcomers to Deion Sanders’ grand experiment at Colorado.
With 68 new scholarship players in Boulder and a new coaching staff, everything is new for everyone. And though the key task is building a winning football team, with three weeks until Sanders’ Colorado opens at TCU, it does help to know all your teammates names’ at first glance. But that takes time.
“I would say I have about 85 to 90 percent down,” McCaskill said.
Sanders’ controversial housecleaning strategy is unprecedented at the major college level, but Sanders took a similar approach when he took over Jackson State three years ago.
“When I was at Jackson, we had three people left over from the team before,” said safety Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig, who followed Sanders to Colorado after being named first-team All-Southwestern Athletic Conference last season. “It’s still the same process.”
Colorado’s current roster has just 10 scholarship players from the Buffaloes team that went 1-11 in 2022, with coach Karl Dorrell fired after an 0-5 start.
“I didn’t know how the process was going to work, how we were going to jell together,” said outside linebacker Jordan Domineck, who spent four seasons at Georgia Tech and had 9.5 tackles for loss at Arkansas last season before becoming one of 18 graduate transfers at Colorado. “We’ve jelled so well, it feels like we’ve been together a lot longer than we actually have.”
CU First Day of Fall Camphttps://t.co/4bS4Dm9dCb
— Deion Sanders Jr (@DeionSandersJr) August 2, 2023
Sanders built a roster that won a pair of SWAC titles at Jackson State because he attracted more talent than his opponents. But at Colorado, the pure talent level will be equal to or less than opponents more often than not, though the average player rating of Sanders’ incoming transfer class ranks 38th nationally by 247Sports, a significant upgrade from the team’s 2022 roster.
Can Sanders’ rapid transfer portal rebuild still work?
“Everybody says it’s impossible, but I don’t think it’s impossible at all,” said offensive tackle Savion Washington, who followed his position coach Bill O’Boyle and head coach Sean Lewis, Colorado’s offensive coordinator, from Kent State to join the Buffs in December. “It hasn’t been as hard as I thought. I’ve been here eight months, and I feel like I‘m locked in with everyone.”
Colorado players offered updates on the experiment during preseason camp, but the on-field product will be presented soon enough. After Colorado begins the season as a 20-point underdog at rebuilt national runner-up TCU on Sept. 2, it hosts former Big Eight rival Nebraska and in-state rival Colorado State, followed by a trip to Oregon, which won 10 games last season under Dan Lanning. After that four-game stretch, Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and USC will be headed to Boulder.
Whatever happens, millions are watching.Colorado’s in-house social channels have already added around a million combined total followers since Sanders arrived in December, up to 1.24 million from 226,000, according to the school. Colorado’s first two games are set for broadcast on Fox as part of the network’s “Big Noon Kickoff.”
The foundation of Sanders’ program is relatively simple to understand. It’s also emblazoned on the walls of the team facility for players to see every day. Sanders said it the first time he stepped in front of his players, most of whom later entered the transfer portal, either by choice or by force. Multiple players wear wristbands featuring the six words.
Smart. Fast. Tough. Disciplined, with character.
Sanders and his staff sought to recruit players who fit that description. Once they arrive on campus, Sanders is intent on keeping the main thing the main thing. There have been little to no formal team-building exercises, breakout rooms or sharing sessions other college football coaches might embrace. There’s no card full of questions they want players to ask their teammates.
“It has to be genuine,” Silmon-Craig said. “It can’t be mandated.”
Last week, Sanders did give players a stage in a team meeting to offer up their best impersonations of the coaching staff, to rave reviews.
Coaches will encourage players to sit next to someone whose name they don’t know or they haven’t spent much time with, but the onus to build relationships is on players. Sanders? His focus is on winning and going out of the way to grow the bonds between players is not part of the blueprint.
“I don’t care about culture. I don’t care. I don’t even care if they like each other, I want to win. I have been on some teams where the quarterback didn’t like the receiver, but they darn sure made harmony when the ball was snapped,” Sanders said. “And we’re not like that, trust me, these kids are very fond of one another. You should see the cafeteria. It’s not just a White table, Black table, Hispanic or Asian table, all these kids eat together, and they have a good time.”
Said junior linebacker Marvin Ham II: “It’s different. It’s a big change. We’re all out here going through fall camp and learning new things about each other every day in the process of being out there.
“To win, you have to build a brotherhood. So when we’re sitting at a table, those things naturally come out.”GO DEEPERUbben: If Deion Sanders' roster-building shortcut works, it will be copied across CFB
Ham is one of the few scholarship players still on the roster who sat in Sanders’ first team meeting at Colorado that went viral for Sanders encouraging players to enter the transfer portal to make way for high-end talent. A four-star recruit and the top-ranked prospect in Colorado’s 2019 class, Ham has started five games, appeared in 29 and has 30 career tackles.
And as for that first meeting?
“I’ve never run from anything in my life,” Ham said.
Some of the bonds formed on the roster have been fueled, at least in part, by the skepticism around the Buffaloes’ immediate future and the widespread criticism of Sanders’ roster-building choices, from coaches privately and Oklahoma’s Brent Venables and Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi publicly.
“This is the most hate a 1-11 team has gotten in the history of college football,” Domineck said. “If we’re getting this much hate, we’re doing something right. People are scared of us. I feel like that’s fear speaking out. So many people hate on us, but they don’t know what’s about to happen, they don’t see the work we put in and the talent we have.
“When we come out and show what we can really do, it’s going to shock a lot of people.”
It’s August, but a defiance and confidence permeates the roster rebuilt in one offseason through the transfer portal.
“Championship, that’s our goal. That’s what we want to reach for our first year, no matter what,” said defensive lineman Shane Cokes, who arrived from Dartmouth before spring football. “We’re all working together to reach that common goal, and it comes from the top down, having Coach Prime’s idea in mind of winning that championship. It’s not a bounce-back year, go 6-6.”
The idea looms over players in the their lounge. The six words that define the program hang in giant print on the wall, but next to them? A massive photo of the national championship trophy.
But developing chemistry on an offensive line stocked with newcomers isn’t easy, and neither is building the same with a quarterback and new group of receivers in one offseason. Securing quality line play in a major conference from scratch in the transfer portal has never been done, though Domineck said he expects the defensive line to be the best position group on the team.
“And you can quote me on that,” he said.
Maybe the self-assurance and expectation isn’t surprising, even considering the challenges Colorado faces this season.
“Do you know who our coach is? Did you see how he played in the 90s?” Silmon-Craig said. “It’s hard to be around him and not have that same confidence.”
Every day in Colorado’s program begins the same way: players file into the team meeting room, and when Sanders arrives, he kicks it off with a message, usually built around motivation.
“I Believe” is an official slogan of the program, two words Sanders carried over from his time at Jackson State. Sanders recently told his team about the time he was psyching himself up to bench press 340 pounds, a personal record.
He challenged his team to take the motto to heart.
“It’s not just saying I believe, it’s feeling it. I know what I can do, and I’m going to go out there and do it no matter what anybody says,” Cokes said.
Added Domineck: “It’s the idea that you can get that sack, you can get that extra rep. You can get that TFL. Visualizing and knowing it’s going to happen.”
Sanders and the staff met with Domineck when he was in the transfer portal and laid out a vision. They believed he had an NFL future. Sanders’ own history, as well as bringing coaches with NFL experience like Pat Shurmur and Dennis Thurman into the program, helps sell the NFL dream to players, despite Sanders’ brief tenure as a college coach and minimal proof of concept.
“He told me I could be in the NFL. That’s why I came here, because these are the coaches, strength coaches, assistant coaches and position coaches that are going to get me there,” Washington said.
Though the program’s schemes are uniquely college — defensive coordinator Charles Kelly brought Alabama’s 3-4 scheme to Boulder and Lewis an uptempo power spread — the nuts and bolts of the program often reflect the NFL.
Cokes was sitting in the defensive line meeting room watching film this offseason when Sanders wandered in and sat down. For around two or three hours, Sanders shared some secrets of his playing career and what it was like to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Cokes also finally got an explanation for why Sanders is a stickler for players wearing the same shoes and gear, even in practice, and how Sanders decided to structure practices. It’s all built around the NFL, as well as personal development.
“He’s setting us up — if we can reach our goals and that level, we already have that standard. Look the same and follow the rules,” Cokes said. “It was cool to sit down and understand his mind.”
Sanders’ program is in place. This is his roster.
But what will happen when this newly stitched together team takes the field? Vegas oddsmakers set Colorado’s over/under for wins this season at 3.5.
— COACH PRIME (@DeionSanders) August 13, 2023
Since mid-June, Sanders has sent the same one-word tweet 28 times, almost always punctuated by an exclamation point.
Soon, it will be seen if Sanders can do it, quickly, on a bigger stage at a bigger program.
(Photo: David Zalubowski / Associated Press)