Outgoing Transfers Won’t Derail Colorado, But Deion Sanders’ Lack of a Long-Term Plan Might

    Much has been made of Colorado losing players in the spring transfer portal window. But the Buffaloes will be OK in 2024 -- it's the future that's worrisome.

    Deion Sanders brought his “Louis” to Colorado last season and stole the nation’s attention after a 3-0 start. However, the Buffaloes crashed down to Earth, finishing 4-8. Sanders has maintained his brash transfer portal usage this offseason, with 36 players leaving (21 in the spring alone) and 29 coming in thus far. How will the turnover alter the team in 2024, and what’s the long-term plan in Boulder?

    Why Transfer Portal Losses Won’t Hurt Colorado in 2024

    During a weekly press conference, Sanders was asked about the sheer number of Buffaloes taking their talents elsewhere. His response?

    “I wish you guys would do a little more homework when you start talking about the portal and understand what we’re losing. What are we losing?”

    When a report pointed to the loss of potential starters and depth, Sanders countered cooly, “We’re good. I trust the recruiting team. I trust our coaches. Please have some faith in me. We’re good. We’re alright. What happens with the portal, man, and what you guys need to know — a lot of people are fighting for backups. When a guy’s a starter, and he transfers, you got to really think about that. I mean, is he really that? I don’t know how many starters have really transferred around the country.”

    To his point, of the 36 athletes that have left the program, only six were full-time starters last season (three on the offensive line, a unit Sanders made a point to upgrade), and five more played significant snaps.

    The most notable recent “losses” were former five-star CB Cormani McClain and RB Alton McCaskill IV. Sanders ripped McClain for not being prepared or understanding what the Buffaloes were trying to do scheme-wise.

    The CB shot back in his YouTube video titled “Next Step,” saying, “I feel like I just don’t want to play for clicks; I actually want to be involved with a great, leading program that’s going to develop players.” McClain obviously fell out of favor, and despite his talent, he seemingly couldn’t get out of the doghouse.

    Meanwhile, McCaskill appeared to be behind Dylan Edwards and Sy’veon Wilkerson on the depth chart and sought an opportunity to be a bigger part of a backfield. There was no love lost between him and Sanders, though, as McCaskill thanked Coach Prime in his farewell post, and the HC responded, “You have a gift, unwrap it and exercise it.”

    Sanders and his staff were also criticized after his son, starting safety Shilo Sanders, told defensive transfers to reach out to him and offensive transfers to direct message star QB Sheduer Sanders in a story on Instagram.

    “They don’t know how this stuff works,” Coach Prime said on DNVR Sports. “We don’t talk behind closed doors … Let’s get this straight, when real players want to jump, they can’t talk to personnel, right? So, who do you talk to? (The players). How stupid are you to think that they don’t talk to one another? That’s when you know who’s who and what’s what.

    “That’s where it comes from first. Like, if I know who’s going to jump into the portal from our team, what are my players gonna tell me? Not a coach from somewhere else because it’s illegal? Correct? For the coach to be having these conversations, although they happen … But when Shilo says this, he’s not lying.”

    MORE: Deion Sanders Lashes Out at Colorado Players

    Yet, all the player movement isn’t new in Boulder. Just 10 scholarship players from the 2022 roster Sanders inherited were on the team in 2023. A whopping 86 new players formed the roster, with 53 coming from the transfer portal — the most any team has ever added in a single offseason. But that was by design. “I know it’s a huge overhaul,” Sanders said. “But it had to be done.”

    Sure, the 4-8 finish was underwhelming, especially after an offseason of hype and big talk from the program, but it was still a notable turnaround from the bottom-of-the-FBS 1-11 campaign in 2022.

    All of this to say, R-E-L-A-X, Colorado fans. Sanders and the Buffaloes will be all right in 2024.

    Offensively:

    • QB1 Shedeur Sanders is a first-round 2025 NFL Draft candidate.
    • Ohio State’s Dallan Hayden came in to lead the RB room.
    • The receiving corps is led by Jimmy Horn Jr., two-way star Travis Hunter, and Vanderbilt transfer Will Sheppard.
    • The offensive line was completely stripped down and reconstructed, with five-star true freshman Jordan Seaton and transfers Payton Kirkland (Texas), Khalil Benson (Indiana), Phillip Houston (FIU), Tyler Johnson (Houston), Yakiri Walker (UConn), and Justin Mayers (UTEP) bolstering the unit.
    • Pat Shurmur will provide stability as the sole play-caller after splitting the role with Sean Lewis in 2023.

    Defensively:

    • Former Bengals eight-year defensive assistant Robert Livingston will run the defense in 2024.
    • Several transfers fill the defensive line, including LSU’s Quency Wiggins, Pitt’s Dayon Hayes and Samuel Okunlola, Houston’s Chidozie Nwankwo, and Ohio’s Rayyan Buell.
    • LaVonta Bentley returns at LB after finishing the 2023 season strong and is joined by safety-turned-LB Trevor Woods, who will have a full offseason to commit to the transition.
    • Travis Hunter and Shilo Sanders marshal the secondary, with safety Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig and CB Omarion Cooper filling the remaining starting roles. Liberty’s Preston Hodge and Oklahoma State’s DJ McKinney will also factor in at CB, providing excellent depth.

    And on special teams, kicker Alejandro Mata and punter Mark Vassett provide continuity after playing well last year. So yes, Colorado could — and should — back up Coach Prime’s talk and make some noise in the Big 12, particularly with Texas and Oklahoma onto the SEC.

    However, that’s the immediate outlook. The long-term future of the program is a lot more murky.

    What the Future Holds for Deion Sanders and the Buffaloes

    Colorado’s faceplant to end the year had residual on the recruiting trail. Class of 2024 three-star QB Danny O’Neil and OL Talan Chandler and Class of 2025 three-star RB Jamarice Walker, four-star WR Winston Watkins Jr., and four-star QB Antwaan Hill all decommitted from the program in the months following the season’s end.

    Additionally, early enrollee DL Eric Brantley Jr. and JUCO recruit Zach Blackwood are part of the contingent opting to leave Boulder this spring. That leaves Colorado with just nine players in their 2024 recruiting class (three enrollees and six signed letters of intent); even at 11 with Brantley and Blackwood, the Buffaloes tied for the second smallest class with Rice and UTSA, just one above SMU.

    To make matters worse, Coach Prime and Co. currently have zero commitments in the 2025 class despite handing out 287 offers, according to 247Sports. While it’s early in the process, there are over 80 FBS programs with at least one pledge already. And Sanders’ unwillingness to recruit on the road may be coming back to bite him.

    Are Coach Prime’s transfer portal dealings sustainable? When you are winning and have a solid NIL backing, sure, but if the Buffaloes struggle again in 2024…

    Recruitment is a massive pillar in a college football team’s success, but that could be the least of Colorado’s issues if Sanders leaves entirely.

    The Buffaloes lured Coach Prime to Boulder with a five-year, $29.5 million contract. Prior to the season, athletic director Rick George told reporters, “We don’t have the money yet, but I know we’ll have it.”

    Unfortunately, they didn’t have it in Year 1, as in the NCAA’s financial report for the 2023 fiscal year, CU suffered a net loss of $9 million. A good chunk of that was due to the Pac-12 taking a massive $72 million hit for a decade of Comcast overpaying the conference, resulting in each school’s distribution being slashed by $6 million.

    MORE: Deion Sanders vs. Prime Time — The Man Behind the Masquerade

    “We found out about (the distribution decrease) very late in the fiscal year, so we didn’t have time to adjust the rest of our operations to try to minimize that impact,” CU’s senior associate athletic director for business operations Cory Hilliard said. “That, plus the coaching change (Colorado paid $7.32 million in severances) combined were the two big deltas that resulted in that deficit.”

    The move to the Big 12 should be a massive boon, as was the Coach Prime effect in 2023. Colorado saw an increase of 51% in multimedia rights revenue, reeled in $21 million more in ticket sales, and received $16 million more in pledged gifts from boosters in Sanders’ first campaign.

    However, 2024 may be the last time Colorado can reap the benefits. Sanders told Dan Patrick during the season that Shedeur and Shilo would enter the 2025 NFL Draft: “They’re going to come out at the same time … next year.”

    Not having his sons leading their respective sides of the ball, compounded by a severe lack of recruiting, points to Sanders leaving Boulder following the conclusion of the 2024 season.

    If the Buffaloes meet or exceed expectations, the NFL and major Power Five programs could come calling. Now, Sanders has said he doesn’t want to coach in the NFL on multiple occasions, but perhaps a big enough contract could change his mind.

    As for remaining on the college stage, Arkansas (Sam Pittman) and Florida (Billy Napier) could conceivably move on from their current head coaches following another year. A long-shot possibility is Ole Miss.

    KEEP READING: The Origins of Deion Sanders, Shedeur Sanders Pre-Game Ritual

    Seemingly every year, Lane Kiffin is rumored for a major opening in the sport (both collegiately and professionally). If Were Kiffin to leave, coaching a top SEC program in Mississippi, where Sanders spent three seasons with Jackson State, could be the situation that ultimately draws Coach Prime.

    Does a departure after Year 2 make sense financially for Sanders and Colorado? Here are the known details of his current deal:

    • Salary increases by $200,000 every year but taps out at $6.3 million in 2027.
    • Value will be approximately $5.7 million in 2024, with the base pay checking in at $500,000, with the remainder tied to media obligations, promotional duties, and student-athlete development.
    • Sanders would owe Colorado $10 million if he left for any reason after his second season, which the team who hired him would most certainly pay.

    While $10 million is not an insignificant amount of money, a top school would have no issue paying the Buffaloes to bring in Sanders.

    Time will tell what the future holds for Coach Prime and the Buffaloes’ football program, but the road ahead is abounded with uncertainty and opportunity in equal measure. And one thing is for sure: the nation will be watching as events unfold in Boulder, Colorado.

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