Is Deion Sanders outsmarting everyone with his recruiting strategy at Colorado?

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BOULDER, Colo. – Deion Sanders’ grand experiment at Colorado has set up quite a contrast with the rest of major college football.

The Buffaloes have been bringing in so many new transfer players from other colleges that it almost seems like a test run for a new model of team building.

It also tees up a big question:

Is “Coach Prime” outsmarting everyone else right now with his recruiting and roster strategy as Colorado’s new head coach? Or is he climbing a slippery slope?

“Once you start getting off the established path, and you think you’ve got it figured out more than everyone else does, obviously there’s a huge potential risk there, and I see that risk for the Buffaloes and Coach Prime,” former Colorado and NFL linebacker Chad Brown told USA TODAY Sports.

The flip side of that risk is that it comes with the potential for big rewards – fielding a winning team after last year’s team finished 1-11.

What is his strategy?

Just a few years ago, the conventional way to win was to recruit better high school players and nurture them along for four or five years until they left.

CU FOOTBALL: Fans in Boulder are going crazy for Deion as spring game arrives

Deion Sanders was introduced as the Colorado Buffaloes' new head football coach on Dec. 4, 2022.

Deion Sanders was introduced as the Colorado Buffaloes’ new head football coach on Dec. 4, 2022.

Sanders instead has pushed an instant rebuilding strategy that he piloted at his previous job at Jackson State. He calls it his 40-40-20 formula. His goal, he said, is to recruit a team with 40% undergraduate transfers, 40% graduate transfers and 20% from high schools.

Since his hiring in early December, he’s hauled in more transfers than any other team this year (28) with a transfer class that ranks No. 1 in the nation, according to 247Sports.

“We’ve been pretty successful,” Sanders said this week. “I can’t tell you everything, but we’re pretty good.”

Others have much different ways to build programs, such as Matt Rhule, the new coach at Nebraska, or Kirby Smart, the coach at Georgia.

But this is what college football is now – free-agent players who want to win right away and make some money on the side from their names, images and likenesses (NIL).

Sanders recognized this, took advantage of the transfer portal and rode it into a sold-out spring football game here Saturday at Folsom Field.

The big question is how it will go when they start playing real games in September and beyond.

What makes it so different?

Players switching teams from other four-year colleges wasn’t that common until 2021, when an NCAA rule change allowed players to transfer without first sitting out a year of competition.

Some coaches still want to build with high school players, including Smart, who won a national title in January after not adding any transfer players the year before.

“I’m really big on getting the core of your team from high school, developing them the right way,” Smart said earlier this month on SiriusXM Sports. “It really boils down to who … you bring in your organization, because if they come in looking to leave, or if they come in expecting to only play as a freshman and have it easy, then we’re probably recruiting the wrong guy.”

Others would rather not have to watch the portal constantly and would prefer to focus on developing their current players to make sure they stick around and succeed. Rhule made a comment about this last week, which some interpreted as a dig at Sanders.

What did Rhule say?

Players who wanted to change teams could enter their names in the transfer portal for 45 days starting Dec. 5 and then again from April 15 to April 30. On the day the spring portal opened last week, Rhule spoke about how he loves players who “buy in” and accept his coaching, as opposed to constantly shopping for new players in the transfer market.

“I hear other schools, they can’t wait for today, the transfer portal,” Rhule said.

By contrast, Rhule said, “I can’t wait to coach my guys. Let me tell you that. I’m not thinking about anybody else but this team out here.”

Rhule didn’t mention Sanders by name. So perhaps it was just a coincidence that Sanders had posted a short video on Instagram the day before in which he openly celebrated the opening of the spring transfer portal.

In the video, Sanders dances in his chair to music above a flashing graphic that says, “Portal Coming!”

It was a marketing pitch. Sanders developed the 40-40-20 formula to win “now” and previously acknowledged that programs with more recent long-term success could afford to take a more traditional approach, unlike his team, which went 1-11 before his hiring.

“Looking forward to another big day tomorrow,” Colorado offensive coordinator Sean Lewis said in the same video. “Looking for dogs that are going to meet our needs. We coming.”

Who is right?

It largely depends on how good and hungry the players are, whether they came from high school or other colleges. Last year, Southern California had the nation’s No. 1 transfer class before finishing 11-3. That class was smaller than CU’s but had more top-tier players, including quarterback Caleb Williams, who won the Heisman Trophy after transferring from Oklahoma.

We’ll know more Sept. 9, when Nebraska plays Colorado in Boulder. Rhule inherited a 4-8 team and has pumped the portal to get 12 new players for 2023 – a transfer class that ranks 25th, according to 247Sports.

By contrast, Sanders enrolled 14 four-year transfers this spring, along with seven graduate transfers. Even more are coming in the fall, putting pressure on players from last year’s team to leave as they face heightened competition under the scholarship roster limit of 85 players. A number of CU players from last year’s team recently decided to put their own names in the portal, including several defensive linemen.

“The bottom line is we’re going to work with the guys that are here,” said CU defensive tackles coach Sal Sunseri, who joined Sanders’ staff from Alabama. “The guys that don’t want to be here, see you later. And we’re gonna get better.”

This kind of pressurized roster churn resembles pro football, where teams regularly upgrade their rosters by signing free agents and cutting players who aren’t good enough. Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, seems to be an apt choice to lead players in such an environment.

What’s the disadvantage?

Sanders, 55, is a sports marketing icon with a history of commercial endorsements and success in pro football and baseball. He also is adept in social media channels, which resonates with today’s players.

That gives him an edge over most other coaches in terms of recruiting and attracting transfer players, especially after college players were allowed to earn money from their NILs for the first time in 2021.

But what about bringing them all together as a team to win games after all that turnover?

“You just hope you can find the right fit,” former Colorado and NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart said Wednesday when asked about the overhaul. “That’s the key, right? It’s the fit.”

Every year, teams across the country start over with new coaches, players and schemes, just not to this degree.

“If every year there is going to be this massive roster turnover, how do you establish the culture?” Brown said in an interview with USA TODAY Sports. “How do the kids get a collective belief going? How do they avoid this kid of mercenary-for-hire kind of thinking?”

Brown wants Colorado to succeed. He said he’s just generally skeptical when players are changing teams because the grass appears greener somewhere else without realizing it might not be after they get there.

Where is this going?

In this case, if Sanders succeeds with this formula in the fall, more and better transfers might want to join him next year, putting even more pressure on his team’s weakest links to improve or leave. His roster improves again as a result.

On the other hand, if his team fails in the fall, he could lose some of his own best players to the transfer portal. Or if the players he’s bringing in through the portal don’t pan out, he could be stuck with them to some degree.

Players aren’t allowed to transfer multiple times and remain immediately eligible to play. Last year, the NCAA also guaranteed that players who transfer will receive their scholarship money at their next school through graduation, with some exceptions.

It still comes down to acquiring and developing the best talent, one way or another.

“We know what we want, and we’re going to get it,” Sanders said.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deion Sanders has unusual recruiting formula for Colorado football



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