By Eric Olson/AP
Luke Eckardt recalled the excitement of finding out that Deion Sanders would be his new head coach at Colorado.
After all, who wouldn't want to play for the charismatic Pro Football Hall of Fame member and ex-major leaguer known as “Prime Time” during his playing days and now just “Coach Prime?”
“It was a feeling of awe because it’s Deion Sanders, and you play video games like ‘Madden’ and he's on there,” Eckardt said in an interview with The Associated Press. “You’re playing with a controller. Now it's different. It's a real dude. That's what I thought at first. But then it was like a seeping feeling of fear.”
At his first meeting with his new charges, Sanders told them no job was safe and there were transfers on the way. Video of his talk went viral. Eckardt chose to take it as a challenge and work even harder during winter conditioning and spring practice.
Eckardt practiced with the Nos. 2 and 3 offensive lines, got positive feedback from his position coach and thought he performed well at right tackle in the spring game. In his mind, he had done enough to stick around.
His heart sank the day after the spring game when a graduate assistant texted him to report to the football building. When Eckardt arrived, he said, there were 40-50 other players waiting to talk one-on-one with the coach.
In a meeting lasting less than five minutes in a room overlooking Folsom Field, Sanders shook his hand, thanked him for his effort and told him he would not be on the team going forward.
As Eckardt walked out the door, another offensive lineman walked in. It was Yousef Mugharbil, a four-star recruit in 2021 who had transferred from Florida after Sanders was hired. That's when it really hit home with Eckardt that, truly, nobody was safe.
By the end of the spring, Sanders had cut more than 50 players and another 20 left on their own in what is believed to be the biggest roster overhaul ever seen in college football. Sanders ended up with 86 newcomers on the 114-player roster, kicking off a season where the Buffaloes started 3-0 and were the talk of the nation for weeks before fading to a 4-8 finish, three wins better than last year but without a bowl trip.
Most of the displaced players entered the transfer portal. Some walked away from football. And some more will leave the Buffaloes soon enough because Sanders has been adamant that there are more holes to fill. He promised to bring in more talented players after watching his quarterbacks, including son Shedeur, get sacked 56 times; only Old Dominion was worse across the 133 teams in the Bowl Subdivision.
Some coaches criticized Sanders for leaning so hard on the transfer portal to revamp his roster. Coach Prime offers no apologies, though he indicated he and his staff will be more targeted in filling needs this time around.
“Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard and there wasn’t nothing there,” he said earlier this month as the final stretch arrived before the early signing day Dec. 20. “So we had to fill the kitchen up with everything. Now it’s more directed and more accurate on, ‘Ok, we need three of those, two of those, one of those.’ We know what we want and we’re going to go get it.”
Eckardt landed at Iowa Western Community College in this city of 62,000 across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska. He was the starting left tackle for the perennial junior college power that went 11-1 and is ranked No. 2 in the nation. He said it was a wonderful experience.
“So far," he said, “these people have been the only ones who have shown me that they really wanted me here.”
He is scheduled to graduate this month, and his next school will be his fourth since he came out of Spring Grove, Illinois, as a three-star recruit in 2021. He spent one year at Arizona, one at Colorado and one at IWCC. He said he is considering offers from Louisiana Tech and Eastern Kentucky and receiving interest from Utah State and Coastal Carolina.
Some 45 players who transferred out of Colorado spread out to 38 FBS or FCS schools, according to 247Sports. That doesn't include players like Eckardt who ended up at junior colleges. A dozen players who transferred out are unaccounted for by 247Sports.
Oregon, Utah, UCLA and other Pac-12 rivals took in ex-Buffs. So did Michigan State, North Carolina State and Mississippi State. One player who spent his first two years at Colorado, Tyas Martin, transferred to Sanders' last coaching stop, Jackson State.
Like Eckardt, Xavier Smith had spent a year at Colorado under the previous coaching regime. The defensive back from Atlanta was injured the second half of his first season and didn't appear in a game. He initially was confident Sanders would keep young players like him to help build the foundation and culture.
“We all have expectations of a coach,” Smith told the AP, “and I just feel like those expectations weren’t met.”
Later, he added, “All I wanted was a coach to be honest with me and give me an opportunity.”
Smith played in the spring game, got cut and finished the spring semester at CU before accepting an offer from Austin Peay in Clarksville, Tennessee. The Governors play in the second tier of Division I football, the Championship Subdivision, and Smith said he found happiness. He was his team's third-leading tackler and finished with 13 stops and two pass breakups in a 24-21 loss to Chattanooga in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
Playing off Sanders' hiring-day comment about bringing players with him from Jackson State and referring to them as upscale Louis Vuitton luggage, Austin Peay coach Scotty Walden said, "Hey, we thought there was some Louis falling out of Colorado (that) we found at our level. So it was awesome. Xavier Smith has been a staple in our program.”
Smith said he used what happened at Colorado as motivation.
“To me it’s like, ‘Who are you to tell me that I’m not good enough to play here?’ ” Smith said. "So it’s just proving people wrong and proving to myself and my family that I am who I say I am and that I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do.”
Eckardt is still trying to find his place. Arizona didn't work out. Neither did Colorado. Iowa Western was his bridge to the future.
Eckardt said he hasn't stayed in contact with many of his old teammates. Of his friends who got cut, offensive lineman Alex Harkey went to Texas State, linebacker Zion Magalei went to Northern Arizona and defensive lineman Shakaun Bowser went to Garden City (Kansas) Community College. Offensive lineman Jake Wiley left on his own and ended up at UCLA.
As for the few holdovers on the team, and those who came in during the coaching transition, Eckardt and Smith said they wished them nothing but the best.
“The Jackson State guys, they were cool. I liked them,” Eckardt said. "I thought they were nice people, they were great teammates. Shedeur is a nice person. He’s a good teammate, he’s a great leader.
“I just couldn't care less about the coaches, I guess.”
So he does feel resentment?
“Yeah,” he said. “All my resentment is just for the leadership and the coaches and all that. I don’t have any anger toward the team.”
Eckardt's parents, Karl and Anne, said they were worried about their son's fate at Colorado after watching the video of Sanders addressing the players on the first day.
Their reaction when Luke called home to say he was cut? “Total shock,” Anne said.
“He told them if you don’t want to work, then leave. If you're going to put the work in, then put the work in,” she added. “There was nothing said about put the work in but at some point we’re probably going to get rid of you. It was a harsh message that first meeting. But it did not convey ‘work your fingers to the bone’ like all those kids did and then they’re just going to drop them after the spring game.”
Eckardt recalled Sanders as cordial though he tended to ignore the players from the 2022 team. He's still not sure if Sanders ever knew his name.
Portal time again
Noting that the Buffs made a three-win improvement, Sanders said progress was made this past season. Offensive line turned out to be the most glaring weakness — Eckardt said he believes he could have been a contributor if he hadn’t been cut — and greater depth is needed at nearly every position.
Only nine high school players have pledged to sign in the 2024 class, according to 247Sports, and continued reliance on the transfer portal would seem a certainty. Not only that, but Colorado has recently seen two highly touted quarterbacks decommit in Danny O’Neil (from the ’24 class) and Antwann Hill Jr. (’25).
Sanders said he only wants to sign players serious about helping build the program and not mercenaries who see dollar signs from potential name, image and likeness deals. His son, Shedeur, has the top projected NIL value at $4.8 million, according to On3.com, and at least seven other players made at least $100,000 this season.
“If you come to Colorado to play football for me and the Colorado Buffaloes, (it’s) because you really want to play football and receive a wonderful education, and all the business stuff is going to be handled on the back end if that’s the case,” Deion Sanders said. “But we are not an ATM. You’re not coming here to get rich unless you really come here with a plan to go to the NFL and get your degree — not to come here and be Moneybagg Yo.”
The CU departures are under way again, too, with linebacker Marvin Ham among those hitting the portal along with tight end Caleb Fauria, son of former Buffs and NFL star Christian Fauria.
Eckardt said it would have been better if Sanders had let him go last December to give him more time to find a new school. He said he left CU feeling as if he and other holdovers had been kept until April so there would be enough players for the sold-out spring game.
“I didn’t think they were going to just make us do the whole charade,” he said, ”and then kick us off.”
AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker and Pat Graham and AP freelance writer Monica Costello contributed.
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!