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Sanford Says Buffs' Retooled Coaching Staff Has Right Stuff

Apr 18, 2022

BOULDER — Colorado offensive coordinator Mike Sanford feels something special building in the Buffaloes' coaching room.

Sanford hasn't been in Boulder long — four months, to be exact. That's about enough time to unpack, figure out where the best coffee is on the way to work and learn the layout of the UCHealth Champions Center.

But it has also been more than enough time for Sanford — whose coaching resume includes a healthy list of impressive stops — to come to the conclusion that Karl Dorrell's offensive staff has the right stuff.

"The room, we have a lot of fun," Sanford said after Monday's practice, the 12th of the spring for the Buffs. "You know in a room of coaches when it feels right. There's free flow, an interchange of ideas, there's different backgrounds, everybody's respectful of each other. Nobody's getting caught up in 'this is my idea, that's your idea.' We are working together as one and it comes across through the players."

Sanford has seen his share of coaching rooms. Although he just turned 40 in early February, his coaching itinerary included eight major college stops before taking the job with the Buffs. Those positions included two stops at Stanford, as well as Notre Dame, Boise State, Minnesota and Utah State as an assistant; along with a head coaching stint at Western Kentucky.

Now, he's part of a major offseason staff overhaul, one that saw Dorrell bring in four new offensive assistants, joining offensive line coach Kyle DeVan, tight ends/passing game coordinator Clay Patterson and wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan.

The only holdover is running backs coach Darian Hagan.

"It's great to work in a healthy environment with a head coach that has a clear vision, lets you coach and be who you are," Sanford said. "I just love that he lets all of us as position coaches and coordinators lead the way we are comfortable leading. It starts with Coach Dorrell and his vision, allowing us to do things we see are fit for our offense."

But the most-telling analogy Sanford drew Monday came when he compared the atmosphere of CU's current coaching room to one he experienced at Stanford in both his stops there.

Sanford first arrived at Stanford in 2007, when he was hired by then-head coach Jim Harbaugh as an offensive assistant for quarterbacks. Hired at the same time as offensive coordinator was David Shaw.

Sanford spent two years with the Cardinal under Harbaugh, then went east to work one year at Yale and another at Western Kentucky as an assistant.

But when Shaw was hired as Stanford's head coach in 2011, he brought Sanford back to the Cardinal. Sanford spent three seasons under Shaw, including the back-to-back Pac-12 championship years in 2012 and 2013. (Also part of that Stanford championship run was current CU strength and conditioning coach Shannon Turley).

He senses the same kind of environment with the staff Dorrell has assembled.

"We're all in it together and it feels that way every day I go to work. These kinds of staffs, when given the opportunity to do things over the course of time, I've seen it time and again — it feels like Stanford back in 2007," Sanford said. "We were given that opportunity to build something special and you saw it come to fruition (in 2012-13)."

Not that Sanford is promising an immediate Pac-12 title for the Buffs. He knows Colorado struggled mightily on offense last season. In fact he saw it first hand when he visited Folsom Field last fall as part of Minnesota's coaching staff, when the Golden Gophers ran roughshod over CU, 30-0.

But Sanford also firmly believes the seeds of success are being planted. The Buffs are installing a new offensive system that he and Dorrell believe will not only be multiple in its formations and personnel groupings, but will offer CU's best players the opportunity to utilize their best attributes on a regular basis.

"The great thing about what we're doing schematically is we're not going to pigeon-hole ourselves into being 'This is all we do. These are the 12 concepts we run out of the four formations we run,'" he said. "There's going to be multiplicity and the offense is going to be malleable as the year goes on. We're going to study NFL teams and we're going to study trends and we'll keep growing it as the season goes on."

CU's staff hasn't taken a slow approach with installing the new scheme. Rather, they have turned on the firehose of information.

"We've thrown a ton at them and we're going to keep doing it," Sanford said. "We're making them learn conceptually … We threw everything at them in the first three weeks. Now we're putting more pressure on them to do certain concepts in completely different formations or completely different personnel groupings."

Sanford said he's been pleased with the progression of his quarterbacks, who must learn to process "active progressions" in the pocket. It is a system, he said, that encourages and enhances the opportunity for every eligible receiver on every pass play — a system that also makes sure every wide receiver, tight end and running back knows the ball could come their way on every play.

"Through the first three (spring) practices, the wide receivers caught 29 balls, the tight ends caught 25 balls, the running backs caught like 20," Sanford said. "Our quality control crew did a great job of getting that information to me. I showed our guys, 'This is how we're built.'"

Sanford said incumbent starter Brendon Lewis is adapting quickly.

"He's playing at a really high level right now," Sanford said. "He's operating a complex system and he's doing it well. He's spending extra time, he's taking charge of the offense, he's making really good, fast decisions, which was clearly a growth area for him."

Sanford is also pleased with the advancement of J.T. Shrout, who was battling for the starting spot last year in fall camp before a knee injury sidelined him for the season.

"I'm really excited about J.T.," he said. "He's taken the lion's share of the 7-on-7 reps."

But fans anxious to see the new offense in action will have to wait until next fall. Sanford made it clear that Saturday's Spring Showcase at Folsom Field (1 p.m.) will offer only a small glimpse of what the Buffs have in their playbook.

After all, he noted, just a year ago, he and his Minnesota coaching cohorts spent hours in the offseason studying the television broadcast of CU's spring game. 

He knows opponents this year will be doing the same.

"You know people are going to watch us, particularly our first couple of opponents," he said. "Obviously, we don't want to give away all the trade secrets … It's reckless to run the entire system with everything you have. There might be stuff we show in the spring game that we use in Week 2, week 3. I know those people are going to study the spring game."