When Deion Sanders landed in Colorado, it was no secret that he planned to overhaul the program, including dozens of players exiting the team and new players coming in.
One of those players was Luke Eckardt, an offensive lineman initially excited for Coach Prime to be his coach.
Luke Eckardt and Xavier Smith, who were among the Colorado players cut by coach Deion Sanders last spring, talk about being ousted from the team and where they ended up. https://t.co/jirjhNYAA0 pic.twitter.com/9JBWhN8DFH
— AP Top 25 (@AP_Top25) November 30, 2023
"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."
When Sanders first arrived, Sanders made it clear that positions on the team weren't safe and transfers were coming in. However, Eckardt took that as a challenge to work harder.
Before the season, Eckardt practiced regularly with the second and third offensive lines, and he said he received positive feedback from his position coach.
Unfortunately, Eckardt was asked to visit Coach Prime and dozens of other players told they were no longer part of the team.
Instead, Sanders brought Florida transfer Yousef Mugharbil, a four-star recruit in 2021. This was the true wake-up call for Eckardt. Even his mom was shocked.
"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."
In all, Sanders cut more than 50 players. On the 114-man roster, there were 86 new players. The players that left either hit the transfer portal or gave up on football altogether. It appeared that the Buffaloes, who were 1-11 last season, were headed in the right direction after a 3-0 start. However, they finished the year winning just one of their remaining eight games.
Quarterback Shedeur Sanders, Coach Prime's son, was sacked 49 times and suffered a back injury, forcing him out of their last game against Utah. While some coaches criticized Sanders for his approach, he was unapologetic.
"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."
So where did Eckardt end up? This season, he played for Iowa Western Community College. He was the start left tackle, and his team went 11-1 and ranked No. 2.
"So far," he said, "these people have been the only ones who have shown me that they really wanted me here."
Eckardt will graduate college this month but will play for another program next year. So far, besides the community college, he's played for Arizona and Colorado. He said he has offers from Louisiana Tech and Eastern Kentucky and is interested in Utah State. Other players like Xavier Smith are expected to be on the roster. Smith was injured in the second half of his first season (last year) but was confident Coach Prime would keep him around.
"We all have expectations of a coach," Smith told the AP, "and I just feel like those expectations weren't met."
"All I wanted was a coach to be honest with me and give me an opportunity," he added.
Smith was cut and accepted an offer from Austin Peay.
"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."
Of course, there are many other players. Still, those like Alex Harkey went to Texas State, Zion Magalei to Northern Arizona, Shakaun Bowser to Garden City Community College, and Jake Wiley left alone for UCLA. After finishing 4-8, Colorado will hit the transfer portal hard again.
"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."
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