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Deion Sanders’s Great Transfer Portal Experiment Has Buffaloes Fleeing

BOULDER, COLORADO - APRIL 22: Head coach Deion Sanders of the Colorado Buffaloes watches as his team warms up prior to their spring game at Folsom Field on April 22, 2023 in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Deion Sanders's Colorado Buffaloes held their annual spring game this past Saturday, and the attendance told the story. Despite cold, snowy weather, more than 45,000 people paid $10 to attend the game; a year ago, the same game drew 2,000 or so people, who attended for free. ESPN sent their crew in and gave a mic'd up Sanders center stage, with him giving in-game interviews and serving as, per an ESPN write-up, "more hype man and emcee than playcaller." One of the stars of the game was Sanders's son, Shedeur, who looked great at quarterback, going 16-of-19 for 234 yards and three total touchdowns. The highlight of the day was Sanders's 98-yard touchdown to Montana Lemonious-Craig.

That play would have been a very encouraging preseason moment had Lemonious-Craig not left the program days later. On Monday, Lemonious-Craig hit the transfer portal, along with 17 of his teammates, including leading receiver Jordyn Tyson and leading rusher Deion Smith. Since the end of Colorado's 1-11 season in 2022-23, 46 scholarship players have left the program, with 41 leaving since Sanders announced he would take the job in December. Of the 83 scholarship players that were on the roster at the beginning of last season, just 20 remain.

It is worth stressing that Sanders priced in an exodus, and indeed has been open about wanting to chase off much of the roster. Sanders is bringing several Jackson State players to Boulder, including Shedeur and former top recruit Travis Hunter, as well as several prominent transfers from schools like Arkansas and Alabama. He spent his first meeting telling Buffaloes players that he wanted a good majority of them to screw off so he could make space for incoming transfers and recruits. Before the spring game, he spoke to his team and once again said, "Everybody in this room is not gonna be in this room after Saturday." He encouraged holdover players to play hard and show out on ESPN so they could get better tape to entice new coaches.

So while players leaving was always part of the calculus, the severity of this exodus is still surprising. No other Power Five school lost more than 29 players during this cycle. Only 10 of the 41 players who started games for the Buffs last season are left, and only one player with more than 10 career starts is still around. None of the 10 scholarship wide receivers from last season will be with the team next year. What this means is that Sanders and his staff will have around 60 roster spots to fill with first-time Buffaloes before the team's first game against TCU in September. This was always the plan, and on Saturday he said, "I’m a change agent. And I’ll be darned, anything I touch, it has no other possibilities but to change. Because that’s what we do." That's one way to rephrase this sentiment.

Such a prominent coach leaning so heavily into the transfer portal as a roster rebuilding tool should put an end to complaints about how players use the transfer portal to switch teams and leave coaches in the lurch. Sanders's explicit goal is to get as many holdovers off his team as he can, while enticing just as many good players from better teams. He's using it as a tool to build his program, the same way players use it as a way to build their careers. What loyalty should an unpaid labor force owe to a management class that treats them this disposably?

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