Former Colorado players were told they weren’t ready for Prime Time. They moved on but won’t forget

Luke Eckardt poses on the Iowa Western Community College campus in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Oct. 24, 2023. Eckardt was excited about the prospect of playing football for Deion Sanders. He didn't get a chance after being one of some 50 Colorado players cut after spring practice to make room for a flood of transfers. (AP Photo/Eric Olson)

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (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. He was cut the next day after a meeting that lasted less than five minutes.

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.”

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.

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.

Eckardt’s parents, Karl and Anne, said they were worried about their son’s fate at Colorado after watching that video of Sanders.

“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 said he is still not sure if Sanders ever knew his name.

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.”

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. Smith 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.

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.”


Xavier Smith poses at Austin Peay in Clarksville, Tenn., Oct. 24, 2023. Smith was excited about the prospect of playing football for Deion Sanders. He didn’t get a chance after being one of some 50 Colorado players cut after spring practice to make room for a flood of transfers. (AP Photo/Teresa Walker)



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