BOULDER, Colo. – Five-star recruiting prospect Winston Watkins never has been to the state of Colorado and wasn’t even born yet when Deion Sanders retired from his professional careers in football and baseball.
The wide receiver prospect is only 15.
And he currently is just a sophomore at the IMG Academy in Florida, more than 2,000 miles away.
But that didn’t stop him from giving his commitment to accept a scholarship offer already from the University of Colorado under Sanders, the Buffaloes’ new head football coach.
“Really, the biggest reason is Deion Sanders,” Watkins said in a phone interview Monday with USA TODAY Sports. “I always wanted to be one of his players.”
It appears to be getting contagious. In less than 48 hours since Sanders was hired at Colorado, some of the nation’s best recruiting prospects and transfer players are suddenly entertaining the thought of playing at CU, a football program that has had 15 losing seasons in the past 17 years, including a 1-11 team in 2022.
And it’s all because of Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Famer whose star power, flamboyance and coaching style conceivably could attract enough top players to turn Colorado into a contender overnight. The impact so far is borderline breathtaking, not just in recruiting but with the overall buzz around the program, locally and nationally.
“In the course of one afternoon, the most relevant program in the country is Colorado – because of one guy,” former CU quarterback and Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt said on his podcast Monday.
Among the signs so far:
OPINION: Deion Sanders tells the truth in his first Colorado team meeting
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Nation’s top recruit on the way?
Cornerback Travis Hunter, the No. 1 overall recruiting prospect in the nation for the class of 2022, is 100% likely to transfer to Colorado from Jackson State in Mississippi, where Sanders coached the past three seasons, according to 247 Sports analyst Carl Reed, who knows Sanders. For what it’s worth, Sanders said last week that what Reed reports is “gospel.”
Pumping the portal
Sanders is preparing to shake up his roster at CU by pushing out a number of current players and bringing in his own, especially through the transfer portal, which opened Monday for players seeking to change college teams.
“Lord that PORTAL is jumping! Let me see what’s in there,” Sanders wrote on Twitter Monday.
One of them was receiver Dorian Singer, who led the Pac-12 Conference in receiving yardage this season at Arizona.
“Blessed to receive an opportunity to play at Colorado,” he wrote on Twitter above a photo of Sanders. Singer also reported offers from Utah, Arizona State and Miami, Fla., but hasn’t decided.
Sanders already said his son Shedeur – his quarterback at Jackson State – will be his quarterback at CU.
In a team meeting Sunday, Sanders also told holdover players at CU Sunday that “about 10 more of them” were coming with Shedeur Sanders, who helped lead Jackson State to a 12-0 record this season.
Sanders is luring several top coaches to join his staff as assistants, including Sean Lewis, the sitting head coach at Kent State, according to multiple reports. Lewis would serve as offensive coordinator at CU and presumably run the same wide-open attack.
Other former head coaches are jumping on board, too. Former Florida State, Oregon and Florida Atlantic head coach Willie Taggart is joining the staff, along with former Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster, who served under Sanders at Jackson State.
Several national top recruits reported getting scholarship offers from Colorado in recent days. One was the nation’s top high school prospect at offensive tackle, Kadyn Proctor, who already has committed to play at Iowa.
Tight end Tayvion Galloway also reported on Twitter Sunday that he received an offer from CU. He is the nation’s No. 5 tight end recruit for 2024, according to 247 Sports. He already has committed to LSU. But previous commitments aren’t stopping Sanders and his staff from trying to change their minds. And recruits who committed to the previous coaching staff at CU have said the new staff is not honoring those commitments, leaving them looking for new college homes as signing day approaches.
The message is clear: Sanders is aiming for a much higher caliber of player than those that CU brought in previously.
“We plan to dominate, baby,” Sanders said in a video posted to his Twitter account Monday. “Not tomorrow, not the next day, but right now. And I need your help in doing that. Recruits, I ain’t hard to find.”
NIL payment potential primed
Not only has Sanders amped up CU’s recruiting efforts, CU also is getting more interest in support for a nonprofit collective that supports CU players through payments for their names, images and likenesses (NIL).
The Buffs4Life collective has had “a lot of people inbound just wanting to know how they can get involved, how they can help,” former CU linebacker and Buffs4Life president Sean Tufts told USA TODAY Sports Monday. “It’s definitely been increased.”
He didn’t have data to share but said it’s been “positive momentum for us on all fronts.”
NIL payments were allowed by the NCAA for the first time last year and could start really rolling in once the Buffaloes’ roster is more firm.
The `cool’ factor
This all has been quite unusual for current CU students, who have grown accustomed to having a nationally irrelevant football team, unlike in the late 1980s and 1990s, when the Buffs won a share of the national title and went to major bowl games under coach Bill McCartney.
“It’s exciting – the hope,” CU senior student Tycho Cinquini said.
Cinquini, 21, and freshman Aidan Fong, 19, already were aware of CU’s sudden rise in football recruiting relevance on Sunday, the day Sanders was introduced as CU’s new coach.
The commitment of Watkins alone propelled CU to the top of the early national recruiting rankings for the class of 2025, according to 247 Sports. He is the No. 4 receiver prospect in the nation for 2025, according to 247 Sports’ composite rankings.
“There’s a five-star recruit coming in 2025,” Cinquini said Sunday at the University Memorial Center on campus.
But both admit they didn’t know much about Sanders until now. They’re too young. Sanders’ last game as a player was in early 2006.
“I know there’s been a bunch of hype around him just because he’s been such a famous player,” Fong said. “I know a bunch of friends who think he’s really cool.”
That might be the biggest factor in all of this. Colorado is cool again because even young people think he’s cool – the same people who barely know what he did as a player in sports. His success, his fame, his style and swagger– It’s all cool to them, making them want to come along for the ride.
“Deion is a really impactful person, the way he speaks, the way he talks about things,” Watkins said.
Watkins also said it mattered to him that Sanders is Black like himself in a sport that hasn’t had many Black coaches.
His background played a role in his decision, too. Watkins comes from Fort Myers, Florida, just like Sanders. He shared the same nickname as Sanders growing up there – Prime Time, sparking his interest in Sanders from a young age. In a few years, he plans to play for him.
He even hopes to visit Colorado for the first time in the spring.
“I’m ready to be in those mountains and see what those people are about,” he said.
Join the club. It’s getting trendy.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deion Sanders slingshots Colorado to national recruiting relevance