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Howell: Mike Sanford deserves chance to prove himself with CU Buffs

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It didn’t take long for the Twitterverse and message boards to light up with opinions after Colorado announced the hiring of Mike Sanford as the new offensive coordinator late Friday afternoon.

The overwhelming sentiment from the CU fans — or at least from the group that took to the digital platforms — wasn’t favorable. Some denounced their fandom or ripped head coach Karl Dorrell and athletic director Rick George for the hire.

Given Sanford’s recent track record and the fact that he was no longer wanted at Minnesota after two seasons, the backlash is understandable. Yet, even if he wasn’t the people’s choice, Sanford deserves an opportunity to call a game or two or 12 before he’s buried and dismissed.

Last month, Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck chose to part ways with Sanford, whose contract was set to expire next month. That doesn’t mean, however, Sanford can’t mesh well with Dorrell and get the Buffaloes’ offense on track.

In fact, Dorrell’s future in Boulder might depend on him and Sanford succeeding together.

This season, Dorrell’s second as the Buffs’ head coach, was a disappointment in large part because of the offense, which was one of the worst in the country. The Buffs finished 4-8 (3-6 Pac-12) while the offense put up dismal numbers: 18.8 points and 257.6 yards per game.

Sanford got an up-close look at the most embarrassing performance of the season for the Buffs — a 30-0 loss to Minnesota at Folsom Field on Sept. 18. CU managed just 63 yards of total offense that day, including negative-19 rushing yards.

Minnesota offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. in a Sept. 2020 courtesy photo. (Courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics)

Sanford’s offense, meanwhile, racked up 441 yards.

Dorrell and the Buffs are banking on that being the first of many days Sanford enjoys at Folsom. If Sanford struggles, neither he nor Dorrell will be in Boulder for the long haul.

There’s pressure on Dorrell to get this hire right and he wouldn’t hand the keys of the offense to Sanford if he didn’t believe he can make it better.

Frankly, there’s pressure on Sanford, too, as he has to prove himself again.

Just a few years ago, he was included on lists of top young coordinators in college football.

A former Boise State quarterback who played for Dan Hawkins, Sanford spent three years as an assistant at Stanford. He helped the Cardinal and head coach David Shaw go 34-7 and win two Pac-12 titles from 2011-13.

Then, he got his first coordinator gig with his alma mater in 2014. He helped Boise State and head coach Bryan Harsin go 12-2 and win the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos had the ninth-best scoring offense in the country.

Then-Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was so impressed he hired Sanford, just 33 years old, as offensive coordinator of the Irish. Sanford helped quarterback DeShone Kizer become a star in 2015, while Notre Dame went 10-3.

From there, it’s been a rough road, and that’s why the criticism of the CU fan base is fair.

Sanford spent 2016 at Notre Dame and then two years as head coach at Western Kentucky; he was fired after a dismal second year. Then he was the offensive coordinator at Utah State for one year and at Minnesota the past two.

Each of the past six offenses Sanford has coached has had a decline in scoring average from the previous season. Kizer regressed in his second season as Notre Dame’s starter. Quarterbacks Mike White (Western Kentucky), Jordan Love (Utah State) and Tanner Morgan (Minnesota) all put up monster seasons the year before they worked with Sanford and had dramatically worse results with him.

So, it’s understandable there are fans who aren’t jumping for joy over Dorrell’s choice to lead the CU offense.

CU, however, believes in Sanford and is impressed by his pedigree. He’s learned under Jim Harbaugh, Shaw, Kelly and Fleck.

Many of CU’s players also expressed their support of Sanford on social media. They need and want him to succeed.

Time will tell if Sanford was the right man to lead CU’s offense, but he deserves to get that time to prove himself.

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