In the roughly seven weeks that he’s been on the job as Colorado’s offensive coordinator, Mike Sanford has apparently heard the curiosity of the fans.
“I think a lot of CU fans want to know if we’re going to run the ball 70% of the time or not,” Sanford said when he met with media this week. “And, here’s the answer: That’s not going to be the case.”
Sanford spent the previous two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Minnesota, which ran the ball on 70 percent of its offensive snaps in 2021 and 61.8 percent in 2020. That run-heavy approach has been the philosophy of Gophers head coach PJ Fleck, but not Sanford.
While Sanford believes in having a strong run game, he said his main goal is for CU to be a bully.
“There is going to be an identity of physicality,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we are only going to run the football. Physicality exists in the throwing game as well. We’re going to make sure that we have an identity as a program that we want to build a bully here; a bully on the field, a bully in the weight room. When we’re off the field, we’re gonna be gentlemen, obviously, but on the field we want to be a bully.”
It’s been a long time since CU bullied anyone offensively and the job in front of Sanford is a big one. Last season, the Buffs ranked 121st nationally, out of 130 schools, in scoring (18.8 points per game) and 129th in total yards (257.6 per game). It was the worst total yardage average for a CU offense since 1964 and the worst for any Power 5 team since 2014.
Sanford, who turned 40 on Friday, is well aware of CU’s struggles last year. In fact, he saw the Buffs’ worst performance in person when his Gophers came to Folsom Field and handed CU an embarrassing 30-0 loss on Sept. 18. CU was bullied to the tune of racking up only 63 yards in offense, including minus-19 on the ground.
Now it’s Sanford, a former Boise State quarterback, leading the charge to turn things around and excited for the opportunity.
Sanford has plenty of personal connections to CU. He worked with strength and conditioning coordinator Shannon Turley at Stanford. He has known CU character coach Brian Cabral since childhood, when Cabral and Sanford’s father worked together at Purdue. He recruited Chandler Dorrell, CU’s director of player personnel, to Stanford and met CU head coach Karl Dorrell during that process.
The main draw to CU, however, was a shared philosophy with Karl Dorrell offensively.
“I wanted to go work for a head coach that saw a philosophy offensively that I shared and that’s exactly what we had,” said Sanford, who has previously had coordinator experience at Boise State, Notre Dame and Utah State, along with a head coaching stop at Western Kentucky. “If we’re all moving in the right direction, the players are going to feel that. If the players feel that, and they sense that energy, and they sense that synergy as a staff, then we’re going to take off and do what I know we’re capable of doing in this program and that’s winning a Pac-12 championship.”
From the time he was hired nearly two years ago, Dorrell has said he wants a balanced offense with run/pass versatility. Sanford points to his one season as the coordinator at Boise State, in 2014, as “the perfect example of offensive identity that I believe in.”
That Broncos team went 12-2 and ranked ninth nationally in scoring (39.7), running the ball 57.5 percent of the time. They had an 1,800-yard rusher (Jay Ajayi), but also ranked 13th nationally in pass efficiency.
“The bottom line … whatever we need to do to win that particular game is based off of what the defense gives us and also based off of what our personnel is going to give us the best advantage; we’re going to do that,” he said. “If that means that we’re going to throw the ball 50-60 times in a game … to win that football game, we’re going to do that. If we need to run the football 40 to 50 times in that game, we’re going to do that to win that football game.
“Ultimately all championship football teams, it never comes down to statistics. It comes down to finding a way to win the football game, what that exact formula is, and it does involve being the most physical team on the field that day.”
As he builds his first offense with the Buffs, Sanford said he’s not going to use last year’s results as the main factor in evaluating players. With the exception of running backs coach Darian Hagan, the rest of the offensive staff is new and Sanford said they have an open mind about the players on the roster.
“The film has said a lot, but that’s not the only piece of the evaluation,” he said. “I want to trust my eyes and our offensive staff’s eyes for what we do from now … to see how they learn, to see what type of commitment each one of these players has to the process of learning.
“That’s a great thing about having a new start is there’s gonna be a great opportunity for a lot of these players on this roster to make a great first impression. Some of it’s out there on the film, but also these players weren’t running the system that we’re going to run. They’re not taught the way that we’re going to necessarily teach them because there are going to be new nuances to this system. … It’s an exciting time for guys on this roster to go compete for opportunities to play.”
It’s also an opportunity for Sanford, who has had mixed results in his career, including at Minnesota, as Fleck didn’t want to bring him back for a third season.
“Life isn’t really meant to be lived without any adversity,” Sanford said. “Adversity is where you really find out who you are. Adversity is going to be what allows you to form your true identity.
“We’re going to be an entire program full of people with a massive chip on our shoulder. That’s who we have to be. I certainly am that way. We have an offensive staff full of guys that have a chip on their shoulder, every single one of us. We have a lot to prove.”