Skip to content

Mike Sanford building CU Buffs’ confidence on offense

First-year coordinator wants players to believe in themselves and scheme

BOULDER, CO: February 2, 2022- Mike Sanford, OC/quarterbacks coach, during the University of Colorado Boulder football coaches press conference on February 2, 2022.
(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER, CO: February 2, 2022- Mike Sanford, OC/quarterbacks coach, during the University of Colorado Boulder football coaches press conference on February 2, 2022. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

After the third practice of preseason camp last week, Colorado tight end Brady Russell approached offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, excited to say he was feeling a lot more comfortable in the offense.

“I kind of smirked at him because I knew the next day we were gonna challenge him again with the mental aspect of his game and asking him to align in different places, asking him to move different ways, be involved in different concepts,” Sanford said. “He came up to me after practice (the next day) and he goes, ‘Coach, that was the most I’ve ever been demanded of mentally; not in a bad way, but just to be able to do so many different things.’”

That interaction epitomizes what Sanford and the CU staff have tried to do all offseason with the players on offense: teach them, get them confident and challenge them to do more.

Hired on Dec. 17, Sanford took over an offense that was one of the worst in the country in 2021. The Buffs struggled not only to score (18.8 points per game, 121st nationally), but to simply move the ball (257.6 yards per game, 129th nationally).

BOULDER, CO-August 6:OC Mike Sanford, during ...
OC Mike Sanford, during University of Colorado Boulder football practice and media day on August 6, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

As the offensive coordinator at Minnesota the previous two years, Sanford saw the Buffs’ worst offensive showing in person. CU had just 63 yards in a 30-0 loss to Minnesota on Sept. 18.

“To be honest, I think that I saw an offense, at least in that particular game … that was just trying to find itself relative to its own confidence,” Sanford said. “That really was our offensive staff’s main objective when we first got here was to have a process to restore their collective confidence and their individual confidence.”

First, the staff focused on individual confidence.

“We have a lot of talent on this roster,” Sanford said. “Not a lot of people outside of this building are giving us a lot of respect for the talent we have. We believe in the kids that are in this room. So we wanted to praise the model. When they do what we’re asking them to do, we want to praise them for that. When they make great plays, we want to praise him for it.

“That is by nature, how I’m wired.  I’m probably, to a fault at times, the ultimate optimist.”

Several players, including Russell, quarterback Brendon Lewis, receiver Daniel Arias and the offensive linemen, have expressed a newfound confidence and appreciation for what Sanford and the staff have done to this point.

Self confidence was only part of the goal, though.

“We wanted to restore their confidence in the scheme,” Sanford said. “We wanted them to realize that we weren’t going to just line up in one or two formations the whole game and just run ball plays. We’re picked 12th in our conference. We’re not going to just line up and be better than anybody with really, really vanilla schemes. That’s not what was done last year but that’s our vision going forward is that we want to mentally tax our players during training camp with all the variety of ways that we can get to our plays.”

Following the first practice of camp on Aug. 2, Lewis, who started all 12 games last year, spoke of his confidence in the scheme.

“Coach Sanford’s system is very, very comfortable for me,” Lewis said. “He makes sure to call plays that fit our personality. He’s not just calling plays to call plays. He’s calling plays off certain looks, getting us in the right situations.

“I would just say he’s done an exceptional job breaking it down detail-wise, showing us little things that we need to know, what we need to look out for.”

The goal of the staff, Sanford said, is to make sure the players go into a game feeling they have “the answers to the test,” but also the ability to adjust when the defense throws something new at them.

“If we’re not built to be able to handle those different alignments then our players are going to look back at us and say the scheme isn’t sound,” Sanford said.

Sanford wouldn’t reveal any details about the scheme, but said it’s a collaboration of what he has learned in his 17 years of coaching, along with ideas and experience that head coach Karl Dorrell and the rest of the staff bring to the table.

Minnesota offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. during the Gophers football practice at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
Mike Sanford was the offensive coordinator at Minnesota in 2020 and 2021. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

“What I do want it to be known is that our players are learning a multitude of football and that’s probably the biggest hint that I would give is that we’re not just going to be one thing,” he said. “We’re going to have a multiplicity and with our skill set at quarterback, it suits us well to be able to have an offensive scheme that fits each one of our quarterbacks as we go through the year.”

For Sanford, being at CU has been somewhat freeing.

At Minnesota, he ran the offense designed by head coach PJ Fleck and coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. The two were together at Western Michigan from 2013-16 and Minnesota from 2017-19 before Ciarrocca went to Penn State in 2020. At the end of last season, Fleck let Sanford go and brought Ciarrocca back to Minnesota.

“I’m very proud of the work that I did and, more importantly, the players did at Minnesota, in winning nine football games (last year),” Sanford said. “I’m proud of that work that we did there. However, yes, that was a system that I came into fully knowing that wasn’t going to be the extent of what was my background.

“The great thing about coach Dorrell is that he and I have so many parallels with our offensive backgrounds. … Right now I feel like there’s a lot of freedom, but even more than just my freedom, it’s just really fun to be a part of a room full of (experienced and diverse coaches). This has been a really fun process for us and it’s even more fun to watch our players take to it and buy into it and be taxed with it.”

For Sanford, coaching the Buffs is a new challenge. At each of his previous three stops – Minnesota, Utah State and Western Kentucky – he joined a program coming off an 11-win season. The last time he came to a team fresh off a losing season was in 2010, when WKU hired him as quarterbacks coach after a 0-12 season.

“I think following success is really challenging, particularly with the players that are on your roster,” he said. “Sustaining success, especially with a new voice coming in as a coordinator or a head coach, I think that’s the hardest spot to be in because they already had such a belief in whoever was there that left.”

That’s not an issue at CU. After a disappointing season in 2021, the Buffs were happy to move on and they are putting their trust in Sanford.

“It’s really fun being able to watch him do what he does,” Lewis said. “Being up there with him in the meeting rooms, learning the offense and being able to come down here and implement it on the field.”

Join the Conversation

We invite you to use our commenting platform to engage in insightful conversations about issues in our community. We reserve the right at all times to remove any information or materials that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable to us, and to disclose any information necessary to satisfy the law, regulation, or government request. We might permanently block any user who abuses these conditions.