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Football: CU Buffs focus on fun, honoring seniors in final week

University of Colorado Boulder's head coach, ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s head coach, Mike Sanford, celebrates with Tommy Brown after a CU touchdown against the Arizona State Sun Devils on Oct. 29, 2022. Sanford and Brown both grew up in the Los Angeles area. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Much of this season has been about the youth on the roster for the Colorado football team.

First and second-year players have filled important roles all season for the Buffaloes.

As the Buffs (1-10, 1-7 Pac-12) prepare for Saturday’s finale against No. 14 Utah (8-3, 6-2), however, interim head coach Mike Sanford is focusing on the veterans playing in their final game.

“I think it’s important for us as a staff, us as an entire group of players, support staff, everybody, to just rally behind these players and do everything in our power to make sure that we’re at our best,” Sanford said.

CU and the Utes will square off on Saturday at Folsom Field (2 p.m., Pac-12 Network). It’s the perfect setting for the collegiate finale, senior tight end Brady Russell said.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I was really excited that we get Utah one last time at home. It’s probably the team I like the least in the conference, which is fair; I never have beat them, so (we’ll) hopefully go change that this week. I love that it’s at home at Folsom, and with my family here and everything.”

Russell, in his sixth season, is one of several players slated to go through senior day festivities. In all, 16 players are in their final year of eligibility. A few others, including guard Tommy Brown, snapper Derek Bedell, offensive lineman Frank Fillip, safety Jaylen Striker and cornerback/kicker Mac Willis, could come back next year, but will go through senior day.

“We just gave everybody the opportunity (to go through senior day) just with where they’re at (in regard to graduation),” Sanford said. “Frankly, I didn’t ask any questions (to those who could return), because that’s something that I want them to be able to be honored in that manner with their families and create a special moment.”

Brown is one of the undecided. A transfer from Alabama, he is the only lineman who has started every game in the same spot.

“I haven’t come to any decisions yet. It’s a big decision,” said Brown, who has one year of eligibility remaining. “I go out every football game knowing it could be my last so that’s just what I’m going to do again this week.”

Whether players have been here one year, like Brown, or six years, like Russell, it’s been a rough road. CU has had one winning season (4-2 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign) in the last six years.

Each of them has gone through a dismal season this fall, with the Buffs not only losing, but getting blown out week after week.

Despite that, it’s been a remarkably close team.

“Every team is a family,” Brown said. “Every family has its issues and this team is no different, of course, but how close the players on this team are is insane. I was talking with Frank (Fillip) yesterday how there’s multiple guys on this team that will be in my wedding and I’ve been here for 10 months. Like, it’s insane what we’ve gone through, how close we’ve gotten. I don’t regret it whatsoever.”

Sanford and the rest of the coaching staff aren’t sure how long they’ll be in Boulder. Once CU hires a full-time head coach, there’s no guarantee any of the staff will be retained.

Certainly, the seniors won’t be back, and there’s likely going to be some younger players who leave through the transfer portal.

With all of that in mind, Sanford has focused on making this week fun for the Buffs. They are heavy underdogs against the Utes, but it’s the last week this close-knit group has together.

This week, Sanford has remembered listening to then-Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien speaking during a coaches convention a few years ago.

“He talked about the absolute worst thing that you could do is create sheer drudgery – he used those two words sheer drudgery – in your practice environment, in your meeting environment,” Sanford said. “That really kind of hit home for me, because I’ve been a part of programs that were winning a ton of games and it was sheer drudgery in the building. And, it was awful for everybody: coaches, players.

“For me, it’s been, what can we do to make this an enjoyable week with each other, for each other?”

On Tuesday, that meant a post-practice penalty kick shootout, in honor of the World Cup taking place this month.

“What we want to do is to make these last five days together the frickin’ most enjoyable five days we can to give ourselves the most joy that we can on Saturday and to make sure that all of us are putting it out in the line for the seniors,” he said.

And, on Saturday, regardless of the outcome, CU will honor each of those Buffs playing for the last time.

“This group of seniors means a lot. They’ve gone through a lot,” Sanford said. “They need to be honored the right way, by us as a coaching staff, by us as a fan base, by us as a CU family.

“It’s gonna be an emotional day, and deservedly so.”

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