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Assistant coach Gary Harrell filling key roles on new CU Buffs football staff

Howard head coach Gary Harrell during a game against Boston College on Sept. 12, 2015, in Boston. Harrell is now the running backs coach and assistant head coach at Colorado. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Howard head coach Gary Harrell during a game against Boston College on Sept. 12, 2015, in Boston. Harrell is now the running backs coach and assistant head coach at Colorado. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Before he conducts a single practice with his new group of running backs, Colorado assistant coach Gary Harrell wants to make sure he sets the tone in the room.

“You set the culture, set the standard of how we practice, how we move around, as far as being on time for meetings and off the field stuff,” Harrell said during an interview with Thee Pregame Show posted on YouTube.

Harrell, known as “Coach Flea,” was hired by new CU head coach Deion Sanders last month as the running backs coach. He’s also the assistant head coach, serving as Sanders’ right hand man after coaching with him at Jackson State the past three years.

One of the most experienced assistants on CU’s staff, Harrell, who turns 51 on Monday, is a former Howard University and NFL receiver. He’s been in coaching for more than 20 years, including two stints (2011-12, 2014-16) as head coach at Howard.

He brings all of that experience into his new roles with the Buffaloes.

“It’s about balance,” he told Thee Pregame Show about coaching running backs and being the assistant head coach. “Making sure that not only am I able to serve that role as an assistant head coach, I have a No. 1 responsibility to make sure that my room, my running backs, understand their responsibility in the run game, passing game, protection game and the overall scheme.”

CU has had a lot of coaching turnover in the past several years, but this is the first time the Buffs have had a different voice in the running backs room since 2015. Darian Hagan, a legendary option quarterback for the Buffaloes from 1988-91, coached CU’s running backs from 2016-22, working for three different head coaches: Mike MacIntyre, Mel Tucker and Karl Dorrell. Hagan is still with the program, but in a support role.

As it stands now, the Buffs’ running backs room will be a mix of returners and newcomers, but it’ll be an entirely new group for Harrell.

“You want a room full of guys that understand what we’re trying to get accomplished,” he said. “You know there’s one guy that’s probably going to get the bulk of the reps, but you need two good backs. But, make sure everyone else feels supportive, still being ready for that opportunity so when your opportunity comes, be ready to shine.

“Just a good feel, a good chemistry of leadership, good sprit in the room so you can teach. Then you go on the field and have fun and it shows.”

Senior Deion Smith is slated to return after leading the Buffs with 393 yards, and Anthony Hankerson added 274 yards as a true freshman. Junior Jayle Stacks and walk-on sophomore Charlie Offerdahl also got opportunities to run the ball. Freshman Victor Venn is also set to return after redshirting.

So far this offseason, CU has added four-star prep recruit Dylan Edwards, who changed his commitment from Notre Dame to sign with the Buffs, and Kentucky transfer Kavosiey Smoke.

The process of building the depth chart begins this spring, but Harrell will also be busy with his other role of assisting Sanders. Harrell refers to that role as “being an extension of (Sanders’) day-to-day thought process, the things he’s trying to get accomplished.”

In many cases, the assistant head coach role is mainly a title, but it’ll be a busy job for Harrell with Sanders having so much on his calendar because of his celebrity status and obligations.

“When it comes to Coach Prime, he has so much on his plate,” Harrell said. “But he does a great job as far as his own schedule, being where he needs to be, making the main thing the main thing. I always want to make sure I understand how he is thinking, his next step. Before he gets there, I want to make sure things are in place to make sure it goes smooth. To be able to do both (roles), it takes trust, it takes loyalty.

“You have to humble yourself and understand that you’re working not only for the head man, but for the entire program. (You have to) make sure that everyone understands their next move, everyone understands their schedule and where they need to be in their role.”