Although he grew up in Florida, Willie Gaines always had his eye on the Pac-12 Conference.
“My favorite team was actually Oregon, but I also liked the conference, the Pac-12, in general,” Gaines said.
It took an unconventional route to get there, but Gaines will get an opportunity to play in the Pac-12 after committing to Colorado last week. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound slot receiver played last season at Jackson State and he will be reunited with first-year CU head coach Deion Sanders in Boulder.
“To (play in the Pac-12) with coach Prime at Colorado, I’m very excited to get started,” Gaines said.
Gaines is one of seven new Buffs who played for Sanders at JSU last year and he’s excited to get an opportunity to continue to learn from Sanders.
“My favorite thing about coach Prime, he plays to your true potential,” Gaines said. “Every game and in practice, he pushes you hard and he tells you go out there and play and be you.”
Last year, Gaines caught 27 passes for 446 yards and five touchdowns. His 16.52-yards per catch average led the Tigers.
In addition to Sanders, Gaines will work under CU receivers coach Brett Bartolone, who was JSU’s offensive coordinator last year. And, he’ll continue catching passes from Shedeur Sanders, who was his quarterback at Jackson last year.
“I love having Shedeur at quarterback,” he said, adding that Shedeur pushed him to work outside of practice time and to watch extra film. “He’s taught me a lot about ways I can get open and reading the defense more. I love Shedeur. He’s a very good leader. He pushes everybody. He can get us back all together when we’re breaking apart during the game. He gets us back in control.”
A 2019 graduate of Cocoa (Fla.) High School, Gaines was a dynamic athlete for the Tigers.
As a senior, Gaines caught 83 passes for 1,278 yards and 13 touchdowns, while also rushing for 422 yards and six scores, averaging 10.3 yards per carry. He added 533 yards as a punt/kick returner. As a junior, he caught just six passes for 90 yards, but that’s because he focused on running back, rushing for 1,349 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Coming out of high school, Gaines committed to Toledo, but never enrolled because he didn’t pass his ACT or SAT. He actually wound up going to another school to get his diploma and, after a year off, began his college career at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College in 2020 and 2021.
Academically, Gaines has improved dramatically, he said.
“Right now I’ve got a 3.5 GPA,” he said. “Coming out of high school, I didn’t really have that.”
Back on track in the classroom and coming off a successful season at JSU, Gaines is now ready to reunite with some old friends and test himself at another level of football.
“I’m very excited for the new opportunity because it was a dream (to play at this level) since I was younger, when I was about four years old,” he said. “I know with my type of play, I can play in the Pac-12.
“I’m ready to get started. I’m looking forward to this year, doing something special and starting a trend that Colorado didn’t have in a long time; bring excitement back to the city.”