What it's like to be recruited by Deion Sanders - ESPN

UniqueThis 54 October 4, 2023

WHEN ADRIAN WALKER scheduled his unofficial visit to Colorado for the Week 3 game against Colorado State, he had no idea he'd be there with Lil Wayne, Master P, Offset and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

But that's exactly where Walker and the other recruits on campus found themselves, in what is now the new norm with Deion Sanders and the Colorado Buffaloes. It's not just locker room tours and meetings with coaches, recruits are seeing a whole different pitch from Sanders and his staff.

"It was crazy that Lil Wayne was right there," said Walker, a 2025 wide receiver recruit. "I shook The Rock's hand and to be in that type of moment was crazy. Being that close to celebrities and being in that moment was unbelievable."

The parade of celebrities, which included musicians and hall of fame athletes, continued at Saturday's game against the USC Trojans.

"Deion can bring these guys out based off of him and the relationships that he has with people," Mantrez Walker, a 2025 linebacker recruit who visited for the USC game, said. "A player might come back [at a different school] if he's an alumni, or he's being honored for something, but nowhere else is going to have all those guys in one place."

The first three weeks of the season -- with wins over TCU, Nebraska and Colorado State -- brought the starpower and hype to Colorado, which went 1-11 last season. The next two games -- losses to Oregon and USC -- have shown how far the roster needs to go.

In the three recruiting classes before Sanders' arrival, Colorado didn't finish higher than 34th in the ESPN recruiting class rankings. In two of those classes (2021, 2022), the Buffaloes did not sign an ESPN 300 prospect.

Colorado's 2024 recruiting class has eight total commitments, including two ranked in the ESPN 300 with Aaron Butler and Brandon Davis-Swain. Sanders is still trying to add to that 2024 class and make a splash by going after some big targets, including five-star Texas A&M commit Cam Coleman, who visited for the USC game. He is getting a head start in 2025, and had Mantrez Walker, ESPN Junior 300 receiver Taz Williams Jr. and ESPN Jr. 300 defensive end Christopher Burgess Jr. on campus for the game against the Trojans, as well.

Sanders has had stunning recruiting wins the past two cycles, flipping elite playmakers and using the transfer portal to bring 86 new players into the program in one offseason. When Sanders was at Jackson State from 2020-2022, he flipped five-star cornerback Travis Hunter from Florida State on national signing day in the 2022 cycle. He did it again in 2023 when he got five-star defensive back Cormani McClain to Colorado from Miami.

Recruits from the 2024 and 2025 classes and their parents are paying attention. Not just to the hype, but to the no-nonsense, disciplinarian coach at the center of the process and the two-time consensus All-American, two-time Super Bowl winner and Pro and College Football Hall of Famer who has succeeded in every part of the sport.

"He makes the time to make you feel special and he puts it all on the table," Leon Edwards, the father of CU freshman running back Dylan Edwards, a former ESPN 300 recruit, said. "It was a no-brainer from there, because it's just Deion is the truth and he puts the truth on the table and those kids just absorb it. They want to play for someone that has done the things that he has done and has stood on his word.

"I think that's where he wins."

SANDERS IS FOND of saying, "I ain't hard to find," when talking to recruits and detractors alike. Recruits, however, should not expect an open line to the Colorado coach.

"I don't think Coach Prime gives his number to any recruit, from what I know," Butler, a 2024 CU commit and the No. 80 prospect in the ESPN 300, told ESPN. "It's just how he is and he doesn't want dudes just having his number. When you're playing for him, it's serious, it ain't no fandom. His job is to coach and when you get there, he's going to coach you."

If a recruit wants to talk to Sanders or he wants to talk to a recruit, an assistant coach will facilitate it. When it comes to recruiting, Sanders is as personable and hands-on as he can be, especially when recruits and families are on campus.

"He's just a laid-back person, he just talks about life. He said [on a visit], 'Don't lie to a kid,' and that really made my mom smile," ESPN 300 recruit Kamron Mikell said. "I think recruits are drawn to him, because people see him as somebody who turns us kids into believers and he makes everyone believe in themselves."

When Davis-Swain, a defensive end recruit, arrived at Pasta Jay's during an official visit to Colorado in June, he and his father, Brandon Davis, saw a more laid-back version of Sanders.

Pasta Jay's, a quaint 35-year-old Italian restaurant in Boulder with a sign out front that reads "Prime for President," has become Sanders' go-to place for hosting recruits and their families on official visits.

Inside, Sanders and the recruits have the place to themselves. The Buffaloes' coach held court as the appetizers rolled out, followed by what seemed like unlimited pizza and pasta.

Davis had been around Sanders briefly on the visit, but never in this relaxed, intimate setting. He didn't know what to expect and was still a little star struck, realizing he was eating dinner with Deion Sanders.

"It's Prime Time," Davis said with a big laugh.

These on-campus visits might be much more valuable during this recruiting cycle. After having surgery in March 2022 to have two toes amputated and part of a muscle taken out to help with circulation, Sanders had not been able to travel. Sanders had another procedure over the summer to relieve blood clots in both legs. Because of that, Colorado recruits and their families haven't been able to spend as much time in-person with Sanders.

When Butler and his family took an official visit to Colorado in April, they met Sanders in a room off his personal office.

The room has a wall of windows overlooking Folsom Field with the mountains in the distance. Sanders typically sits in a leather chair that feels purposefully higher off the ground than where the prospects are sitting.

The conversations are more akin to the Pasta Jay's experience than they are the flash and extravagance. They can range from how the prospect fits on the field, what is expected of them, life lessons or sometimes just cracking jokes. And they quickly get past Sanders' celebrity.

"It was right after they had offered me and [Sanders] pulled a couple of us [recruits] aside and had a sit-down with him for about 30 minutes," Talan Chandler, a three-star offensive line commit, said. "It's Coach Prime, you're meeting with Deion Sanders and you're shell shocked, but he's just such a charismatic guy and he's super genuine. He doesn't have an ego, he doesn't think he's better than you and he makes you feel like he cares about you."

There are plenty of coaches who relate to recruits, but Sanders, according to Walker, has different qualities that differentiate him from other coaches.

"Having a coach who went through the recruiting process, went through the collegiate process and went to the NFL," Walker said. "Being coached by a guy like that and in a place where you can be you and you can get your name out there. You can get the connections you need, you can develop, he's not afraid to play freshman and he's a player's coach.

"It's all those things combined."

Robb-Davon and Courtney Butler, the parents of Aaron Butler, have known Sanders since Robb and Sanders played together for a season with the Baltimore Ravens. He knew Prime Time, and they didn't fully know how Sanders would be different.

"Make no bones about it, Coach Prime is a different man than Prime Time. Prime doesn't have anybody on his team that's like him in terms of the character Prime Time," Robb-Davon Butler said. "He wouldn't have any of it. There's no way you can get away with being how he was when he was in that age or even as a pro and play for him. There is individuality, but there are no individuals above the team."

Sanders' attention to detail, the people he has surrounded himself with and how important every recruit seems to be is something the Butler family said they had not experienced at many other schools. When Courtney had surgery, the Colorado staff sent her cards wishing her well on the procedure, they were shocked that they even remembered the surgery was taking place let alone the date.

Davis told Sanders about being a single father and raising his son Brandon, the struggle it has taken to get to this point and how their future could be impacted through his son getting an opportunity to play college football. Every time Davis was on campus or with Sanders, he said the two would sit as if there were no other obligations the coach needed to take care of.

The parents are an important part of the recruiting process for Sanders and his staff, as they are at most schools, and the staff makes it a point of emphasis to make them feel welcome, as well.

While at Pasta Jay's, the families and recruits all eat, but there will be times where the parents hang back at the restaurant with some of the coaches while the recruits continue their visit or tours with players or personnel staff. Sanders and his coaches will often bring board games and playing cards and play games with the parents, talking, joking and showing that down-to-earth side that most have now experienced.

​​"Deion could go host the Grammy's or he can come sit in your backyard at a family barbecue," Omar Stoutmire, the father of 2023 Colorado signee Carter Stoutmire, said. "You'd be shocked at how down to earth he is, he's like a chameleon."

WHILE SANDERS EMBRACES the hype of being Prime Time for outsiders, something is different inside the program, according to recruits.

"His principles, like if you're talking to him and you're slouching, he'll make you sit up and he'll get on you," Chandler said. "He holds everything to a top standard and there's just something about that, that's very, I'd say attractive to a recruit.

"Like, that's excellence right there."

Sanders tells recruits to sit up or tuck in their shirts. Cursing isn't allowed and Sanders tells players to take off their hats, something Colorado State coach Jay Norvell criticized Sanders about. The players who can deal with those standards are the ones who stick around. The players who don't will know up front that Sanders won't let anything slide just because they're a five-star or an instant-impact transfer.

When Sanders flipped McClain from Miami in the last recruiting cycle, it was a big win for the program and Sanders at the last minute. McClain, however, did not play in the first three games of the season before playing late in the blowout loss to the Oregon Ducks and most of the USC game, where he broke up a pass in the end zone.

After the Oregon game, Sanders was asked what McClain could do to see more playing time.

"Study. Prepare. Be on time for meetings. Show up to the dern meetings. Understand what we're doing as a scheme," Sanders said. "Want to play this game. Desire to play this game. Desire to be the best in this game at practice, in the film room and on your own free time."

Sanders preaches the same accountability in the recruiting process and doesn't promise anything to prospects.

"Oftentimes when coaches recruit, the recruits come in and the recruits are interviewing the coaches. We're interviewing the recruits to make sure you have the intangibles," Sanders said on "College GameDay." "Smart, tough, fast, disciplined with character. But not only that, that you love the game. You've got an affinity and passion for the game."

Butler was recruited by major programs, including Alabama, Georgia, Miami, Oregon, Washington. He saw the accountability and character as a differentiator and something that attracted him even more to what Sanders was building.

"​​Just being around [Sanders] when I was up there and then through the recruiting process, you can see the main goal and the main thing is winning and, before anything else, getting the right dudes in there," Butler said. "He's not going to let you slack off or slouch in front of him. He's going to make sure you're ready to perform and perform at the level that you're expected to."

It wasn't always that way, though, as Butler took a visit to Colorado in March before the mass offseason exodus that saw 47 players enter the portal during the spring transfer window in April. Butler wasn't impressed with the talent on the field and wasn't sure Colorado would be the place where he could compete against the best and achieve his goals.

He came home from the visit with the feeling he could have started immediately on that roster. When he saw Sanders turning over the roster and bringing in more talent, he was excited about what that would mean for the future and for his recruitment.

"Being in that environment, I get to prove myself and it's a great opportunity because in a room with the right type of dudes pushing me, the type of dudes they have right now," Butler said. "I'm looking at going there and competing with the top [players], so just having the opportunity to work with Travis Hunter and get better with him and push him to get better, it's a beautiful thing. If you're somebody, you're not going to sit on the back of the porch and want to play with the little pups, you gotta jump out there and really show what it is to everybody right off the rip."

It's that mentality Sanders is searching for. By being strict and sticking to who he is during the recruiting process, he's targeting prospects with a similar mentality.

While Colorado's 2024 class has just three four-star commits, Sanders and his staff still have time until the early signing period in late December as well as the transfer portal periods to add to the class. Sanders might even flip another high-profile recruit like he has done in the past two classes.

Coleman visited Colorado for the USC game despite his commitment to the Aggies. He's the No. 8 prospect overall and would be a third five-star to flip to the program if Sanders is able to pull it off. Colorado is also heavily recruiting five-star quarterback Bryce Underwood, the top prospect in the 2025 class. Underwood visited Colorado for the Colorado State game.

These are the kinds of players Sanders will need to land to turn Colorado from the best show in college football to a legit contender. Those already on board won't bet against him.

"He's charismatic and genuine and the people that he brings around him are all the same, they all just have that love and passion for football," Chandler said. "He's building a culture and brings a championship mindset around him. To be recruited by him, as he tells you, we're coming here to win championships. This is what we want, we want excellence here."