The previous Buffaloes possession had ended like so many others this season, with quarterback Shedeur Sanders getting sacked behind a patchwork offensive line. Three Sun Devils defenders converged on Sanders for the sack and he walked off the field with one of his shoulder pads exposed.
The next drive would be different, though, as Sanders sensed the rush and scrambled upfield for a first down. He ended the run by lowering his shoulder into ASU defensive back Jordan Clark. The message Sanders sent was twofold — both to his teammates and his opponent.
“That was really a scare tactic,” he said. “They know I’m going to lower my shoulder, so they’re not going to think anything sweet with me.”
Colorado went on to win 27-24, improving to 4-2 thanks in large part to its quarterback. But the question moving forward becomes: How long can he endure the pummeling he takes in the pocket?
“If Colorado didn’t have Shedeur, they wouldn’t win a game, point blank, it’s that simple,” a Power 5 coach told ESPN. “He’s getting killed, though. I feel bad. He’s such a tough kid.”
Sanders, the youngest son of Colorado coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, leads college football in passing yards (2,020). He set Colorado’s single-game team passing record (510 yards) in his Buffaloes debut at TCU. He has helped Colorado overcome slow starts, particularly during an overtime win against Colorado State, and last week at Arizona State. He rallied his team from a 34-7 deficit to within a single score against USC.
Sanders also enters Friday night’s home game against Stanford (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) leading the nation in getting sacked — 30 times in six games, four more than second place. He has four games of 348 passing yards or more and three with four touchdown passes, but has been sacked at least three times in every contest — eight in a win over Nebraska and seven in a loss to Oregon.
One of the nation’s most valuable quarterbacks is also among the most at-risk.
“It’s hard to be a successful quarterback when you have people hitting you,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning told ESPN. “He’s done a phenomenal job of still having success, still playing really well, in spite of being hit.”
The hits and sack numbers for Sanders are staggering. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanders is the first player in the past 20 seasons to lead the FBS in passing yards and sacks taken through six games (West Virginia’s Will Grier was third in both categories in 2018). He’s the first player to be sacked 30 times in the first six games since Idaho’s Matt Linehan in 2014, and has absorbed the most hits (93) of any FBS quarterback through six games in the past five seasons.
Sanders is on pace to tie the FBS single-season record for being sacked at 60 — currently owned by Pitt’s Tino Sunseri in 2011 (the NCAA began to recognize sacks as an official statistic in 2000).
“The hardest thing to do in sports is quarterback when you’re not protected always,” Stanford coach Troy Taylor, a quarterback at Cal and in the NFL, told ESPN. “He’s protected sometimes, just not always. To be able to go back with the intention to get good protection every time, and continue to compete and keep your eyes downfield, what he’s done is incredible. He’s taken a number of hits and he just keeps playing.”
The mounting hits, while confirming Sanders’ mettle, are also a source of concern. Arizona State sacked Sanders five times, including twice on the opening possession. Deion Sanders opened his news conference by saying he’s “sick of this,” adding, “How do you start out a game like that, with a quarterback like this?”
Asked about Shedeur sitting alone on the bench at one point during the game, Deion said, “He’s upset with the way it’s going, he’s upset with hit after hit after hit. You think he’s happy being the most-sacked guy … in college football, and he’s still doing what he’s capable of doing? He’s sick of it.”
Shedeur downplayed frustration in those moments, saying he was focused on not holding the ball too long, and ultimately switching into “legendary mode” to lead a scoring push. He hasn’t blamed Colorado’s offensive line or anyone for the sacks and hits. The junior has acknowledged being sore, but always with a smile.
After the USC game, he said his ankle “hurts a little bit, I ain’t gonna lie,” before pivoting to how his shins are often swollen because he was “a clumsy kid” who banged them on desks in school. Days later, he admitted taking an ice bath for nearly an hour following the USC loss.
“Shedeur don’t complain,” Deion Sanders said this week. “It’s easy for him to sit up here and say, ‘I’m getting hit left, right, in between.’ I know he’s sore, because he’s in a hot tub and he’s doing things to make sure his body is straight. But he does not complain. He’s not gonna throw his linemen under the bus. He’s not gonna do any of that, that’s just who he is.”
Deion Sanders raised his sons to approach the game that way — to not blame their struggles on others. Shedeur always played quarterback and Deion, one of the best ever to defend QBs, would whiteboard defenses for him at their home. The details of the game mattered, and so did the pressures it presented.
“He’s a darn Sanders,” Deion said of Shedeur. “That was understood around the crib that you’re gonna be mentally and physically tough.”
Darrell Colbert Jr. teamed with Shedeur’s brother, Deion Sanders Jr., at SMU in 2014 and 2015 and remembered Shedeur, then in middle school, coming by to throw passes. Colbert began training quarterbacks in Houston after he finished playing, and started working with Shedeur in 2019.
Colbert is shocked by the number of hits Sanders has taken this season — “They said he had been hit 55 times in [the first] three games, which is literally crazy,” he said — but not by Sanders getting up each time.
“I’ve seen him take some hits over the years and bounce right back up,” said Colbert, who has attended every Colorado game. “I knew taking a few sacks each game, getting tackled, none of that was going to stop him from performing. That’s just the type of guy he is, a tough guy.”
One of the reasons Sanders has endured so many sacks is the offseason roster flip at Colorado. Deion Sanders upgraded several positions, namely quarterback, but left Colorado’s offensive line dangerously thin entering the season. Veterans such as Jake Wiley (UCLA), Casey Roddick (Florida State) and Austin Johnson (Purdue) transferred, and Colorado’s incoming transfers, while solid players, weren’t overly decorated.
Colorado has had three linemen start every game, including tackles Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan and Savion Washington, and two others are set to start their fifth game tonight. Coordinator Sean Lewis’ scheme features quick passes, but also a lot of them. Sanders leads the FBS in dropbacks per game at 51.5, five more than the next-highest QB (Hawai’i’s Brayden Schager). Colorado ranks fourth nationally in passing attempts, but its pressure rate — the percentage of dropbacks where the quarterback is sacked, under duress or hit — is only 23rd highest at 38.1%.
Stanford enters tonight’s game with just eight sacks, tied for 104th nationally, but sophomore outside linebacker David Bailey has four.
“Pass rush is going to be a huge factor,” Taylor said, “and then being able to keep him in the pocket and stand back there.”
Like any quarterback, Sanders is responsible for some of the sacks and pressures. He spoke before the ASU game about needing to “quicken up” and gain greater comfort in the offense. Although Sanders has mobility and has gained 221 yards with three rushing touchdowns, his preference is to operate from the pocket.
“The last thing he wants to do is take off running,” Colbert said. “A lot of times, people see [a defender] coming free, so you take off and run … but what he does is stay in the pocket, takes the heat if he has to, or tries to make people miss in the pocket and keeps his eyes down the field to find an open guy. We talk about it, but that’s just who he is.”
But how long can Sanders maintain the combination of production and pain? He’s sturdy at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, but every hit increases the risk for injury. Sanders understands the need to be both smart and tough.
He texts regularly with Tom Brady, the seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and also has talked with Colorado analyst Pat Shurmur, the former New York Giants and Cleveland Browns coach, about preserving himself despite the punishment.
“He’s had a lot of quarterbacks in the [NFL], and was like, ‘The best quarterbacks can stay healthy,'” Sanders said of Shurmur. “That’s the main thing, just investing your time in things that matter, which is your health, and doing the daily things to make sure you’re proactive and not reactive.”
Deion Sanders made it clear after the ASU win that Colorado’s habits, namely starting slowly and not protecting Shedeur, will need to change down the stretch. The Buffaloes are “waiting on him to put on his cape and do what he does,” which has equated to a solid start, but might not be a sustainable formula for the second half of the season. The last quarterback to finish in the top three in both passing and being sacked, New Mexico State’s Chase Holbrook in 2006, was part of a team that went 4-8.
Colorado could look to become more balanced on offense. Running back Alton McCaskill, a first-team All-AAC selection at Houston who missed all of last season with an ACL injury, is set to take on a bigger role alongside Dylan Edwards and Anthony Hankerson.
But when games are on the line, Sanders wants the ball in his hands, in the pocket, looking to make a play and deal with whatever comes his way.
“It’s just something that kicks in,” Sanders said. “Losing’s just not in me.”
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