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Deion Sanders

Cormani McClain and Omarion Miller earn Colorado playing time the old-fashioned way

Highly recruited freshmen sat on the sideline until coach Deion Sanders decided they were ready to play.

BOULDER, Colo. — Freshman receiver Omarion Miller, a four-star recruit from Louisiana, didn’t catch a pass in Colorado’s first four games because he struggled to learn the playbook, and coach Deion Sanders didn’t like his practice habits.

Freshman cornerback Cormani McClain, a five-star recruit from Florida, didn’t play a snap in Colorado’s first three games, partly because Sanders didn’t like his practice habits.

See, Sanders refuses to indulge his players.

He demands players prepare and practice to the standard that helped him become a Hall of Fame player. If they don’t, they sit until they do — and it doesn’t matter how many stars a player has next to his name coming out of high school.

He’s swayed by performance, not reputation.

Sanders refuses to be held hostage by the transfer portal like some coaches. The environment he’s created is not for everyone. He only wants players who love the game — liking it isn’t enough — and want to chase greatness regardless of whether they achieve it.

Sanders is admittedly old-school. All he promises recruits is opportunity. Well, McClain and Miller finally received the opportunity they craved on Sept. 30 against USC, and each took advantage of it.

McClain didn’t have a tackle, but he had a pass deflection. He had an apparent interception negated by a teammate’s pass interference penalty and a fumble recovery negated because officials ruled the play dead.

Colorado cornerback Cormani McClain celebrates a pass defended in the end zone in the third quarter against USC at Folsom Field on Sept. 30 in Boulder, Colorado.

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Miller caught seven passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. He made three spectacular grabs: A one-handed grab for 43 yards, a sliding nine-yard catch for a touchdown, and a 28-yard toe-tapping grab along the sideline.

“Everyone wants to be him until it’s time to be him. Now, you have a chance to be him. Let’s go. Show me or get off your box,” Sanders said this week. “Based on what I see in practice, I know what I’m going to see in the game. You can’t do it in the dark and think you’re going to do it in the light. It don’t work like that.

“Those two young men stepped out and kind of separated themselves from their yesterday. Their yesterday was terrible. Today, they established themselves, and we want them to build on it. Because now, we will establish an expectation for them. I’m proud of them.”

Miller, 6-3 and 185 pounds, struggled with the playbook like many freshmen while competing with veteran receivers such as Jimmy Horn Jr., Xavier Weaver, and Tar’Varish Dawson for playing time.

“He’s long, and he has deceiving speed because he’s a long strider,” receivers coach Brett Bartolone said of Miller. “He’s got great body control and ball skills when he has to high point the football.

Wide receiver Omarion Miller of the Colorado Buffaloes celebrates after catching a pass for a fourth-quarter touchdown against the USC Trojans at Folsom Field on Sept. 30 in Boulder, Colorado.

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“I didn’t want to put him out there until I felt like he was truly ready. In the last couple of weeks, he had truly started to develop great practice habits and more trust in the quarterback. Going into USC, he knew he was going to play, and when his opportunity came, he did his thing.”

Quarterback Shedeur Sanders doesn’t tolerate mental errors. He’s as hard on his teammates as the coaches. He has no tolerance for receivers who aren’t where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there.

Miller and McClain each needed to adapt to the speed and tempo of practice. Coach Sanders often says he treated practice like games so that games would feel like practice.

“This is a tremendous transition for a high school player being the guy, and everywhere he walks in, people are clapping for him,” Sanders said. “Ain’t nobody clapping here unless you do something. That’s the nature of the game and the nature of the land.

“The thing that those young guys have going against them is you got a pro quarterback, and he’s not going to tolerate foolishness, not running your routes at the right distance, and not getting the right checks. That cripples young kids.”

Part of the preparation is studying videos. Sanders gets a weekly report from his assistants that shows him how much film each player has watched on his iPad. If he doesn’t believe a player has studied enough, he’ll bench him.

“Everyone wants to be him until it’s time to be him. Now, you have a chance to be him. Let’s go. Show me or get off your box. … You can’t do it in the dark and think you’re going to do it in the light. It don’t work like that.”

— Colorado coach Deion Sanders

McClain did not dress against Nebraska after he missed a team meeting. A week after playing sparingly in a blowout loss to Oregon on Sept. 23, reporters asked Sanders what would allow McClain to get some playing time.

“Study, prepare, be on time for meetings, show up to the dern meetings,” Sanders said. “Understand what we’re doing as a scheme. 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 in your own free time.”

Now, Miller and McClain have shown how they can help Colorado, which is 3-2 and needs wins over Arizona State and Stanford in the next two weeks to solidify their goal of making it to a bowl game.

Now, it’s about managing expectations.

Sanders challenged Miller to play even better Saturday night against Arizona State. So did rapper Snoop Dogg. He FaceTimed Sanders, his friend of more than 20 years, and asked to speak with Miller.

“Oh, my God,” Miller said when Sanders handed him the phone.

“It was crazy. He was just telling me to keep working. It’s been very fun. Every app I open, I just see myself.”

For McClain, it’s about practicing with an urgency. Wide receiver Travis Hunter, expected to miss at least two more games with a lacerated kidney, coached him on the sideline during the USC game.

He sees the skill set, and he wants McClain to dominate.

“When Cormani gets his things together — he’s so talented — and he’s ready mentally to compete every single play, I can’t wait.”

Colorado Buffaloes wide receiver Travis Hunter (center), who missed the game against USC on Sept. 30 with a lacerated kidney, advises his teammate, guard Landon Bebee (right) during a timeout in the second quarter.

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Hunter wants to expedite the time frame. Before each play, he’d indicate whether USC’s receiver would run a slant or an out from the sideline.

McClain made his best play in the third quarter when he broke up a slant at the end intended for USC wide receiver Brenden Rice, son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, with his right hand. McClain used perfect technique to knock the ball down without interfering.

“He’s still a young player, and he has a lot to learn. I was letting him know what I saw. Every time I told him something, he listened, and it worked out good for him. I knew some of the routes halfway through the game,” Hunter said on his Twitch stream. “They only ran a couple of routes.

“They weren’t trying to attack him over the top — they did that one time — out route or slant. They kept him on my side so I could talk to him. Every ball. Every snap. Once you make one play, you gonna fall into your groove, you got this. Don’t worry about what anybody is saying about you, just do your thing.”

That’s all Sanders has wanted McClain and Miller to do all season.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is an award-winning journalist who is currently president of JJT Media Group and has covered sports in Dallas-Fort Worth for 31 years.