Getting two of the best young cornerbacks in the country to come to Boulder was the first step.
Now, the Colorado coaches have to get them ready to play.
“Those guys are young and they’ve got a lot of technique work that they need to work on, but that’s what I’m here for,” CU cornerbacks coach Kevin Mathis said during a press conference last week.
“Those guys” could include the Buffaloes’ entire cornerback group in general, but more specifically, it will be Travis Hunter and Cormani McClain in the spotlight.
Hunter was rated the No. 1 prospect in the nation for the class of 2022 before signing with Jackson State to play for head coach Deion Sanders and Mathis. After a year at JSU, Hunter is now at CU after Sanders took over as the Buffaloes’ head coach in December.
McClain is ranked as the No. 1 cornerback in the class of 2023 and had been committed to Miami before Sanders took the job at CU. He flipped to the Buffs last month and will arrive in Boulder this summer.
A lot of football coaches talk about building a defense from the inside (defensive line and linebackers) out. But, not at CU.
“We’re probably the only place in America that’s gonna start from the outside-in with our corners, because that’s who (Sanders) is, that’s what we want to build our brand on,” Mathis said. “We want to make sure our guys on the outside are locked down and we’ve got two good ones.
“Now, they need work and they’re going to get work, but we’ve got two good ones on the outside that’s gonna allow us do what we need to do on the inside of the defense to make plays.”
Considered by many as the best cornerback to ever play, Sanders is a Pro Football Hall of Famer and he has mentored young cornerbacks since he was a player. Sanders is putting his trust in Mathis to be the main teacher of the Buffs’ young corners. That trust began to build more than 25 years ago.
Sanders was an eight-year NFL veteran and two-time Super Bowl champion by the time Mathis joined the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 1997. They played together with the Cowboys for three seasons.
“He really took me under his wing,” Mathis said. “There was something about me, just the way he saw me practice and the way I handled myself on the field that made him pour into me and it just continued everywhere I went. He’s always been a mentor of mine.”
Learning from Sanders carried Mathis through his own 10-year NFL playing career and into coaching. More than a decade ago, he began coaching at Sanders’ Prime Prep Academy. When Sanders became the head coach at Jackson State in 2020, he hired Mathis as his cornerbacks coach and then brought him to Boulder in December.
“I think like he does so I’m really an extension of him on the field, especially in coaching,” Mathis said. “He taught me the majority of the things that I know at that position.
“To be the corners coach anywhere with him would probably be the hardest job for anybody because he’s the best ever to play the game. So I think it gives him a sense of relief that I can coach them because I’m speaking the same language and he knows I can go out there and touch them. He trusts me to relay the messages to these DBs.”
Mathis not only learned from Sanders, but in watching him play and practice he got to understand the high level of competitiveness Sanders demands out of his players today.
“Him and (Cowboys star receiver) Michael Irvin would go at it every play, so the competition that he’s expecting, I know what he’s talking about,” Mathis said. “And I know that’s why he’s successful and that’s why he’s the best corner to ever play the game because he practiced like that every day.”
Mathis will aim to bring that same type of practice mentality to the Buffs.
CU’s cornerback group including returning starter Nikko Reed and talented young returners in Keyshon Mills, Jason Oliver and Joshua Wiggins. But, it’s Hunter and McClain who will be counted on the most to lock down opposing receivers.
“It’s going to be my job to make sure that those guys are playing at the top and being two of the best corners in the league,” Mathis said. “I’m gonna push them every day. I don’t care if they’re five stars, six stars or no stars. We’re gonna work them hard, train them up right to make sure that they’re doing the best thing to make this Colorado defense great.”