When newly hired Deion Sanders, aka Coach Prime, stood in front of the Colorado football players and delivered an impassioned introductory speech — which has since gone viral — placekicker Cole Becker had a front-row seat. 

The Buffaloes were coming off a miserable 1-11 season and the school’s splashy hiring of Sanders was a signal that it wants the program to return to prime time after posting 15 losing records in the past 17 years. 

“It wasn’t the greatest year, as a lot of people know. Then with the coaching turnover, I wasn’t extremely happy with the way things were being dealt with over there.” — Utah kicker Cole Becker on his decision to enter the transfer portal and leave Colorado

The brash, charismatic Coach Prime let the players know in no uncertain terms that there was a new sheriff in town. He outlined the new culture, which includes not allowing them to wear hats, hoodies or earrings at team meetings. Sanders made it clear that many of them would be replaced. 

“I’m coming. And when I get here, it’s gonna be changed,” he said. “So I want y’all to get ready to go ahead and jump in that (transfer) portal.” 

During the ensuing days, Becker examined his situation and decided to enter the transfer portal. He was looking for a change.

“It wasn’t the greatest year, as a lot of people know,” Becker said. “Then with the coaching turnover, I wasn’t extremely happy with the way things were being dealt with over there.”

On his way home to Roseville, California, from Boulder, he stopped in Salt Lake City to check out the University of Utah, the back-to-back Pac-12 champions. Becker knew the Utes were looking to upgrade the kicking position. 

In early January, the 6-foot-3, 229-pound junior announced he would be signing with Utah. He has two years of eligibility remaining. 

“After a couple of days, I committed and came right back,” he said. “I talked to a bunch of schools but at the end of the day, Utah ended up being the best fit.”

At Utah, Becker joins a program that boasts a strong, established culture under coach Kyle Whittingham.

And the Utes are hoping the answer to their recent kicking woes has arrived from the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

Touchbacks: ‘I can do that’

One of coach Whittingham’s biggest sources of frustration last season was the kickoffs — namely, the lack of touchbacks. Opposing offenses were getting the ball past the 35-yard line on a regular basis. 

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Last season, Utah kickers Jadon Redding and Jordan Noyes, and others, struggled to kick the ball through the end zone. A combination of four kickers recorded touchbacks on just 29% of their 99 kickoffs. Plus, the Utes were penalized for kickoffs out of bounds four times. 

Based on his track record at Colorado, Becker may solve this problem. He booted touchbacks on 67% of his 94 kickoffs in two seasons with the Buffaloes, including 73.9% in 2022. He was flagged for kicking the ball out of bounds twice. 

On the first day of spring practices, Whittingham said Becker is the starter at placekicker.

“Cole Becker is the guy unless he gets beat out by Joey Cheek,” he said. “It’s Cole’s job to lose.”

Becker expects to be handling kickoffs this fall. 

“That’s my plan. That was one of the main aspects of coming here — I saw the kickoff struggles,” he said. “There were a bunch of fans that commented on my commitment post. ‘As long as you can kick touchbacks, we’ll like you.’ I was like, ‘I can do that.’ I’ve had a decent record with touchbacks so I feel pretty confident.

“A lot of people ask me if the difference in altitude (between Boulder and Salt Lake City) will make a difference but it’s only 500 feet. Coming from California, I’m used to kicking at sea level. So training that way before and then kicking at altitude, I have both sides of what I need to do in the Pac-12.”

In two seasons at Colorado, Becker hit 25 of 33 field goals with a long of 56 and he was 45 of 46 on extra point attempts.

Becker said that even though it’s his job to lose, that doesn’t impact the way he’s approached spring ball. 

“I’m still a very competitive person. I really like the dudes here. But anybody that is a kicker on the roster is competition to me. I’m not going to not be friends because of it but they want to be the starting kicker and I want to be the starting kicker. We’re friends but enemies at the same time. I think the best kicker should win. I think the person that’s going to help the team succeed the best should be out there.”

‘It was very tense’: The arrival of Coach Prime

Becker was at Top Golf in Colorado with a couple of teammates last December when he found out about the hiring of Sanders.

It served as another memorable moment in what Becker called “an interesting period of time.”

Five games into the 2022 season, after an 0-5 start, Colorado fired coach Karl Dorrell. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., the son of former Utah offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Sr., was promoted to interim head coach.

Deion Sanders speaks after being introduced as the new head football coach at the University of Colorado during a news conference.
Deion Sanders speaks after being introduced as the new head football coach at the University of Colorado during a news conference Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in Boulder, Colo. | David Zalubowski, Associated Press

In Sanford’s debut as head coach, Colorado beat California 20-13 in overtime in Boulder and fans stormed the field. But the Buffs ended the season with six straight losses, including a 63-21 loss to Utah in the season finale. 

“Toward the end of the season, everybody sensed that change was coming. But we had come to really like our interim head coach,” Becker said. “But we understood that no matter how much you like the guy, you’ve got to win games in college. It’s a job at the end of the day. He got let go and then our AD kept telling us he was looking (for a new coach).”

Athletic director Rick George “didn’t give us too much insight,” Becker added.

It was at Top Golf that Becker found out, through social media, that Sanders had been hired.

“We expected (George) to tell us first, at least. It got posted to Twitter,” he said. “We were probably some of the last to know. We saw the news three hours after it was posted. It was a weird situation.”  

Sanders, known as “Prime Time” as a college and NFL player and now known as “Coach Prime,” led Jackson State to a 12-1 record last fall. 

After accepting the job, Sanders addressed all the members of Colorado’s football team for the first time. Sanders, the college football and NFL hall-of-famer, didn’t mince words. He told the players that some of them should pack their bags.

“I’m coming to restore, to replace and reenergize,” Sanders said. “Some of y’all are salvageable. I’m not going to lie, everybody that sit their butt in a seat ain’t gonna have a seat when we get back. But I’m coming. I started and we gonna go dominate and we’re going to work.”

“I was front and center at that meeting,” Becker said. “It was very tense.”

Soon after Sanders took the head coaching job at Colorado, Jackson State placekicker Alejandro Mata followed him to Boulder. 

Becker ended up in the transfer portal.

“The way that things were handled in that switch was not exactly how I would have liked to see it,” he said. “I won’t go too much into detail but I felt like a change was needed. I know a lot of guys over there that are happy with the changes they made. There are some guys that left that are happy with the decision they made. Everybody did what was best for themselves.”

It appears that Saunders has energized the Colorado fan base as he tries to resurrect a moribund program. The school has sold out its spring game, which has a capacity of 45,000 seats. CU’s previous high for a spring game was 17,800. Last year, the Buffaloes drew 1,950 for their spring game. 

Perspective on Utah’s winning culture

During Becker’s two seasons at Colorado, the Buffaloes posted records of 4-8 and 1-11. Now, he’s at a program coming off two consecutive Pac-12 championships

What differences has Becker noticed between the two programs in his time at Utah? 

“Special teams is right in your face from Day 1,” he said. “We’ve had five spring practices and in three or four of them, it’s been mentioned that if you don’t run on special teams, it’s very hard to get on offense and defense.

“The emphasis they put on it here is, it’s not like the third team that’s forgotten in the program. It’s been cool to see. The expectations are a lot higher. I’ve always had high expectations for myself. So they’re starting to align better with the program. But it’s been cool to see how special teams doesn’t fade into the background. It’s at the forefront of a lot of what they do here.”

That emphasis on special teams could help explain Utah’s success, particularly when it comes to placekicking. The Utes have produced star kickers like Louie Sakoda, Andy Phillips, and Matt Gay over the years.  

“It only takes one look at the trophy case to see those award winners,” Becker said. “I mean, they do it right here.” 

Settling in at Utah

By signing with the Utes, Becker remains in the same conference. And the weather in Salt Lake City is similar to what he’s used to in Boulder. 

“A lot of people ask me how I’m settling in and it’s weird because it doesn’t feel that different. The only real difference is the football environment,” he said. “The special teams culture. Just the team culture overall is a huge change for me. The expectations are a lot higher than I’m used to so I’m adjusting to that. Overall, the weather and the climate is pretty spot on.”

Colorado kicker Cole Becker warms up before an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boulder, Colo. Becker has a track record of kicking the ball through the end zone, something last year’s Utes were missing. | David Zalubowski, Associated Press

Becker has developed a good rapport with punter Jack Bouwmeester, who is also the holder. 

“He’s a really good dude; he really wants to be good at it. I really appreciate it. The past couple of days I haven’t kicked as well as I wanted to,” he said. “So he stayed with me after practice and he’s stayed with me.

“The guys here want to see me succeed. That’s all I can ask from them. We’ve been in a learning curve but it’s been sweet to have them. Those guys are veterans that have done it before. It’s not something brand new. Coming into a new program, I’ve two years of college under my belt but at the same time, it’s a new program, new things to learn. Having older guys to show what you need to do has been really nice.”

Becker feels comfortable around his new teammates. 

“My parents have asked me time and time again, they’re worried about me making friends and whatnot. My answer is always the same — it’s a team of good dudes here,” he said. “Everybody knows everybody. My first couple of days here, I had people coming up introducing themselves to me. I didn’t really experience that at Colorado. It was kind of every-man-for-himself there. It’s definitely been a cool adjustment to see how much this team wants to know each other and be together.”

Game-winning kicks

As a freshman at Colorado, Becker booted a game-winning, 43-yard field goal in a 37-34 double overtime victory over Oregon State in Boulder. 

It’s a kick that’s helped define his career so far. 

“I drilled it,” he said, smiling at the memory. “It was a relief.”

That game-winner “built my confidence, to know that I could handle those big-time moments. It’s definitely different from high school. I had a game-winner in high school and a game-winner in college,” he said. “The contrast is insane. Coming out of high school, I was pretty good but there were aspects that I needed to work on. One of the main ones was maturity. I couldn’t really handle the pressure of big-time kicks. But I’ve grown as a player and a teammate to be able to handle mistakes and move on from there. You have to have a short-term memory as a placekicker to be able to succeed. You have to know that missing is part of the game. You can’t get hung up on it too much.”

Becker admits that it requires a certain personality, or mentality, to be a kicker. 

“A lot of us are weirdos,” he said, laughing. “It definitely takes a special kind of person. You’ve got to have a lot of self-confidence. You can’t let yourself get too down in the bad moments and too high in the big moments. Adrenaline and emotions play into all those kicks. Being able to keep yourself super level and going out there and replicating the same thing every single time is really what it’s about.”

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Having moved on from Colorado to Utah, Becker is hoping to experience more big moments with the Utes. 

The past two years, Becker has felt the elation of a game-winning kick and the disappointment of a bunch of losing. He’s experienced the stress and uncertainty of coaching changes, but now he has joined a program known for stability and winning. 

“I’m happy to be here,” he said.

Becker the kicker is enjoying a different kind of prime time at Utah. 

Utah kicker Cole Becker jogs during spring camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The Utes nabbed the former Colorado Buffaloes kicker out of the transfer portal. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics
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