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Sean Lewis: The Architect Behind Colorado's Explosive Offensive Transformation

Lewis, the Buffaloes' offensive coordinator, has orchestrated a remarkable turnaround for a team that was once marooned in the depths of college football's offensive despair.

In a dramatic offseason move, Colorado Football welcomed a staggering 51 scholarship transfers to Boulder, each hoping to rejuvenate their careers under the Rocky Mountain sky. Among the notable additions was a 37-year-old former three-star quarterback recruit who had once graced the Big Ten stage, all without the aid of the ever-popular transfer portal.

The catalyst behind this gridiron transformation is offensive maestro Sean Lewis. Lewis, the Buffaloes' offensive coordinator, has orchestrated a remarkable turnaround for a team that was once marooned in the depths of college football's offensive despair. Through two exhilarating weeks, Colorado is averaging an astounding 40.5 points per game, a stark contrast to their dismal 15.4-point average in 2022, which ranked 127th among 131 FBS teams. Under Lewis' meticulous guidance, the Buffaloes now boast the second-highest passing yards per game in the nation, tallying an impressive 453 yards per game, while their 10 yards per attempt places them 16th in the FBS. Equally impressive is their explosive playmaking ability, as they sit at No. 3 nationally with 10 plays of 30 yards or more, a feat that seemed unattainable just a season ago. Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule, left in awe after Colorado dismantled his Huskers 36-14, proclaimed, "I think Sean Lewis is a great offensive coordinator."

It may still be early in the season, but it's undeniable that Lewis has made an indelible mark as one of the most influential new assistants this year.

For most of the newcomers at Colorado, choosing to work under the charismatic "Coach Prime," Deion Sanders, was a no-brainer. However, for Sean Lewis, the decision was far from straightforward. Lewis was a mere 31 years old when he assumed the reins at Kent State in 2017, a program in dire need of a facelift after winning just 10 games over the preceding four seasons. At the time, he was the youngest head coach in the FBS by a staggering three-year margin. Despite a shaky 2-10 debut season, Lewis masterminded Kent State's historic first bowl win in school history. His stock skyrocketed within the coaching fraternity as his team battled a relentless string of powerhouse opponents, from Georgia to Oklahoma and every Big Ten behemoth in between. Lewis flirted with several tantalizing coaching offers, but he ultimately remained loyal to Kent State for five seasons, culminating in an impressive 18-10 record in MAC play during his final four years.

However, the siren call of Cincinnati last winter proved too enticing to resist. Lewis emerged as a top candidate for the Cincinnati job, and it came down to him and Buffalo's Mo Linguist as the final contenders. Yet, in a last-minute twist, Louisville's Scott Satterfield, armed with four years of Power 5 head coaching experience, swooped in and secured the job.

For Lewis, this was a pivotal moment, prompting him to reevaluate his trajectory. He confided, "When the Cincinnati stuff fell through, I thought, All right, if they don’t recognize in-state what we had done and how things could be, well then, it’s probably time for a pivot." Reflecting on his naivety when Kent State celebrated its 2019 bowl victory, Lewis admitted that he failed to give due consideration to the potential opportunities beyond his week-to-week focus. "My wife and I sat down after that whirlwind died down — all right, we’re in a good spot," Lewis said. "We’re in a really good spot. If we are going to move and pivot, what would that be for and why would that be the case? We made up a personal list that we kept private about where we would go and for what reasons, so when this opportunity came available, we cross-referenced that list. We knew what it was and we talked it through. If we’re gonna be on this crazy adventure, let’s go. Let’s jump."

Lewis' reputation as an offensive genius traces back to his time as the quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at Bowling Green, where he played a pivotal role in leading one of the nation's top five offenses in 2015. His tenure produced the MAC Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Matt Johnson. Subsequently, Lewis joined Dino Babers at Syracuse as offensive coordinator, and in their inaugural season, they set or shattered 40 school records. By the second year, they were leading the nation in snaps per game (88), throwing opposing defenses off balance with their tempo, and stunning the defending national champion Clemson. At Kent State, Lewis' "Flash Fast" offensive scheme led the nation in both yards per game (606.5) and points per game (49.8) in 2020.

Even as Lewis pursued the Cincinnati job, other enticing opportunities came knocking last winter. Oklahoma co-defensive coordinator Jay Valai, a Texas native and former teammate of Lewis at Wisconsin, had strong ties to Sanders' inner circle. He helped orchestrate the connection to Colorado. "Jay probably indirectly or directly had some say in all this," Lewis acknowledged. "Sean’s always been that guy. He creates a lot of consternation for you as a defense. He breaks all your rules and stretches you out horizontally and vertically. He’s gonna check your oil with everything he does, and the guy is a fantastic play caller. I knew Prime’s looking, and they did the rest from there."

However, Lewis faced a major dilemma in the form of a $750,000 buyout owed to Kent State, a financial barrier that had to be overcome before he could make the leap to Boulder. Furthermore, the potential disruption to his family life, including his 7-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, loomed large as a critical factor. Lewis explained, "Coach (Sanders) and I had talked a lot about family and how important family is to him. There were things that I could do as a head coach with my young family that he assured me that I’d be able to continue to do, and not a whole lot of head coaches are open to that."

The pivotal moment for Lewis came when he realized he could bring his offensive line coach, Bill O'Boyle, with him from Kent State. "Coach OB does such a great job," Lewis emphasized. "When all these conversations started, it was never gonna be an option unless he was coming with me. Coach recognized that and how strongly I felt about that."

O'Boyle played a central role in Colorado's offensive renaissance, molding an overhauled offensive line that quickly gelled despite limited time to develop chemistry. O'Boyle, who had previously served as the head coach at Division II Chadron State in Nebraska, knows how to achieve more with less. In his initial spring practice at Kent State, he had only three offensive linemen suited up, prompting the coach, in his mid-50s at the time, to step onto the field himself for drills. "I can’t say enough about the job that he’s done, keeping those guys together and getting the best five out there that play the best together, unified and seeing it through the same set of eyes," Lewis praised.

The Buffs' offensive prowess is a captivating blend of various football philosophies. Lewis heavily leans on the run-pass option game and incorporates elements from the Baylor system, a scheme originating from the era of Dino Babers. Lewis explained, "(The Baylor influence is) there obviously in how we play fast and the tempo of it, and some of the vertical curl passing game and the deep choice concepts." However, there are additional influences, including aspects of the Wisconsin run game, derived from former head coach Paul Chryst, and pro-level insights brought by Colorado analyst and former NFL coach Pat Shurmur. The goal is to prepare the players for the NFL with a comprehensive understanding of defensive identification and coverage recognition, providing them with a versatile skill set.

Deion Sanders, who has donned many hats in the football world, including play-caller and defensive specialist, provides valuable input on the offensive strategy. Sanders' former OC at Jackson State, Brett Bartolone, a disciple of Mike Leach's Air Raid system, serves as the wide receivers coach. Lewis highlighted the unique blend of ideas within the coaching staff, saying, "We have a really unique blend of ideas with Coach, with Brett and Coach Shurmur and what we’ve done and what do our kids do well. I think it’s been a neat think tank of making it our own version here in Boulder."

Shedeur Sanders, the Buffaloes' starting quarterback and Deion Sanders' son, has been instrumental in piloting Colorado's offensive resurgence. Completing a remarkable 78 percent of his passes and boasting a six-to-zero touchdown-to-interception ratio, the 6'2", 215-pound junior exudes poise and precision. His passer rating in the second half, a staggering 238.8, surpasses his first-half rating of 141.1. Lewis commended Shedeur's exceptional anticipation, accuracy, and football IQ, describing him as "mature beyond his years." He also emphasized Shedeur's unwavering commitment to honing his craft and his openness to learning.

Lewis' constant message to his QB is simple: take what the defense gives you. He emphasized, "It’s the old QB coach cliche that you can’t go broke taking a profit. If they’re gonna give you 5 yards, take it, and eventually if you keep doing that over and over and over again with the speed that we have and get them in space, good things are gonna happen."

The results speak for themselves. Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt, a Colorado alum, noted, "First, they are incredibly organized, and I know that sounds weird, but to have this many new players and also so many new staff members, many who’d never worked together, and to get them to play as efficiently as they have, is remarkable." Klatt also praised Lewis for targeting athletes effectively, spreading the ball around, and mitigating the team's weak offensive line by getting the ball out quickly.

For Sean Lewis, the journey from the MAC to becoming the biggest story in sports today has been surreal. He now rubs shoulders with sellout crowds, national TV audiences, and football legends at every corner. Just days before Colorado faced Nebraska, Lewis shared a lunch table with Terrell Owens and Colorado icon Kordell Stewart in the cafeteria. "Everywhere you look around, there’s someone with a gold (Pro Football Hall of Fame) jacket or done some amazing things," he marveled. "It’s pretty cool just as a football fan."

Working under the enigmatic Coach Prime has been an eye-opening experience for Lewis. He admires Sanders' authenticity, stating, "I love how he is authentically himself." Sanders' unique ability to empower players and provide them with a platform to maximize their potential resonates deeply with Lewis. He lauded Sanders for giving his coaching staff the freedom to implement their ideas, emphasizing that they feel a sense of responsibility and motivation not to let down the players or the staff.

As Sean Lewis continues to steer Colorado's offense to new heights, one thing remains clear: the Buffaloes' transformation from offensive obscurity to national prominence is a testament to the vision, dedication, and relentless pursuit of excellence by a group of individuals led by Lewis himself.

Austyn McFadden


September 14, 2023 at 12:00:00 AM

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