40 Time: 4.58
Arm: 29 1/2″
Hand: 8 7/8″
Projected Draft Position: Late 2nd – Fourth
After helping his Manatee High team reach the Florida State 5A Championship game in 2009 and being ranked the No. 44 wide receiver in the country by Rivals, Ace Sanders turned down offers from South Florida, Rutgers and West Virginia and took his talents to Columbia, South Carolina to play for Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks.
Sanders saw plenty of action as a true freshman, appearing in all 14 games and finishing the season as the team’s fourth-leading receiver with 25 catches for 316 yards and two scores. He was named to the Freshman All-SEC team by coaches.
Sanders was named the team’s Most Improved Wide Receiver the following spring and his duties increased as a result. He finished his 2011 sophomore season as the team’s second-leading receiver with 29 catches for 383 yards ( an average of 13.2 yards per catch ) and two touchdowns. He also started to break in as a returner, taking 16 punts for 149 yards ( 9.3 avg ) and one score.
As a junior last season, Sanders started all 13 games at wide receiver, leading the team with 45 receptions and was second with 531 receiving yards to go along with a team-high nine touchdown receptions. He was named to the All-SEC First-Team as a return specialist and to the All-SEC Second-Team as an all-purpose player. Sanders was also named All-SEC Second-Team by the Associated Press as an all-purpose performer. In addition, Sanders set the school record for punt return yards in a season with 429, averaging 15.3 yards on 28 returns, good for first in the SEC and fourth in the nation.
For his three-year college career in Columbia, Sanders played in all 40 games, making 21 starts and hauling in 99 receptions for 1,230 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also returned 53 punts for 594 yards ( an 11.2-yard average ) and three scores. [ all according to the Gamecocks’ website ]
Coming as no surprise for a guy of his stature and gaudy return statistics, Sanders is a quick receiver with superb top-end speed and acceleration. He’s agile and fluid, making him a nightmare in the open-field or being one-on-one with a defender. Sanders is the kind of guy that could shake a linebacker in a phone booth. He has brisk and decisive cuts that make him a homerun threat as both a returner and playmaker after the catch.
Appearing to be a perfect fit as a slot receiver at the next level, Sanders will face some adversity due to his size. But that shouldn’t deter teams. His hands are very impressive on tape and he does a good job of catching away from his body and plucking the ball, despite his limited radius.
Playing larger than his frame suggests, Sanders isn’t an easy man to bring down. It all starts with trying to get a hand on him. And if you can, Sanders has deceiving strength and his low center of gravity in combination with his commitment and work ethic in the weight room doesn’t necessarily make him an easy tackle. He’s elusive in the smallest of spaces and he’ll embarrass you if you dare take a bad angle.
What I like most about Sanders is his ability to make things happen after the catch. It’s not just his straight-line speed that’s so dangerous. It’s his acceleration. Sanders can go from 0 to 60 in a flash and he doesn’t lose a step when he changes direction. Making the most subtle move at top speed can throw a man off by a mile. And that’s just raw natural ability.
Many will probably look at Sanders’ height and weight and not see much potential as a receiver. I would encourage those people to dig deeper.
After some quality experience playing in the nation’s best conference, Sanders is much more polished a receiver than people may think. Aside from his above-mentioned hands, Sanders is a good route runner that consistently finds the soft spots in coverage. Although he may not muscle anyone off the ball, he’s an intelligent football player who understands jams from defensive backs and the importance of beating them at the line.
While Sanders can most certainly take the top off a defense, he can also be deadly underneath and he’s automatic on quick-outs and hitch routes if given the slightest of space. Regardless of his size, I wouldn’t be concerned with Sanders creating separation at the next level.
Another great trait to love about Sanders is his motor and passion for the game. He understands he’s considered undersized, so he plays bigger. He understands defensive coverage, so he uses what he has to beat it. He recognizes the payoff from the little things, so he’s willing to get downfield and throw cut blocks. Sanders is relentless.
Behind maybe West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, Sanders is the best lightning-in-a-bottle prospect in this draft. And unlike Austin, Sanders appears a more polished receiver with good route running skills. An all-around more natural fit at the position.
Depending on the coordinator and scheme, offenses can get Sanders and a whole lot more if they’re creative enough. His speed and threat is undeniable. He’s a guy that opposing defenses must account for in their game plan. And we’re not even talking about his potential as a return man. The guy’s deadly in that aspect too.
There’s a lot to like about Sanders. His acceleration is uncoachable, he’s a team guy, a hard worker and he’s experienced. His decision to leave South Carolina early was a bit of a surprise, but I don’t believe it was the wrong move. Teams could very well fall for this guy — the way I have — as we move closer to April.