Say it ain’t so, Ace.
Steve Spurrier and the rest of the South Carolina Gamecocks received some unfortunate news Tuesday night on Twitter when a key veteran component in the return game and on offense decided he’d fulfilled his football duties at the collegiate level one year early.
After previously revealing on Instagram that he’d stay for his senior season, SEC co-special teams player of the year Ace Sanders confirmed plans to forgo his final year of eligibility in favor of the NFL Draft.
The tweet was met with expected congratulatory replies from teammates — including several current Gamecock wide receivers — but the general consensus was that of shock from fans and the media.
Most of us fully expected Sanders back following his standout junior campaign providing himself with another crack at improving on a draft stock that continues to climb.
On one hand, I commend Sanders for following his dream of playing in the NFL after a breakout 11-game stretch.
As for the other?
It’s an awfully high risk to take for an undersized receiver whose had a single 100-yard outing in 40 career games with most of his production coming on special teams. While his stock at this time has never been higher after a career-high nine-touchdown season, one more year at South Carolina wouldn’t hurt, especially considering the upcoming draft being heavy on talented pass-catchers.
Another year as “the guy” on offense for a Top 10 team would only improve his chances of sneaking into the second round. With the return of two capable quarterbacks and the focus no longer on Marcus Lattimore in the running game, Sanders’ opportunities on offense would expand and his numbers would likely go up.
Just look at what he did in his first season as South Carolina’s chief target.
Sanders came out of his shell to lead all Gamecocks in catches and touchdowns — doubling his previous two-year contributions — without playing in the shadow of Alshon Jeffery.
While receivers have never been the focal point of Spurrier’s run-heavy attack that has directly led to 31 wins over the last three seasons, oftentimes Sanders would evaporate on the field as a freshman and sophomore behind Jeffery.
Used primarily in the slot during his first two seasons as the second option, Sanders was South Carolina’s short-yardage screen guy before budding into an elite wideout when given the chance on the outside. But is one year of quality film on a short receiver enough for NFL scouts? Is a late-round pick worth the risk?
Sanders’ ceiling — as far as wide receivers go — would be mirroring the career of Wes Welker, Tom Brady’s go-to option in New England. Sanders is one inch shorter at 5-foot-8, but doesn’t seem to have near the strength to create separation and come down with the football on 50-50 plays.
He could improve on that with one more season in Columbia and in the same breath, become a more polished route runner with better technique.
We haven’t even discussed the element of Sanders’ game that scouts seem to most enjoy, his ability to make people miss in space with the ball in his hands. For the most part, NFL franchises are now willing to take chances on return-only guys, albeit late in the draft. The Panthers picked up Joe Adams from the Arkansas in the fourth round last season, a productive college wideout who had a bigger upside than Sanders. The result? A couple early muffs and bench splinters.
Sanders will need to develop his game as a receiver to excel at the next level and another year on offense for the Gamecocks would achieve that. His three-touchdown finale in the Outback Bowl against Michigan was supposed to be the appetizer for what was expected to be an All-SEC caliber senior season.
Scintillating punt returns against Missouri and Georgia early in the season were bonus points for an improving skill set. At season’s end, Sanders was the top punt returner in the SEC, averaging 14.5 yards per return, with seven returns of 27 yards or more. He had nearly perfected the special teams portion of his game and was becoming a pretty darn good receiver to boot.
But he pulled the plug too fast.
Sanders has until Friday to withdraw his name as long as he doesn’t hire an agent, but it sounds like the final decision has already been made.
Photo Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports