Blue-chip recruits, road roommates and IMG backfield mates: The unusual route Trey Sanders and Noah Cain are following to stardom
BRADENTON, Fla. — It’s a picturesque, 81-degree day off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico at Bradenton Beach. On a Friday morning in the middle of May, the IMG Academy football team usually is 8 miles east back on campus logging a spring practice.
But on this day, IMG players get a chance to enjoy the postcard-worthy weather on the white sand beaches (players actually hoisted IMG coach Kevin Wright in the locker room when he told them that practice was replaced with a beach day). Away from the typical flood of college coaches and reporters, dozens of IMG players share a couple hours of goofing around in the Florida sun.
Two of those players are IMG running backs Trey Sanders and Noah Cain. Near the end of the morning, both make their way over to a picnic bench in shaded area to chat with a visiting reporter. Even on beach day, Cain and Sanders can’t escape the hoopla.
They don’t mind. They’re well-versed in sharing the spotlight together on and off the field. In fact, they prefer it.
“People tend to think we’re just fronting for the camera, but we actually hang out all the time,” Cain tells SDS. “We’re always just kickin’ it. It’s not even about football. It’s just about us making a way out for ourselves and our family to get to the highest level and play the game we love.”
At the time, Cain and Sanders were ranked as the top 2019 running back recruits in America, according to the 247sports composite (Cain since fell to No. 4 and Sanders is still No. 1). No two running backs from the same state have ever finished 1-2 in the 247sports rankings era, much less two from the same backfield.
Despite their shared workload, virtually every college in America is after Cain and Sanders. They know that. They also know that there’s an obvious question surrounding their situation.
Why are two of the nation’s top running back recruits so willing to split carries and share the spotlight?
Believe it or not, Cain and Sanders didn’t come to Bradenton for the easy access to the beach, nor did they leave home to get next-level attention.
Sanders came to IMG from Port St. Joe, Fla., a Panhandle community that has its own beaches off the Gulf of Mexico. He also had a reputation as one of the country’s top recruits after rushing for more than 1,000 rushing yards and earning Florida all-state honors as a freshman.
IMG Academy running back Noah Cain
Oh, and he already committed to Alabama by the time he left Port St. Joe in the summer before his sophomore year.
At the time, Sanders’ focus was to get more work at IMG. He said that he never got more than 8 carries in a game at Port. St. Joe. For the first 2 months of his sophomore season at IMG, Sanders never got more than 8 carries in a game, either. That was because of an ankle injury and a move to safety.
But when Sanders was finally healthy in late October against Long Beach Poly, he went off playing his natural position. He needed only 17 carries to rack up 197 yards.
“That’s when I thought (Trey) had a chance to be special,” IMG coach Kevin Wright told SDS.
As special as Sanders was late in the season — he finished his sophomore year averaging 9.6 yards per carry — he soon got plenty of company in the IMG backfield. Blue-chip California running back and future Oklahoma signee T.J. Pledger announced his plans to transfer to IMG. A few months later, Cain went public with his decision to leave Texas for Bradenton.
There were plenty of skeptics about Cain’s decision to join an already-loaded backfield.
“People were like, ‘Why would you go out there with Trey and T.J. Pledger?’” Cain said. “It really wasn’t about stats for me. It was about me getting better. I knew what my projection could be. I had to keep my body healthy. That’s the biggest thing to get ready for college. I saw an opportunity for me to really understand the college atmosphere and environment because I’d rather compete now and deal with adversity now than do it in college.
“College, that’s money time to get to the draft.”
Spend 5 minutes with Cain and it’s not hard to see how serious he is about the long-term approach.
Wright loves to tell the story about when IMG hosted a 7-on-7 camp a few summers ago and Cain walked into his office with his dad. At the time, Cain had just finished his freshman season at Denton Guyer High School (Texas). That didn’t stop Cain from handing Wright a printed copy of his résumé. To Wright’s amazement, it wasn’t loaded with many football accomplishments. Instead, Cain wanted to make his case for why he belonged at IMG because of his work in the classroom and in the community.
“When you get 14- or 15-year-olds bringing in résumés,” Wright said, “they’re already at a stage where most people don’t get to until college level.”
The big-picture mindset allows Cain to be patient in a crowded backfield. It’s also what opened the door for him and Sanders to become each other’s biggest fans instead of biggest rivals.
It didn’t hurt that they also got the perfect coach to preach that message.
IMG Academy coach Kevin Wright
Sanders enjoys when he gets a front-row seat to watch Cain work. Cain’s ability to keep his legs moving is why he’s a load to take down at 209 pounds. Sanders admits he “never had a running back beside him who could carry a whole pile” until he saw Cain do it. During a game in Utah in 2017, Sanders remembered Cain basically giving a defender a piggy-back ride.
“I’m like, ‘Did this just really happen?’” Sanders said with a laugh. “The next play they give (Cain) the ball again and he got hit by the sideline and he’s still getting hit. Next thing you know, he’s down the sideline again. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
Sanders’ style is different than Cain’s 1-cut-and-go. According to Cain, the bigger Sanders (5-11, 216) is more like a Le’Veon Bell-type — shifty, patient and explosive at the second level.
There’s another interesting comp for Sanders. IMG running backs coach Carnell “Cadillac” Williams sees some of his old Auburn running mate Ronnie Brown in Sanders.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Wright brought Williams on board to coach the IMG running backs in the summer of 2017. After all, who would know about thriving in a crowded backfield better than Williams? He and Brown formed arguably the greatest running back duo in SEC history.
“I couldn’t think of a better running backs coach to have,” Sanders said of Williams.
With Pledger off to Oklahoma this year, Cain and Sanders will be more of a duo than ever as seniors. Williams has plenty of memories of when he found himself in a shared backfield with Brown when they were seniors (people forget that Brandon Jacobs left Auburn for Southern Illinois when Brown and Williams surprisingly announced their return for their senior seasons).
Fourteen years ago, Brown and Williams made history by fueling Auburn to a perfect 13-0 season. They made even more history when they became the first backfield duo to ever get picked in the top 5 of the same NFL Draft. Williams sees the potential with Cain and Sanders to carve out their own path to history.
“He pulls us aside and tells us that we’ve got an opportunity to do something special that’s never been done,” Cain said.
When Williams arrived, he expected to deal with some massive egos. What he found was not only did Cain and Sanders not have any sense of workload entitlement, they actually liked that they could preserve their bodies for the next level. They didn’t get hung up on the fact that Wright envisioned roughly 12-15 carries per game for them, and that there really wasn’t an “RB1.” If it helped them prepare for college and the NFL, Cain and Sanders were on board.
“It’s amazing. They’re wise beyond their years,” Williams said. “Once I got here, just hearing both of them talk about the things they want to accomplish in life and why they came here, it was awesome.”
Williams was also worried that Cain and Sanders wouldn’t like each other. Quickly, he learned that wasn’t the case. They were inseparable.
IMG Academy running back Trey Sanders
Before Cain got to IMG, he talked to Sanders on the phone and they hit it off. Their personalities are different — Cain is a bit quieter and Sanders is more outspoken — though that didn’t stop them from becoming fast friends. They roomed together on the road, which only added to their bond.
But like all close friends, they do have a pet peeve of one another. When Sanders is craving noodles at 10 p.m. and he needs to borrow a hot plate, it’s Cain’s door that he’s knocking on (whether Cain is asleep or not). Cain draws the line when it comes to sharing food. Sometimes he’ll get a 3-piece spicy chicken meal from Popeyes before a game, but he’s not about to share any of it with Sanders.
“That kinda makes me mad, though,” Sanders joked.
For as much time as they spend together, those were the lone gripes they had about their situation. Williams said he’s never heard either complain about playing time. When one scores, the other is the first one to congratulate them.
Liking each other off the field makes it that much easier to coexist in their unique circumstance on the field.
“Coming here, people expected us to bump heads. Every day — I’m talking every day — we hang out,” Sanders said. “Sundays, Saturdays the first person’s room I go to is his and we go make plans. He’s like a brother to me.”
It’s no longer a question of whether Cain and Sanders will put their egos aside and trust the multi-running back process at IMG. They bought into that a long time ago.
There are, however, a few questions that remain.
The big one — and the one that fans across the country probably want to know — is where they’ll play their college ball. They certainly have options.
Sanders was committed to Alabama for nearly 2 years, but he dropped his commitment this past New Year’s Day. He took unofficial visits to the likes of Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Miami and more will probably come for the 5-star tailback. Cain unofficially visited a wealth of schools, including Auburn, Clemson, Florida, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State.
In other words, there’s a lot left to be decided in their respective nation-wide recruitments. Who knows? Maybe Cain and Sanders will join the same college backfield and go on to become top-5 picks in the NFL draft together.
“They say history always repeats itself,” Williams said. “Somebody’s gotta do it.”
The other unknown is whether Cain and Sanders will finish their careers as the first running back duo to be ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the 247sports composite.
IMG running backs coach Carnell "Cadillac" Willams
For a couple of guys who came to IMG not worried about numbers, does being considered the greatest duo of high school running back prospects ever really matter?
“We actually never looked at it that way,” Cain said, “but since people have been telling us about that, we definitely see the opportunity to make history to be the best backs in the country at the same school and run the table.”
“I mean, it’d be special to be ranked 1-2,” Sanders said. “But the big thing for me is being ranked No. 1 going into the draft. That’s a big difference. Being ranked No. 1 in high school, that’s like a lot of hype. But going No. 1 in the draft, that’s when you start making money. I feel like if we go 1-2 in the draft, that’d be the best thing for us.”
Sanders admitted that if and when Cain go their separate ways, he’ll miss having that connection they formed. It’s one neither take for granted.
They could have gone a different route in their high school careers. It would have been easy to rack up monster numbers piling on hundreds and hundreds of carries against inferior competition.
Instead, they’ll enter college having gone through a high school experience that forced them to be disciplined, efficient and ultimately, unselfish. They won’t have the wear and tear on their bodies that other high school running backs will have. Cain and Sanders have plenty of time to rack up the miles.
And if history is any indication, they won’t have any issues getting to the next level and showing an extra burst.