Three Gamecock receivers under 5-foot-9 are starting to make a name for themselves in this South…
Top 10: #6 - Ace Sanders
With the departure of Alshon Jeffery to the NFL the wide receiver position has turned into a position of weakness. Ninth-ranked South Carolina must replace his 49 catches, eight touchdowns and 762 yards. Make no mistake, there is plenty of talent at the position, but someone has to step up and be the number one guy for quarterback Connor Shaw.
Enter Ace Sanders.
Sanders made his way into Gamecock history in the 2011 season opener against East Carolina in Charlotte. Sanders returned a punt 68 yards for the first punt return for a touchdown since 2003. Sanders also had a three-yard reception for a touchdown in the same game, but those would be the only two touchdowns Sanders scored in the 2011 season despite finishing second on the team in both catches (29) and yards (383). Ace will now be number one, both in number and rank.
"The only thing that's really different is the players out there," Sanders said recently. "All we have to do is go out there and execute. I feel pretty confident in what our receivers can do and I feel like the coaches have more confidence with us by throwing the ball around. We've connected on a lot of passes."
Sanders is multi-dimensional in that he will factor into the run game on jet sweeps and reverses and also return kicks and punts. In 2011 he only had one rush for no yards, but in 2010 he had five carries for 56 yards. With Damiere Byrd joining the team in 2011 he took over running the jet sweeps and reverses, but Sanders will still be a threat to run the ball in certain packages.
Sanders has returned just one kick but has 23 punt returns, including 14 last season. He averaged 6.3 yards per return in two seasons with the long being his 68-yard return against the Pirates.
Sanders will likely not be targeted near as much as Jeffery was, but he has the speed and route-running skills to be a top receiver on the team. Now that he has worked predominantly with starting quarterback Connor Shaw as opposed to multiple quarterbacks his first two season, Sanders believes that the chemistry between Shaw and the receivers has been the biggest source of improvement.
"It's been a big improvement working with the same quarterback," Sanders said. "We don't really have to go through working with two of them so the improvement has been on another level."
No one is likely to catch as many touchdown passes as Jeffery caught last season, but the team will likely have more players with multiple touchdown receptions. After Jeffery's eight touchdown receptions only two other players had multiple touchdowns; Rory Anderson (3) and Sanders with two. Marcus Lattimore, Justice Cunningham, Bruce Ellington, Nick Jones, Kenny Miles, and D.L. Moore all had one. This season there will likely be four or five players with multiple touchdown receptions, but no one catching more than five. It will truly be a team effort.
"I feel like we're making progress," Sanders said. "We can only tell after that first game but I feel pretty confident in what we can do right now.
"I believe we can deliver," he continued. "We put in the work on and off the field, but only time will tell."
Only time will tell for Sanders and the rest of the receivers, but if the Gamecocks hope to stay two-dimensional and keep teams from stacking the box to stop Lattimore, they will have to be able to extend the field vertically. With speedsters like Sanders, Byrd and Ellington, along with bigger receivers in Moore, Shaq Roland, and DeAngelo Smith, Carolina can pose a lot of challenges for a secondary to cover. But they must step up and that begins with Sanders.
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