Ace Sanders has had the opportunity to see two former South Carolina wide receivers recently declare for the NFL Draft as underclassmen and go onto varying degrees of success.
In 2011, Sanders was a college teammate of Alshon Jeffery who was a second round draft choice of the Chicago Bears last year and had an encouraging rookie season with 24 receptions for 367 yards and three touchdowns.
The year before that, Sanders was a teammate of Tori Gurley who was signed by the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent. Entering his third season in as a professional, Gurley has already been on the practice squad of five NFL teams but has never seen any regular-season action. This offseason he signed with his sixth team, the Baltimore Ravens.
Despite Gurley's résumé as an NFL journeyman, it hasn't deterred Sanders from entering early for the NFL Draft, which he did at the 11th hour, signing the paperwork on the deadline day of January 15.
"We're two totally different players," said Sanders at the NFL Combine. "What they look for from Tori and what they look for from me is two totally different things. Tori wasn't a return guy, that's just a foot in the door for me."
In addition to being a receiver, Sanders thinks he brings an extra element to special teams that adds to his value as a football player.
"It's just big-play ability," said Sanders. "I look to try to change the whole tempo of the game, bring momentum to whichever team that I'm on. That's big in football in general. Once you get momentum going, it's hard to stop. If I can get back there and force big returns, most of the time I get the ball and that's field position as well."
Last season at South Carolina, Sanders had 28 punt returns for 429 yards and two touchdowns, an average of 15.3 yards per return. In 2011, he took another return to the house with 16 punt returns for 149 yards and a score for an average of 9.3. Sanders only has limited return as a kickoff specialist, however, with only two career college attempts.
There's no doubt that Sanders and Gurley are two totally different players from a size differential. While Gurley is 6-4 and 232 lbs., Sanders measures in at 5-7 and 173 lbs.
Due to his smallish stature, Sanders knows NFL teams have a specific role in mind for him on offense.
"They're looking at me more as a slot player, but it's a leg up just because I have experience with both (the perimeter and the slot)," said Sanders. "I can learn the entire playbook."
In three years at South Carolina, Sanders has 100 receptions for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns, including 45 for 531 and nine last season.
His skill set is not unlike those of other receivers of a similar height and weight, but Sanders' measurables at the Combine were among the middle of the pack, including a 40-yard dash time of 4.58 seconds that was slower than all but five other receivers.
According to Sanders, he says he's heard he could be drafted anywhere from the second through the fifth round, but he has no regrets for declaring for the NFL Draft following his junior season.
"It's just a confidence level for me," said Sanders. "I don't look at myself as failing, because if I did, then I would have stayed."
Brian Carriveau is the author of "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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