The drive between Bradenton, Fla., and Columbia, S.C., is eight hours long and at least twice as boring.
It’s nothing but a series of interstates, and your mind can start to wander. It was on that drive that wide receiver Ace Sanders decided he would not return to South Carolina for his senior season. After the Gamecocks beat Michigan 33-28 in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 1, Sanders went home to Bradenton.
When he left to return to Columbia, he didn’t know if he was returning for good or just to say goodbye. He made up his mind on the trip.
“It was just me riding in the car and trying to come to terms with it because I had been battling with it for a long time so I just took my time, thought it out,” he said Friday as he appeared before the media here at the NFL Combine. “It was really like a gut feeling. I had been asking God to lead me in the right direction, and the feeling to leave just kept getting stronger and stronger.”
Sanders led the Gamecocks in receiving with 45 catches for 531 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012, and he was fourth in the nation in punt returns with a 15.32 yards per return average.
“I did at one point think I was going to come back, but people have a change of heart,” he said. “The thought (to leave) actually came after the season. We joked around in the locker room a lot. A couple of the guys who were leaving would say, ‘You’re coming with us out this year.’ I was like, ‘No, man. I haven’t even given it a thought,’ but then, after that last game, it was like, ‘Well, maybe.’ ”
Sanders measured 5-foot-7 and 173 pounds at his weigh-in here, and he will work out for teams Sunday. It’s those workouts that will determine if he made the right decision or not, Sanders believes. He has heard he could be drafted anywhere from the second to fifth round depending on how impressive he is here, he said.
Sanders is the third South Carolina wide receiver to leave early in as many years. It worked out well for Alshon Jeffery last season as he was picked in the second round by the Chicago Bears and not as well for Tori Gurley, who went undrafted.
“Tori wasn’t a return guy. That’s a foot in the door for me,” Sanders said. “I don’t look at myself as failing because if I did, I would have stayed. You can’t get anywhere without confidence. If you don’t believe in yourself, then why take the step?”
Coach Steve Spurrier tried briefly to talk Sanders out of leaving early but then wished him luck, Sanders said. Sanders believes his ability as a punt returner will help him turn the heads of evaluators.
“It’s a quick way to get on the field, a quick way to get the ball in your hands and show them that you can make something happen,” he said.
Playing in the NFL has been Sanders’ dream since he was a child, he said. He grew up idolizing his father, Tracy Sanders, who played cornerback at Florida State alongside Deion Sanders and was an assistant high school coach.
“I pointed out some things to him about how I felt,” Ace Sanders said. “He talked me through some of the stuff I was going to have to go through and he asked me if I was ready. Once I told him I was ready, he jumped on board, too.”