Ace Sanders is heading back to his home state, and he wants to prove he’s more than just a dynamic punt returner.
Sanders, a former South Carolina wide receiver and SEC special teams co-player of the year, was selected Saturday in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Brandenton, Fla., native was the 101st overall selection and the second Gamecock selected this year, joining safety D.J. Swearinger, who was taken in the second round Friday.
“I’m definitely a receiver who’s a punt returner. A lot of people have not really gotten time to see me really excel as a slot receiver, but I know my ability,” Sanders said on a conference call following his selection. “With the right coaching and the right system I can really excel as a slot receiver as well as a punt returner.”
Jaguars general manager David Caldwell agreed Sanders can be a quality wide receiver in the NFL, but he acknowledged it was Sanders’ punt return abilities that also caught his eye.
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“Yeah, that’s what we were excited about,” Caldwell said. “He’s an extremely reliable receiver, his hands are excellent, this guy makes more third downs, and his punt return average I believe was 15.3 in the SEC and just in terms of his hands are really exceptional in terms of being able to catch the ball on a down-in, down-out basis.”
Sanders caught 45 passes for 531 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He also scored twice on punt returns. His size, 5-foot-7, 175 pounds, does not concern the Jaguars, Caldwell said.
“We talked a lot about it with (offensive coordinator Jedd) Fisch and (wide receivers coach Jerry) Sullivan and they like it,” Caldwell said. “They like the idea of having a guy that’s really quick and sudden and has excellent separation quickness.”
The 4.58 40-yard dash Sanders ran at the NFL scouting combine didn’t scare the team off either. Many expected that time, slow by small wide receiver standards, to hurt Sanders’ draft stock.
“His quickness is electric. This guy’s got serious juice in terms of his ability to get off the mark and to separate in a short area,” Caldwell said. “The time speed is what it is, but the video shows that this guy can get behind defenders in the SEC and run away from guys in the SEC.”
Sanders left the Gamecocks after three seasons in which he compiled 99 catches for 1,230 yards. He made the decision to forfeit his final season of eligibility on Jan. 15, the final day for underclassmen to apply for the NFL Draft.
“Honestly it has all just been a blessing,” he said. “I am just happy to be off the board and at the end of the day that’s what a lot of people wish for just to be off the board. It doesn’t matter where I got picked at as long as I got picked. As long as I’ve got people that have enough confidence in me as much as I have in myself and that will go out there and give me a hundred percent just like I give them, then I believe it will be fine.”
Sanders was one of five former South Carolina players taken on the final day of the draft. Twenty-seven Gamecocks have been selected into the NFL during Steve Spurrier’s eight seasons as head coach, including 12 in the last two years. That two-year total matches the school record, set in 1954 and 1955.