Sanders filling important role for Tide

In their last game versus Vanderbilt, the Tide came away with a 12-9 victory and its first conference win. But late in the fourth quarter with Alabama driving, the outcome was very much in doubt. The ballgame tied and facing third down, Tyler Watts lofted a pass to a wide-open Theo Sanders. <br><br>"It seemed like the ball was up there about 30 seconds," he related. "When the ball is in the air like that I'm just concentrating, thinking ‘I've got to catch it.'

"Then it arrived, Boom! I heard the crowd roar. I was glad I caught it, because I closed my eyes," Sanders said with a laugh.

It difficult for fans to understand, but the players relate that those wide-open passes can sometimes be the most difficult to catch. Sanders described what happened; "They put me in motion, and I knew I was open from the beginning of the play. I looked back over my shoulder and the ball was just hanging in the air. I'm thinking ‘I gotta catch it; I gotta catch it; I gotta catch it!'

After seeing no action at all in 2000, Theo Sanders is playing an important role as the second tight end this season.

"When I turned around I started stumbling, and I caught the ball going down. But at least I caught the ball."

In trying to put enough air under the pass, Watts had inadvertently ‘wrong-shouldered' his receiver, forcing Sanders to turn completely around. "Yeah, I had to make an adjustment on the ball," he said. "But I had to catch it. I had to do whatever it took."

The reception gave Alabama a first down on the Commodore 11-yardline, and four plays later the Tide went ahead for good. "The guys on the team told me I had the catch that set up the game-winning field goal," Sanders said. "I guess in a way it was a turning point in the game.

"I think maybe I'll start a new statistic: the ‘Go-Ahead Catch.' The defense came on and made a big stop, so at least it set up the go-ahead field goal."

It was a big play for the Tide, and one that provided the difference in a crucial conference victory. But the fact that Sanders was in the game at all was his ‘go-ahead' moment. Signed by Alabama in 1998 out of Shades Valley High School, Sanders played sparingly as a redshirt freshman. But after moving to fullback last season (at the request of his coaches) to provide depth, the Birmingham native was never used once his entire sophomore year.

So more than most athletes on the team, Sanders benefited from Dennis Franchione's promised fresh start. "(These coaches) often base their offense out of two tight ends," Sanders said. "And I try to use my speed, my hands and my athletic ability to do what they need me to do. Catch the ball, block or whatever is called for."

Considered a ‘tweener' by the previous staff, too tall for fullback--too light for tight end, Sanders admits he's not the perfect size for a blocking tight end. But the new Tide coaches have been impressed by his work ethic in the weight room. Sanders explained; "I'm about 235 pounds, and I've gotten stronger. So I guess I can hold my own now. The coaches trust me out there. I've shown them time and time again."

With Sanders (#89) in the backgrouond, Tight Ends Coach Mark Tommerdahl relays instructions during pre-practice warmups.

And Sanders also pointed out that bulk isn't everything; "At that size I'm quicker. I can move my feet and do the job like that. I don't always have the power to drive (defenders) off the ball, but I have technique. I have to use more technique than weight, but I get the job done."

In high school Sanders competed in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes, so speed is definitely a plus. "The last time we clocked the team I ran like a 4.7 (40-yard dash)," he related. "So I'm a pretty fast guy I guess."

Recent seasons saw the Tide often rely on two-tight end sets to provide an edge in running the football, and under Franchione that plan continues. But a clear difference is that now both athletes are sometimes sent out to catch passes as well. Sanders explained; "They put both of us (Sanders and Terry Jones Jr.) in the patterns. It's important to have more than one receiver; they've got to have other options to go to. We've both got good hands and good speed. I think they know they can count on us to get the job done."

Together Bama's two tight ends have only a handful of receptions so far, but they're averaging over 20 yards per catch. "We're just trying to catch the ball," Sanders said. "The coaches tell us to turn upfield whenever we can. So that's what we do. Catch the ball and turn upfield."

"TJ (Terry Jones Jr.) has got good hands, and he's a big guy," Sanders continued. "When he turns upfield, he hurts people. Me? I turn upfield and try to get away from them. Make moves and get yardage."

In Bama's three-point loss to the Bruins, the Tide had a couple of good gains via the tight end. But Sanders said the plan was for even more. "Against UCLA we had plays designed to go to the tight end, but Tyler (Watts) didn't have enough time to get it to us. He threw it to TJ a couple of times during the game. But if he doesn't have time…

"We're like the secret weapons on the team. But if they can't get it to us, then we just wait our turn."

Sanders is putting his high-school sprinter speed to good use for Alabama on special teams and as a second receiving threat from the tight end position.

Dennis Franchione has a well-deserved reputation for developing effective offenses. But as he recently explained, there is really never a time when a given play is definitely going to the tight end. "It's up to the defense," Sanders agreed. "If we see that they're leaving a certain guy open, then we take advantage. If we can get a tight end into the seams of the zone, if we can run crossing routes or a delayed (drag) route, then we're going to do it. They'll have to cover us."

Against the Commodores, Sanders and Jones were used on 27 and 37 offensive plays respectively, as the Tide repeatedly gained yardage by running between the tackles. Sanders explained; "We studied film and saw that they couldn't stop the inside running game. We ran a lot of inside plays with two tight ends, and they couldn't stop us. So we just kept running those inside plays. They didn't really stop it the whole game."

Following that plan, Alabama rushed for 229 yards against Vanderbilt, moving the ball well in the middle of the field. But four field goals totaling all of Bama's 12 points told the tale of futility in scoring touchdowns. "We've just got to do our job getting the ball in the end zone," Sanders acknowledged. "We're working hard on that this week, scoring when we're in the red zone.

"We can move the ball, but people wonder what good is it? Field goals alone can't win many games in the SEC."

But despite its obvious scoring problems, Sanders has faith in Bama's offense. "I think we're finding our identity. I think the offense is coming along fine. We're had some bumps here and there, and the defense has held. They're going to pick it up (versus Arkansas). Our schedule is not getting any easier from here on out."

BamaMag Top Stories