He had to adjust to the speed of the Southeastern Conference, to get bigger, stronger in an off-year. He needed seasoning.
"Coming in, I was thinking I was going to come in and play. But once I got here, I realized I had to learn little things to be good," he said Monday, shortly after the first of Ole Miss' 15 allotted spring practices. "I think being off that year, it helped me out a lot."
He learned from since-graduated seniors Markeith Summers and Lionel Breaux, and kept his eye on Ja-Mes Logan, now listed as a starter opposite Melvin Harris. Sanders was being brought along slowly because, in a year, he would have to play a major role in a depleted cast of wide receivers.
The development of Sanders -- once rated a four-star recruit by Scout.com -- is vital. He has to play, if only because of the lack of bodies at the position.
"To make plays, from my understanding," Sanders said of his role this season. "They just want me to make plays. They depend on me. Coach (Nutt), when he redshirted me last year, he told me this year should be a big year for me. I believe in that."
Sophomore cornerback Charles Sawyer is impressed with Sanders.
"I like him. I like him a lot," he said. "Last year, I saw him and thought he was going to be good. I only want to go against the best, and I like going against him. He's a hard worker. When he runs his route, he runs his route hard. You can't just put little hands on him. You actually have to put your hands on him, cause he's a big receiver."
Ole Miss lost six starters from its defense following a 4-8 season, including two linebackers -- Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker.
But back is junior D.T. Shackelford, and the defense is his run.
"I say I'm the leader of the defense in a humble way," Shackelford said. "It's not that I can just rule over everybody. But I want to be the leader to say, ‘Hey, follow me. I'll show you the right way to go.'"
Most assumed, the Ole Miss coaching staff included, that Shackelford would be the player to head defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix's efforts come his junior season. Well, here he is, Shackelford and his teammates eager to put the frustrations of last season behind them.
"We went 4-8 last year, so the first thing we wanted to do was get back out here and reestablish ourselves, go through the drills hard. I think we had a real good first day," Shackelford said.
Shackelford said the defense had little trouble gelling Monday. Of course, the team ran through practice in shorts and shirts. "Everybody can look like an All-American in shorts," he said. Ole Miss won't hold its first full-pad practice for a few more days.
"D.T.'s second to none when you come to (leadership)," Nix said. "The first thing you do when you're defining a leader is a guy who leads by example, and he's a guy who does it on and off the field. He's an excellent example of a student-athlete.
Lacking in Numbers:
Ole Miss has all of four cornerbacks at its disposal this spring. Four.
Senior Marcus Temple isn't participating as he recovers from surgery due to a sports hernia. Julian Whitehead has left the program. That leaves Sawyer, junior college transfer Wesley Pendleton, sophomore Frank Crawford and redshirt freshman Cliff Coleman.
"Probably not, but we're going to try not to slow down," Nutt said, when asked if, realistically, he had enough cornerbacks to keep a consistent defensive pace in practices. "We may have to put that guy who's just walking on with us … we may have to put him out there in some situations. We have to do it by default, because we can't slow the other guys down. We got to keep going."
Sawyer, the de facto veteran, said the group is accepting the challenge of having limited depth.
"It's a challenge, but you got to take on challenges. We can't just be like, ‘Oh, we only have four corners that's participating right now.' We can't feel sorry for ourselves," he said. "Anything can happen. It can happen like that in the real season -- two people can go down, three people can go down. We still got to play."
Sawyer, who Nutt has often spoke of as one of the most important players, if not the most important, in the secondary, made four starts as a freshman last season. He tied for the team lead with two interceptions, and also had a team-high 53 return yards.
Sawyer ranked sixth on the team in tackles with 49.
"I'm glad I played. Starting wasn't a big factor for me; I didn't mind. But it got me ready for this year," he said. "I feel faster, I feel more calm. I can just play."
With so many new faces, both offensively and defensively, throughout the starting lineup, senior running back Brandon Bolden assumed the first practice of spring would be sloppy. But after an enthusiastic opening day, Bolden was pleasantly surprised.
"They didn't let me down," he said.
Bolden saw glimpses of a renewed work ethic in the off-season, when "everybody kind of busted their butt," according to Bolden, in the weight room and in the strength and conditioning program. Monday, Ole Miss brought it to the field.
"I think the first day was actually pretty good," he said. "It was real aggressive. Everybody's ready to hit somebody because we've been off for a very long time without a bowl game this past season. Everybody's ready to get back to it. Everybody did a real great job, effort-wise, getting to the ball. Guys flying to the ball, guys catching the ball, running the ball, everything."