Sanders returns to UT ... as an opponent

Each of the past 22 years, Randy Sanders has been involved in games at Neyland Stadium – first as a player, then as a coach. He'll be at Neyland Stadium again Saturday, but for the first time, he won't be on the Tennessee sideline and he won't be wearing orange.

Sanders' color of choice: Blue. His team: The Kentucky Wildcats.

His mission: To beat Tennessee.

That's right – to beat his alma mater. To beat the team where he served as a quarterback from 1984-88. To beat the team where he was a coach from 1988-2005.

He's never tried to do that before. He'll try Saturday, when he walks into Neyland Stadium and heads for the tunnel in the South end zone, not the North – when he heads for the West sideline, not the East.

``It'll be strange coming into the stadium and going into the visitor's locker room,'' Sanders said. ``The good thing is, I know where it's at.''

He'll see familiar faces, from ushers to security guards to the chain gang. Then, he'll see more familiar faces when the game starts, all those guys dressed in orange jerseys on the Tennessee sideline.

And he'll try to stay focused.

``You look forward to big games in that type atmosphere,'' Sanders said. ``That's the reason I've always coached and always loved playing in big SEC games on the road, where the crowd is really into it and it's loud. That's what you've dreamed of doing when you grow up playing in the backyard.''

A year ago this month, Sanders wasn't sure he wanted to continue the dream of coaching. He was in the midst of a miserable season as Tennessee's offensive coordinator, one season after his best.

Tennessee's offense was woeful. The Vols had a quarterback controversy. His kids were being taunted at school. The long hours were producing little results. So, he resigned after the South Carolina game as offensive coordinator, unsure if he wanted to wear a whistle again.

After some soul searching, he accepted an offer from Rich Brooks to coach quarterbacks at Kentucky. Brooks has consistently praised Sanders' coaching. If you want tangible results, look at quarterback Andre Woodson.

Last season, Woodson competed 57.7 percent of his passes for 1,644 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions. This season, he has completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,934 yards, 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Woodson leads the SEC in total offense, passing yards and touchdown passes.

Woodson has improved almost as much as Tennessee's Erik Ainge.

Sanders wasn't sure where Woodson was headed a few months ago.

``We had a talk back in summer, that at some point, he was going to have to really trust me and listen to me and try to do what I asked him to do,'' Sanders said. ``Let's try it my way. If it works, great. If it don't work, then, hey, you can go ahead and do it your own way. Fortunately for us, he took it to heart and he listened and he tried it and he found out maybe Coach Sanders knows what he's talking about.''

Sanders said it was evident Woodson had ability.

``It was there and it was ready to be tapped,'' Sanders said. ``Fortunately, it's come out for us this year. He's played very well and he's done what we've asked him to do. I'd like to think that some of what I've done has contributed to making him a better player, but he's still the one who goes out there and does it.''

Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who replaced Sanders on the UT staff, said he's not surprised Woodson is playing well for Sanders.

``He's done a tremendous job and I knew he would,'' Cutcliffe said of Sanders. ``He's been able to focus on the quarterback and give that young man some confidence. I'm excited for him. I think he's having fun coaching football. He's happy. When you talk about a deep friendship, that's really the bottom line -- you want your friends to be happy and Randy's happy.''

UT quarterback Erik Ainge is happy for his former coach.

``He's been doing a lot of great things for their offense and their quarterback this year,'' Ainge said. ``I've always had confidence in Coach Sanders and I've always loved him and how he's coached.''

Sanders got a lot of mileage out of Ainge as a freshman in 2004, but Ainge suffered though a horrible season in 2005. Ainge now is on top of his game, on pace to set a school record of completion percentage in a season.

Sanders said he's not surprised.

``There was no question he had tremendous ability and that he was a good quarterback and a good football player,'' Sanders said. ``A lot of things that happened last year, some of it was his fault, some of it wasn't his fault. There's no question it wasn't always handled the right way, not only by him but by a lot of us.''

Sanders said Ainge has been helped by a better supporting cast, particularly at receiver.

``I've said a million times, a quarterback is very dependent on other guys on the field and usually when the other guys are playing well, he's going to play pretty well,'' Sanders said.

As Sanders watches the game from the West sideline, you've got to think he might have his eyes on two players – his current quarterback and his former quarterback.

Probably nothing would please him more than a Kentucky with Woodson and Ainge playing well.

But regardless of the outcome, Sanders won't let his new team or his new venue get in the way of long lasting relationships.

``Just because I left doesn't mean the end of a lot of friendships,'' Sanders said. ``Tennessee will always be a special place. It's my alma mater. I cheer hard for Tennessee every week but one, and it just happens we're at the one.''

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