A Playmaker

Jock Sanders was considered a steal when recruited out of St. Petersburg Catholic High by West Virginia assistant Calvin Magee. In a few days, he'll try to prove that true.

Sanders, a 5-8, 180-pound athlete, played tailback, wide receiver and returned kicks, totally dismantling opposing prep defenses and tallying 2,800 yards and 43 touchdowns on the ground alone in his latter two seasons. Yet he was unable to grab the attention of major media outlets and recruiting services and his only BCS offers were from West Virginia and South Florida. Magee, to his credit, knew he had a find; Sanders would surely be overshadowed by some of the more sizeable runners in player-rich Florida. And even the ones more his physical stature – like Scout.com five-star back Noel Devine – were well beyond him in the reverence realm.

But Magee saw flashes of the same skill sets in both players: balance, vision, and explosion, albeit at a different rate. Devine is blessed with overall speed, running a freakish 4.35 in the 40-yard dash. Sanders runs a legit 4.5, which seems pedestrian in comparison. But the little back that could – and is – has a quicker first step and better initial burst. That fit WVU's spread offensive perfectly in a myriad of maxims.

And since Sanders' high school was already running it out of an I-formation set, Magee and head coach Rich Rodriguez simply sat back and enjoyed the show, sure they had the recruit as good as inked when their grant-in-aid offer was accepted on Sept. 5, 2006. Who would, the reasoning went, turn down a BCS player for an up-and-comer?

Sanders, though, had committed without even visiting Morgantown, largely because of then-receivers coach Butch Jones. When Jones left to take the head coaching job at Central Michigan and USF pulled an upset in Morgantown, Sanders and teammate Andrew Harris, another WVU recruit who is spending the 2007 season at Hargrave Military Academy, had second thoughts. Both eventually signed with West Virginia, Sanders having inked largely because of a visit during the home finale' against Rutgers, when the Mountaineers overcame the loss of starting quarterback Patrick White and iced a fourth consecutive New year's Day bowl bid with a triple-overtime win over the Scarlet Knights.

"I saw the excitement from the Rutgers game and I knew I wanted to come here," said Sanders, who at that time was getting a very late push from eventual national champion Florida. "I told myself I would have to adjust to the coolness."

Thus far, he's had nothing but heat thrown his way in a triage of positions in the quick-moving offense, multiple layers of terminology and the praise that Rodriguez and Magee keep tossing the rookie.

"Any time a true freshman can work into the two deep they have to learn things pretty quickly," Rodriguez said. "For us, they have to have talent, but also learn quick. Jock Sanders is explosive in the open field, and his quickness stood out when we watched him. You could see it. He has learned so much that it has been impressive."

Starting superback Steve Slaton, he of All-American fame, agreed. It took Slaton until five games into the 2005 season before he was inserted into the Mountaineer offense and splashed onto the national scene with a WVU single-season rushing record 1,733 yards last year. It might take Sanders all of five weeks.

"He is a shifty guy, him and Noel," Slaton said. "I think they will be a good one-two punch for when I come out, or just to put them in the game. I see (Sanders) as a slot threat at our H position. He is pretty good at that."

Sanders has learned three positions: running back, slot receiver and the rigors and regiments of returning kickoffs, an especially imperative part of the game now that NCAA rules have moved the tee point back to the 30-yard line. On Saturday, Rodriguez, Magee and Sanders will turn the entire package loose on a Western Michigan team that returns 17 starters, including three secondary players and the majority of a front seven that helped the Broncos rank 11th in total defense last season and score an upset of ACC foe Virginia.

"Playmakers like to get their hands on the ball, so that's what I want to do to help the team win," Sanders said. "But they have a good defense, good linebackers and a good secondary with all those guys coming back. They put a lot of pride in their secondary. We have our work cut out. We have to go out and execute."

For Sanders, that will come in front of the largest audience (the game is a sellout, with a crowd of 60,000 expected) before which he has ever played.

"I'll try not to be nervous, but I might be a wreck," Sanders said. "I hope I don't fall on the way out (of the tunnel). It was wild in high school. But it couldn't be any crazier than it is here, from what I have heard."

And that's just the beginning.

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