After coming to West Virginia with foot-long dreadlocks and football dreams of being the next feature runner, Sanders is embracing his new role as another slash in the Mountaineers' spread. The running back – WVU will no longer use the Rich Rodriguez-coined ‘superback' designation – turned slot wideout will have increased opportunities even with decreased flair. Sanders traded his dreadlocks for a clean-cut, military style look that makes him a mirror image of tailback Noel Devine.
"It was getting hot under that helmet," Sanders said. Quite a retort for a runner from St. Petersburg, Fla. The jitterbug of a back has taken to the wideout position, mainly because new offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen knows it's the best way to get a skill player in the open field. There will be no stretch reads, no need to bust through holes, then bypass ‘backers. It's a quick flip from Patrick White, a mismatch here and a vertical burst there, and Sanders is seeing green.
The tactics largely failed last year – even Darius Reynaud was cooked by a combination of linebackers creeping up and a passing draught that resembled the Phoenix surroundings in which it was quenched. But now, with Mullen and head coach Bill Stewart quoting change as often as Barack Obama, it seems West Virginia is serious about moving the football in any way possible. And that means a serious run – or pass – at titles.
That fits the 5-7, 174-pound Sanders fine. He carried 16 times for 105 yards and two scores last year as a freshman while catching 12 passes for 102 yards. Those numerics should significantly increase barring injury, especially with the skill set of a backfield some are calling the finest in college football.
"With our running game, the linebackers are always going to come up with the flow," Sanders said. "And Pat White's back there. It should be easy to get open behind the linebackers."
The difficult portions now are getting off the line efficiently and settling in the correct areas, meaning behind the linebackers and in front of the secondary. Route running will be of increased importance, with White having more options within the game. All four wideouts will have different route designations, something West Virginia largely avoided under the former staff. That gives a defense more to cover, but places increased mental strain on the Mountaineer offense. When it's clicking, it's like a grandmaster manipulating the chess board. When it's not, it closer resembles a checkers match between eight year olds.
"We are always passing in drills, so we're getting better," Sanders said. "And I learned both (running back and receiver) so I know it so well that it's not a problem. My main focus now is learning to read defenses."
Sanders and the rest of the receivers are working with White and backup quarterback Jarrett Brown in seven-on-seven drills, the best practice and showcase of raw passing abilities. Their first foray into the total Mullen package comes at the start of fall drills, just a week away. If Mullen can morph his charges into the tuned machine he had at Wake Forest, there won't be a defense answer for West Virginia's arsenal. And Sanders could be an main feature in just his second season.