When Bill Stewart unveiled the official list which made up his first recruiting class all the way back in February, he offered comments on each of the names listed. One by one, he offered quick thoughts on each player. Once he got to the name of Florida native Robert Sands, though, Stewart went from happy to downright giddy.
"I do not believe what an athlete this young man is at 6-6 and 205 pounds," Stewart said at the time. "This guy has as bright a future as any young man that has been here in years. This kid can flat play."
So, despite being somewhat under-the-radar as a recruit, the first official words regarding Sands were nothing less than encouraging.
Fast forward several months, and Stewart has done anything but tone down his praise of Sands. In fact, through the first ten days of fall practice, the head coach and his staff have continued to talk up the 6-6, 205-pound free safety.
"He has really progressed, and he's a smart kid and a great athlete," said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. "We're really pleased with him. He has a lot of ability, but he's going to make a lot of mistakes as a young guy. But we're really pleased with him after our 10th or 11th practice. He's done a great job and showed up in the scrimmage."
If the season began today, there is little doubt that Sands would be one of a few newcomers who would be on the field in some capacity, be it defense or special teams. In practice, the rookie has seen reps at free safety with both the ones and twos, which would seem to indicate – at least for now – that the reputation which preceded him beginning with Stewart's signing day comments has been fulfilled.
With that in mind, Mountaineer fans might be wondering how in the world a safety with the ability – not to mention the physical attributes – of Sands ends up being plucked from the likes of his home-state Gators, ‘Noles, Hurricanes or Bulls?
The answer to that is two-fold.
First and foremost, there was Sands's existing relationship with Director of Recruiting John "Doc" Holliday, the former Mountaineer linebacker and coach whose most recent stint prior to heeding Stewart's homecoming invitation was as safeties coach for the aforementioned Gators.
When Holliday returned home, he kept the lines of communication with Sands open. So even though the Mountaineers were somewhat late in the game when it came to formally offering him, Sands still had something of a familiarity with the Blue and Gold just because of his bond with Holliday.
"Pretty much, I trusted Doc Holliday. He's a good person," My mom likes him too, and if my mom likes him then I've gotta like him."
The second – and final – selling point for Sands? West Virginia's 3-3-5 odd stack defense. The same defense which puts no less than three safeties on the field at one time, and the same scheme which depends on both the playmaking ability and football I.Q. of said safeties to reach maximum effectiveness.
"I like the defense," he explained. "It gives you a chance to do a lot of things out there on the field. It's a good defense and the coaches do a good job of coaching us on the defense. I like how they turn us loose to be free hitter sometimes, and sometimes you've got to cover."
According to his coaches, Sands has been quite receptive to their tutelage. The one thing they can't teach him, though, is something he already possesses: unique size in the defensive backfield.
"I'm listed at 6-6. It's really about 6-4-and a half. When they gave me that height, I think I had my hair twisted up," said the dreadlocked Floridian. "They gave me two inches."
All kidding aside, Sands's size does give him a leg (head?) up on those around him in the secondary, simply because he can see things that they often cannot.
"Most safeties can't see over the line when they're backpedaling, but I can see some stuff over the line," he said. "I have a good wingspan too, so I can get my hands on the ball more."
Combine that with his well-documented ability and thirst for improvement, it's easy to see why Sands has had Stewart excited literally from the moment he decided to play football at West Virginia.