Starting from the square one, Sanders is working to become Texas’ next great receiver.
By Steve Habel
Kendall Sanders came to Texas without a position.
Yet he was smart enough and athletic enough to earn a starting spot at wide receiver in the second game of his sophomore season. By the Kansas State game, the Longhorns’ fourth of the season, Sanders had become more than a just the name on top of the Texas depth chart at “Z” receiver — he had become one of team’s main weapons.
For a player who barely played wide receiver in high school and knew little about the technique of the position before arriving to the 40 Acres, being in the spotlight may be overwhelming.
At Athens High School, the 6’0”, 187-pound Sanders garnered All-America, all-state, three-time all-area and three-time first-team all-district honors at multiple positions. He played in the 2012 U.S. Army All-American Bowl, recording a game-high two interceptions to earn defensive MVP honors.
Sanders played quarterback, running back and defensive back as a prep star and was recruited as a cornerback by just about every college that offered him a scholarship. Once he got to Austin, he asked the coaches where they needed him most and he ended up at wide receiver.
Catching the ball wasn’t a new thing for Sanders (he hauled in 58 receptions for 1,310 yards and 15 touchdowns in high school) but those all came on screens with him working as a running back.
“Even though I hadn’t played receiver before, I was determined to give my all to learning the position,” Sanders said. “It was a bit of a transition at first; I had to learn the fundamentals of the position, what I had to do, why was I running a particular route and why the receiver beside me was running his route.”
Sanders emulated Texas teammates Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley and took to heart the instruction provided by Darrell Wyatt, the Longhorns’ wide receivers’ coach and co-offensive coordinator.
“We knew Kendall has the speed and body control to be a great receiver. His work ethic and ability to understand and implement coaching placed him on the fast track for success,” Wyatt said. “Kendall gained confidence in the pre-league games and I know the quarterbacks have the confidence to throw the ball to him in any situation.”
The sophomore was also a standout in basketball and received offers to play hoops from several D-2 schools, but never considered them. On the court, his strength was driving into the paint and finding the open man for an assist. “The coaches were looking at some of my basketball skills and coach Wyatt was impressed enough to want me to play receiver. Now he’s making me the best I can be at the position,” he explained.
But even as Sanders played in 11 of the Longhorns’ 13 games and caught two passes for 15 yards as a freshman, he wasn’t sure if he would fit in at Texas.
“I didn’t know if I belonged here,” he said. “I remember last year, the first time I went in, I was nervous and didn’t know if I was ready. I feel more comfortable now. I looked at it all as a stage, just how I did in high school. As a freshman, you come in and build your way up to senior year. Then in college, you come in as a freshman and work your way back up.”
Sanders is clearly working his way up. He led Texas in all-purpose yards after the Longhorns’ first four games. He racked up a 51-yard kickoff return against Ole Miss and then hauled in a scintillating 63-yard touchdown pass from David Ash in Texas’s win against Kansas State.
“My hard work has started to show itself,” Sanders said. “I can get better with each aspect of the game. I try to act like a sponge and absorb the things coach Wyatt is telling me. Everything he tells me I try to put into action. I’m focusing a lot more, looking at more film and understanding how to prepare myself better.”
“I also listen to the veteran receivers, like Jaxon [Shipley] and Mike [Davis],” Sanders added. “They tell me to focus and to do what I do — obviously that’s worked out because I’m here and playing at the Texas.”
Sanders’ career at Texas almost got derailed when he was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated in the early morning hours of April 7. The incident humbled Sanders and he said he’s learned from his mistake.
“I was disappointed in myself. I let the team and my family down,” Sanders said. “Since then, I’m more mature. I don’t think about myself anymore and I’m not selfish.”
Sanders’ elusiveness, his long strides and his open-field speed immediately stand out when watching him in action. He can change direction on a dime, and his ability to evade tackles and move quickly to top speed have already left defenders grasping for air.
The Longhorns’ massive, 28-member 2012 signing class has already made significant contributions to Texas’ success in 2013. Just getting a chance to be on the field is a measure of accomplishment for the group; excelling from that pack shows a player’s real mettle.
“We all came here because we thought we could make a difference, and some of us are already getting the chance,” Sanders said. “It motivates us to have the competition every day. We have all been busting our tails and working hard to get better every practice and every game.”
Team insiders say Sanders might be the fastest player on the team but the receiver isn’t ready to make that declaration.
“I’m pretty fast — I don’t know my time anymore,” Sanders said. “Daje [Johnson] may be faster and there are a lot of quick ones, but I’m probably the second fastest.”
One thing is for sure. If you’re chasing Sanders you’re likely not going to catch him — a fact the Longhorns are taking to the bank for the next three seasons.
“Kendall is a guy with tremendous athleticism,” offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said. “He's got great ball skills, does a good job locating the balls with his eyes, and he’s a great hands-catcher, meaning he can catch the ball away from his body because of his arm length. More than anything, he's tough. He's a competitor and likes contact. He's earned the right to get involved.”