Ace Sanders used to hear he was too small.
Now many of those naysayers are saying he is too much.
At 5-foot-8, Sanders is about the same height he was at Manatee High when he signed to play for the University of South Carolina three years ago.
His lack of size frightened away many college scouts, despite Sanders' array of talent. They said he was too small to play football with the big boys, especially as a receiver at South Carolina under Ol' Ball Coach Steve Spurrier.
Now a junior, Sanders proved his critics wrong.
His punt return heroics have been flashed across the nation by all the major networks, and commentators talk about Ace as a household name.
Anyone have an Ace up their sleeve on the next punt return?
"I don't think height plays too much of a role in playing receiver. We can do stuff that taller guys can't," Sanders said Wednesday from South Carolina. "We can make cuts and moves and get in and out
of breaks quicker. But I don't have anything to prove to anybody. My dad says, 'Just do what you do.'"
What Sanders has done is become arguably the most electrifying punt returner in the country. He has become a regular on the ESPN Saturday night highlight reels, and his name is spreading like wildfire across the nation.
It's different when he is out of uniform, and Sanders likes it that way.
When he walks around the South Carolina campus, most people don't realize he plays football. But when he trots on the field wearing his No. 1 jersey with his Bob Marley-like dreadlocks, the punt returner extraordinaire takes on celebrity status.
"I get that double look when I am on campus. Most people look at me and figure I am not a football player, 'But, hey where have I seen you.' I like it that way. Growing up, I never wanted to be in the spotlight; that's not me," Sanders said.
The junior is the little engine that could. His punt returns are like a magic potion that pumps adrenaline into his teammates.
When he was a freshman, Sanders asked about returning punts. He remembers being told that you had to be a little crazy to do it.
USC special teams' coordinator Joe Robinson, who had big success working in the same capacity at LSU, marvels at Sanders and says he has all the attributes necessary to be a great punt returner.
"He is a courageous young man, who can do some special things," Robinson said.
Sanders says you need confidence in yourself and faith that your teammates will block. After doing it for awhile he understands why you might have to be little out of your head to like catching footballs with 300 pound behemoths racing to tear into you.
"You have to be a little crazy to do this. You don't know who is coming at you when you are getting ready to catch a ball," Sanders said. "Returning punts really starts in the film room. I watch for the player on special teams who goes at it 100 percent, and when the punt goes up my eyes go on him to see if he is blocked."
Sanders said he hasn't seen enough film on Florida's punt return defense to determine who that person is for the Gators. But he has seen true freshman Brian Poole, the heralded Southeast High product, playing punt return defense.
"Yeah, we might be going against each other. Now that would be interesting," Sanders said. "We keep in touch through the social media congratulating each other when we play well."
Manatee head football coach Joe Kinnan remembers some colleges backed away from Sanders because of his size, but others saw potential greatness. One was Spurrier.
"If you are good enough, you are not too short," Kinnan said. "He was a great player for us, started as a freshman and was our backup quarterback for awhile. We used to do these open field tackle drills on Mondays, and he was a guy no one got a hand on in four years."
Heading into the Gamecocks' big game this Saturday at Florida (ranked No. 2 in the BCS), Sanders is second nationally in total punt return yardage with 313 and fourth in yards per return (17.39). He needs 49 yards to break the South Carolina single-season punt return record.
"It is on my mind, but I won't be thinking about it. I am more concerned about fielding the ball. If I get it, I get it," he said. "When I am back there waiting to catch the ball, I am checking out the defense and locating the ball. You have a split second to see who is closing in on you, and then it's off to the races."
He is electrifying, a lightning rod that ignites a South Carolina team that won its first six games until losing at LSU last week.
"Ace is quick. He is fast. He can get open," Spurrier said. "We are still a work in progress on offense, trying to make sure we get the ball into our playmakers' hands. Ace is a playmaker."
Sanders employs every piece of knowledge he can summon going back to grade school when he learned the fastest way to get from point A to point B is in a straight line.
"It's better to go north-south than east-west. You go east-west, and you are going to run into some fast dudes," Sanders said.
Sanders returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown against Georgia and was named the NCAA Special Teams Player of the Week. He also has four touchdown receptions and threw a touchdown pass against East Carolina.
South Carolina was seventh in the BCS rankings that came out Sunday, the day after the Gamecocks lost to LSU.
"It's definitely a must win," Sanders said of Saturday's game in Gainesville, to be nationally televised at 3:30 p.m. on CBS. "It's going to be hostile environment and real loud with everyone wearing all that blue. We just have to come and play our game."