TAMPA -- The last time Ace Sanders played a football game in the state of Florida, it was a painful experience.
The South Carolina receiver saw his team's national title hopes vanish when it committed three first-half turnovers that led to a 44-11 drubbing administered by Florida.
Sanders and his teammates have returned to the Sunshine State and will take on Michigan in the Outback Bowl on Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium.
The stakes are not the same, but the former Manatee High standout says emotions will be just as high.
Redemption can do that, according to Sanders.
"We've come back to Florida to save face, handle business and get 11 wins," Sanders said late last week while his Gamecocks (10-2) were practicing at Tampa Jefferson High. "We have a 24-hour rule, but it took me a lot longer than 24 hours to get over the Florida game. It changed a lot of the season for us."
Sanders fumbled a punt, and the turnover led to a score for Florida. But the junior has been near perfect since, finishing as the top punt returner in the SEC with 14.52 yards per return. His 363 punt return yards rank third nationally.
He has not fumbled since Florida and has had some big games, including a single-season-high six receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown and 30-yard punt return in South Carolina's regular season finale, a 27-17 victory over Clemson.
The 5-foot-8, 175-pounder gives credit to his dad, Manatee High defensive backs coach Tracy Sanders, for inspiring him to take better care of the ball. He was at the Florida game, and they had a good father-son talk afterward.
"He preached to me about ball security and reminded me how I always took care of the ball in high school. Since then, I've been trying to keep it high and tight and haven't had a turnover," Sanders said.
"It feels good to be home. It's my first time playing at Raymond James, which I always loved because it's where the Bucs play. I am hoping I can put on a show."
Sanders has done a lot more than just take care of the ball. He is one of the most explosive players in the nation and was named to the coaches All-SEC first team as a punt returner. He set the school's single-season record for punt return yards and had seven returns of 27 yards or more.
Steve Spurrier, in his seventh year as USC head coach, credits Sanders for adding a new dimension to the program. The Gamecocks had not had a punt returned for a touchdown since 2003 until Sanders took one 68 yards for a touchdown last season against East Carolina.
"We hadn't done much with special teams since I've been here until Ace," Spurrier said. "He had a big return against Missouri, ran one back against Georgia and broke one a little bit against Clemson."
Sanders' role has evolved. As USC's most experienced receiver, he is asked advice by younger players.
"Time has gone by so fast. You don't realize it until it happens, but now I am the oldest of the group," Sanders said. "I've got people coming up to me and asking questions like what is going on and what should I do. When my former teammates left, they said they needed me to take over. I felt like I had no choice, but I like being a leader."
Sanders is more than just an elder statesman, according to Gamecocks co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., the head coach's son.
"Returning punts requires a lot of courage. You have to learn that, and he has done that," Spurrier Jr. said. "He plays receiver with more courage than he used to in the past. Ace is also a real intelligent kid. He is fast, quick and has gotten stronger, which has helped him in returning punts. He is playing at an extremely high level right now."
South Carolina's receiving corps has come under scrutiny because it is basically a small group. Among the four leading wide receivers, three are 5-foot-9, and then there is Sanders an inch shorter.
"We have a bunch of little guys, but they can play," head coach Spurrier said. "We haven't thrown a lot of fade routes at the goal line because it is not the best play for short guys. But they are good players. They are quick and know how to get open, so we haven't paid much attention to height."
The head coach's son said smaller receivers, particularly the ones South Carolina has, present a set of problems that a lot of defenses struggle with.
"The smaller guys can get in and out of cuts quicker and move faster than the big guys," Spurrier Jr. said. "Ace does a very good job working his feet and hands and getting off people and separating. I know he is playing in front of his hometown fans. You never know how that is going turn out, but I always expect big things from him."
Sanders has put in the paperwork to make himself eligible for the NFL draft this spring, but says for now he is just concentrating on the Michigan game.
"A lot of guys do that, but Ace is a good one," the elder Spurrier said.