Manatee's Ace Sanders banking on Outback Bowl performance to make him early pick in NFL draft

Ex-Hurricane hopes to go early

adell@bradenton.comApril 26, 2013 

If Tracy Sanders had his way, he would be sitting by the television relaxing as he watched the NFL Draft unfold this week.

He thought that would be the case until his son, Ace, turned in one of the most electrifying performances in the history of the Outback Bowl in January.

That changed Ace's life.

The former Manatee High receiver had just finished his junior year at South Carolina and was considered one of the premier punt returners in the country. Now he was being talked about as an early-round draft pick.

Tracy Sanders was thinking about next season and how he would enjoy watching his son finish his career for the Gamecocks.

But Ace scuttled those plans at the Outback Bowl with three touchdowns, including a 63-yard punt return, to lead the Gamecocks over Michigan 33-28.

"After the bowl game, he

had all these people whispering in his ear. I wanted him to go back to school because it was less risky and get his degree," Tracy Sanders said.

Ace hedged. He was headed for class on the final day he could declare himself eligible for this year's draft, made a reverse and decided to put his future on the line.

"Ace had an exceptional game in the Outback Bowl, and he felt like maybe it was his time. He was as hot as he was going to be," South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said.

At 5-foot-8, 178 pounds, Ace Sanders has always heard his size was a disadvantage, going back to his days as an elite receiver for the Hurricanes. But he sees it as a plus.

"It can get rough chasing a bunch of 5-8 guys around. We can run all day. Fatigue is not on our minds. We catch every ball and run precise routes," Ace Sanders said before the Outback Bowl.

Ace Sanders researched his potential draft status before the bowl game and decided the time couldn't be better to come out.

"It's always been his dream to be a pro player and as a parent I am going to nurture my child's goals," Tracy Sanders said. "The bowl game was the clincher. When he decided to come out early, we were not excited. But once he made his decision, we decided as a family everybody has to be all in. We are hoping he gets an opportunity to play and that it's in the second round."

The NFL will hold rounds two and three Friday and finish up the seven-round draft on Saturday. It's a fluid draft. The consensus is that Sanders will go in the fourth round, but that could change for better or the worse.

"Ace has visited the Rams and Pittsburgh. He had conversations with Atlanta, Detroit and Tennessee. Baltimore and Houston visited him at school," Tracy Sanders said.

Tracy said his son didn't want to hold a draft party and will probably be in South Carolina for the next three days. Ace doesn't plan on watching the draft.

The St. Louis Rams could be his strongest suitor. After bringing him in for a workout, Rams head coach Jeff Fisher led a contingent back to South Carolina to see him again. The head coach rarely visits prospects, so it could indicate a high level of interest.

"The best thing Ace has heard is that he can play. His size has always been a negative. He really doesn't have a feel for what round he is going to be selected," Tracy Sanders said.

Tracy knows all about the disappointment that can come with a draft. After quarterbacking Manatee to a state championship and a perfect season in 1983, he played defensive back at Florida State.

He went undrafted, but signed a free-agent contract with Buffalo. A broken leg derailed his NFL plans, but he had a successful pro career with the Arena Football League's Tampa Bay Storm.

South Carolina receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said Ace Sanders can make it in the NFL and agrees that small stature can often be an advantage.

"The smaller guys can get in and out of cuts quicker and move faster than the big guys. Ace does a very good job working his feet and hands and getting off people and separating," Spurrier Jr. said.

The scouting reports on Ace Sanders are an interesting study. The 4.58-second 40-yard dash he ran at the NFL combine did not help his cause, but he is said to be quick rather than fast and is able to reach top speed quickly after the catch.

Reports say he doesn't have the frame or length to win the 50-50 balls, but he can make defenders miss in the open field and is good at settling into pockets and working against zone looks, similar to Wes Welker, another small receiver who is consider an elite pass catcher.

Perhaps the best thing said about Ace Sanders is that he is a "fearless" punt returner who makes opponents pay a heavy price for poor tackling and can accelerate out of cuts.

He showed no fear in declaring for the draft.

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