Ace Sanders struggled as he tried to pick up the Outback Bowl MVP trophy he had just won. It was understandable. He had just spent 60 minutes carrying the South Carolina football team on his 5-foot-7 frame and was a little spent.
Little is the word that Sanders has heard all his life. Too little to do this, too little to do that. It's why many of the so-called college football behemoths did not offer him a scholarship three years ago when he finished his career at Manatee.
It's a reason South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier was smiling Tuesday after his Gamecocks rallied to defeat Michigan 33-28 at Raymond James Stadium to give the Ole Ball coach his first Outback Bowl title.
"Ace was sensational. He's down here in Bradenton and you probably wonder how we got him away from Florida and Florida State," Spurrier said. "They passed on him, said he was too little, but he can play that's for sure. It was our good fortune that happened. We wanted him. He was playing here in front of his hometown folks and wanted to do well."
Sanders is usually the
smallest receiver on the field, but always capable of making the biggest impact. He gave the Wolverines a whole new set of nightmares to deal with as they head into the off-season.
He broke Michigan's spirit early when he returned a punt for a 63-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
"Those things hurt your football team, obviously it hurts momentum, morale and what you want to do," Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said.
At the time, Hoke couldn't have imagined what Sanders was going to do his Big Blue football team.
Michigan got back in the game and trailed 14-10 in the second quarter. But Sanders was just getting started. He caught a four-yard touchdown pass to push South Carolina's lead back to 11 points.
The Gamecocks fell behind 22-21 and then South Carolina's Mr. Little and Mr. Big delivered a double whammy.
USC's top pro prospect, 6-6, 256-pound Jadeveon Clowney, forced a fumble and recovered it. On the next play, Sanders zipped past three defenders, caught the ball and tap danced to stay in bounds at the back of the endzone.
It put South Carolina back on top 27-22, but then Sanders made his only mistake. He allowed his teammates to show their love by jumping all over him in a well-deserved celebration.
And wouldn't you know one of the Zebras flags him for being a kid.
"I had no idea why I got the flag or that I even got it until I got up," Sanders said. "I didn't know what was happening. My whole team ran up on top of me. I didn't know I got a flag. I asked the ref and they said it was for unsportsmanlike conduct."
But Sanders wasn't going to let the men in stripes stop him. The junior had a few more curtain calls to make.
Trailing 28-27, USC had a fourth and three from its own 37 with 1:30 left and if the Gamecocks couldn't get a first down the game was over. It didn't matter, quarterback Connor Shaw had an Ace up his sleeve and hit Sanders on a six-yard slant.
He caught three straight passes to keep the drive alive that ended on a game-winning touchdown reception by Bruce Ellington. Sanders finished with nine receptions for 92 yards and two touchdowns and had 66 yards on two punt returns.
His performance was reminiscent of Peter Warrick's 1999 Sugar Bowl game for FSU when the Southeast High product caught a TD pass and scored on a punt return.
But Sanders is making his own name for himself, especially when it comes to re-writing the South Carolina record books. His three TDs tied a Gamecock bowl record. He already has the single-season record for punt return yardage, which he upped to 429 and his punt return was the longest return by a South Carolina player in a bowl game.
"I came out wanting to put on a show, but at the same time I tried to be patient and let the game come to me. I found out when you press for stuff it doesn't play out the way you want it to," Sanders said. "We had been watching film on them all week and knew we could set something up (on the punt return). Once I saw Bruce Ellington and Brison Williams hold up the gunners there was nobody else down field."
Ever since 6-3, 216-pound Alshon Jeffrey left USC last year to join the Chicago Bears, Sanders and his receiving corps have been criticized and ridiculed to some extent because of their lack of size. Sanders says those critics don't understand the game.
"I felt it was more of an advantage for us being small," he said. "Like I've been saying the whole year it can get rough chasing a bunch of 5-8 guys around. We can run all day. Fatigue is not in our minds. So we just work real hard, make sure we catch every ball and run precise routes."
Sanders has put in his paper work for next spring's NFL draft. He sure didn't hurt himself today, but says he will address whether to leave school early for the pros with his family and coaches later on.