HOOVER, Ala. -- Ace Sanders didn’t always want to be the guy.
As a kid, he wanted to take things away from the guy. He wanted to be the one who ruined things for the offensive guy and stopped the best players.
That was until tackling became harder and more painful as he got older and everyone around him got bigger. Then, he was all about making plays and having the glory as a highlight reel-making wide receiver.
Now, he has as big a chance as ever, as he steps into the go-to role at South Carolina.
“The coaches handed the reins over to me,” Sanders said at SEC media days Tuesday. “I look over the group to make sure they know where they’re going. I have to make sure they’re on the same level as me.”
With former All-SEC stud Alshon Jeffery now in the NFL, Sanders has been left to oversee a very unproven wide receiver group in Columbia, S.C. More importantly, he has no choice but to be the guy, as he returns as the Gamecocks’ only receiving threat with 20 or more catches from last season (29).
Coach Steve Spurrier wants to air it out more this year, but he has to find more reliable receiving targets for quarterback Connor Shaw.
Sanders' numbers don’t scream “superstar,” but those around Sanders believe he’s primed for a true breakout season in 2012.
Senior safety D.J. Swearinger said Sanders has been a pain to guard because of his speed and elusiveness. The moves he can make and the separation he gets have left plenty of his defensive teammates frustrated and dizzy during practices.
“Off the line, he’s probably the quickest I’ve very seen,” Swearinger said. “A lot of people say he’s short, but he’s quick. A lot of people think he’s just quick, but he’s also fast -- he runs a 4.3 [40-yard-dash]. He’s a very quick receiver that a lot of nickels and safeties are going to have a lot of trouble with this year.”
For Sanders, who barely stands 5-foot-8 and weighs just 180 pounds, he says he’s going to have to increase his physicality this year. Growing up in south Florida, Sanders never had to worry about his size much because the talent around him was never all that big. In fact, his speed usually made him the more imposing player when he was younger.
“I kind of intimidated guys more than they intimidated me, so I got used to getting to the bigger guys when I got in college,” he said.
But when he was introduced to the SEC, he received a rude awakening.
“My freshman year, I’m lined up in the slot and I got [Dont’a] Hightower from Alabama over top of me and Courtney Upshaw over the middle, and I’m like, ‘These are the guys you want me to block as a freshman? You want me to block these guys?’” he said. “I had to get back in the weight room and hold my ground for a little bit.”
Sanders added 20 pounds and now sits in a position to scare counterparts this fall. Barely recruited by in-state powers Florida and Florida State, the Bradenton, Fla., native is ready to really make a name for himself this fall and he’s ready to help guide South Carolina’s offense.
“Ace has developed into a real top-flight receiver,” Spurrier said. “Of course, he’s always been pretty good. He’s going to have a good year.”
South Carolina will need him to.