'He’s a generational player': Sanders primed to prove himself

By: Scottie Bordelon Scottie Bordelon's Twitter account
Published: Friday, September 2, 2022
Arkansas junior Drew Sanders (42) playing linebacker on Saturday, April 16, 2022, inside Walker Pavilion in Fayetteville.
( David Beach )
Arkansas junior Drew Sanders (42) playing linebacker on Saturday, April 16, 2022, inside Walker Pavilion in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Exotic and sophisticated offenses complete with intricate bells and whistles have become commonplace at nearly every level of football.

But you can still find coaching minds who subscribe to the thought that beauty lies in simplicity. Denton (Texas) Ryan football coach Dave Henigan fits that bill.

In a June 2019 article centered on Alabama’s class of committed linebackers, 247Sports national recruiting director Steve Wiltfong paid Henigan a compliment for his in-game management of one of the nation’s top athletes, Drew Sanders.

“I love that his high school coach doesn’t get cute or overthink it,” Wiltfong said. “They just snap him the damn ball. They put him in every pivotal position to make plays and he goes out and does it.”

For Henigan, there was nothing complex about it. Expending energy debating whether or not a premier talent should consistently touch the ball on offense was needless, especially with Sanders.

“We didn’t want him to go out there and get tired. He played receiver,” Henigan said. “But to guarantee you’d get the ball to him, we just snapped it to him. We just had a variety of things for him, nothing complicated. We had some passes out of it, as well.

“Really, it was snap it to him with some misdirection with Billy Bowman, who starts at (Oklahoma), and one of those two guys was going to get the ball. It’s not too complicated. It’s players, not plays.”

In his final two seasons at Denton Ryan, Sanders accounted for 24 rushing touchdowns, 15 touchdowns as a receiver and 8 touchdowns as a passer. In his career, he was responsible for 58 offensive touchdowns.

But that tells only part of the story.

Lining up primarily at end and linebacker, he was just as dominant — maybe more — defensively. As a junior, 97 of his 119 total tackles were solo stops.

Sanders added 10 tackles for loss, 8 sacks and 3 interceptions, and he returned 2 of the picks for touchdowns.

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“We’re fortunate here, but really he’s a generational player,” Henigan said. “He did a little bit of everything, to be honest with you — just a real Swiss Army knife kind of guy that you could do anything with. He was great to coach. Very coachable, hard worker, a leader, physical on the field, played hard.

“I mean, all the things you want to coach, Drew has all those things.”

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman and the Razorbacks are confident the qualities that made Sanders a composite 5-star recruit and the top-ranked athlete nationally by 247Sports will show up on Saturdays this fall following a stint at Alabama. With the Crimson Tide, he received special teams snaps and made several starts on defense, but was hampered by an injury.

Interestingly enough, he earned internal special teams player of the week honors after victories over Arkansas in 2020 and Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff semifinal last December.

“He’s a fine young man,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Wednesday. “Really good football player. He played extremely well for us last year. He had an unfortunate injury that held him back. He probably would have been a starter here this year.

“I’m sure he’s probably going to play really well where he is there at Arkansas. He’s a great competitor, good person. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

Sanders was a spring-time standout and looked to be an ideal running mate for super-senior linebacker Bumper Pool, who recorded 125 tackles a season ago.

His top moment thus far as a Razorback came in the team’s spring showcase on April 16. Stationed at linebacker, Sanders beat a sprinting Malik Hornsby, by all accounts one of the fastest players on the roster, to the sideline on a scramble. Pittman characterized the play as “a wild deal for me.”

Sanders played four positions at Ryan, but Henigan enjoyed watching him most at linebacker, where he is a projected Week 1 starter against Cincinnati. Asked what made Sanders a unique defensive player at the prep level, Henigan rattled off five qualities in rapid succession, including football savvy, IQ and physicality.

“Drew is a specimen, first of all,” he said. “He’s got a leadership quality about him, and he can run sideline to sideline. He’s physical. He’s as physical of a kid as I’ve ever been around in high school. He’ll fill it up, and at that position you have to.

“You combine that with the fact that he’s as big as he is, particularly in high school, there’s some collisions that are happening.”

Sanders was a weight room junkie in high school. Henigan said his star was a regular and routinely dropped in on days off. He estimates Sanders was a 300-plus-pound power cleaner, 500-plus squatter and put up 300-plus on bench press.

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“That’s really strong in high school,” Henigan said. “Freakishly strong, freakishly hard worker. People don’t understand how hard he works, I don’t think, unless they’re behind the scenes. He is an unbelievably hard worker.

“Physically, he’s gifted, obviously, but he’s really put in the time to make himself successful from a physical standpoint, a nutritional standpoint, the mental part of it. Really, he puts in a lot of work to be successful.”

Once committed to Oklahoma, Sanders signed with the Crimson Tide over offers from name-brand programs such as LSU, Georgia, Notre Dame and Oregon. He grew up in Oregon before moving to Texas.

He knew what he was looking for when in the NCAA transfer portal after last season: A school closer to home, in the SEC footprint and a scheme that would allow him to play with his hand on the ground less often.

Arkansas, he said in the spring, was at the top of his list. Henigan and Pittman are both of the belief that Sanders is eager to prove himself this season.

“He’s ready,” Pittman said. “He’s just never really played inside the box much. In college, he’s been an edge guy, so obviously he’s taken a lot of reps inside. We feel like he’s ready.

“I’m sure he is ready. I look for him to have a really good game.”

Henigan remembers clearly his first impression of Sanders. He was a quiet kid who opened up and made you laugh once you got to know him. With a helmet on, it was evident that Sanders wasn’t just another player.

Pittman and Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell are expecting Saturday’s season opener to be tough, nasty and physical. For Sanders, it sounds like an ideal setting to leave a positive first mark with the Razorbacks.

“I think his days on offense are over,” Henigan said with a laugh. “But I think if he stays healthy he’ll have a shot to play in the NFL, absolutely. I don’t have any doubt he’s going to be a great one.

“I’ve been around some guys that have played in the NFL, coached some guys, but he’s different. The combination of size and speed and strength, particularly in high school, I’ve not seen many guys like that.”


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