April 15, 2011 9:42:00 AM
This is where Vincent Sanders wants to be.
Right here, in the University of Mississippi football team''s huddle. Jogging to the line. Sprinting down field, reading the defense. Finding an opening near the sideline. His eyes following the football to his hands as he fights off double coverage to make a leaping grab, placing him one catch closer to becoming the consistent, big-play receiver the Rebels lacked one season earlier while he redshirted.
"I feel like if they ask me to go out there and make a play, I''d be able to do it," Sanders said.
In this, his latest and greatest opportunity to compete for a starting job, Sanders, a product of Noxubee County High School, already has learned a key to competing in the Southeastern Conference: Confidence. If you don''t think you can do it, nobody else will, so take advantage of every snap and transform it into another chance to impress. Be accountable. Energetic. Go to class. Be on time, do what''s asked of you.
Treat Saturday''s spring game -- which he will start -- like the 2011 season opener against Brigham Young.
That''s why Sanders moves through spring drills with a confidence, not cockiness, that will serve him as he attempts to reach -- make that surpass -- many of the goals he set when he arrived in Oxford as one of the highest-touted prep receivers in the nation.
His development has been swift this spring after spending last season on the scout team. So far, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt is impressed.
"He has a tremendous vertical jump," Nutt said, emphasizing Sanders'' leaping ability as he recounts moments he has witnessed this spring.
"He can go up and catch the ball in the crowd, and he''s been making plays for us, very consistently, throughout the spring, so we''re expecting really big things from him."
This comes eight months after Sanders arrived on campus as SuperPrep''s top-rated high school football player in Mississippi in 2009, as well as the No. 14 receiver recruit in the nation. Dandy Dozen and Top 10 Most Wanted honors highlighted his senior season at Noxubee County High.
"I know there are a lot of people who expect a lot out of me," Sanders said, counting himself. "I want to get to the NFL."
Sanders is competing with Melvin Harris, a 6-foot-7 target, for playing time. Harris, who will be a junior, started four games last fall and had 30 catches for 408 yards (408). He also tied for second in receiving touchdowns (three).
But for all of Harris'' heroics, Nutt was unimpressed with the overall play of the receivers. The passing offense ranked near the bottom of the SEC, averaging 192.2 yards a game (eighth). The Rebels converted just 34.3 percent of their third downs (11th in the conference).
Sanders wants to help Ole Miss accomplish more -- much more.
"He''s in a neck-and-neck battle with Melvin Harris," said Columbus native Gunter Brewer, the Rebels'' first-year passing game coordinator and receivers coach. "You could put either one at the top of the list."
Barring injury, both will earn significant playing time in the fall. It''s just a matter of who will start.
"They''re very pleased with Vincent Sanders and the progress he''s made from last year to this year," said Stan Sandroni, who has covered the Rebels for 23 years for WQLJ-FM in Oxford (Ole Miss Radio Network). "He''s still got a ways to go, but he''s got an opportunity to play."
Skills to make a contribution
At 6-1, Sanders is tall enough to bully a smaller cornerback and get off the line. He has the long arms to keep a defender away from his body and what Brewer called, "long speed," which allows him to catch up to long passes. Sanders isn''t afraid to come across the middle, and he has shown a willingness to block, although he needs to continue to tweak his technique and his hand-eye coordination. Both skills are there. He just needs to refine them.
"He just needs to smooth the edges out and get to a point where he''s comfortable in his skin," Brewer said. "Playing and reacting versus thinking and learning."
Sanders is still working to improve his route running and understanding of coverages, especially when it comes to changing routes on the run. Two years earlier, it merited less importance. Any route, no matter how crisp or rounded he ran in high school, Sanders had the athletic ability to score.
In the SEC, the talent lines are more evenly drawn.
"It sounds easy, but its hard," Sanders said of running full speed, 20 yards down the field, then maintaining that speed while cutting. "That''s been the hardest thing for me so far."
With extra snaps comes the pressure to learn the Pro Style offense to the extent where he understands alignments and knows where he has to be on every snap. It''s something he said he struggles with on some days and on others, he excels.
But he wants the chance to prove he deserves the hype.
"The spring is the most important thing for me," he said. "It''s an opportunity to show people I''m able to make plays."
1. Second-quarter defensive surge lifts No. 4 MSU COLLEGE SPORTS
2. Vivians finds rhythm in second quarter for Bulldogs COLLEGE SPORTS
3. MSU men will try to end losing skid COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Maturation continues for Columbus High's White HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS