“He’s a great player, but a better person,” proclaimed Bear head coach Damon Floyd after Sanders was named the Tennessee Titans’ Division I, Class AAA Lineman of the Year at the TSSAA awards luncheon Monday in Murfreesboro.
“He has always had a lot of natural ability, but he’s reaping the rewards of all the hours of hard work he has put in to become the best player he could be,” the coach praised. “This is not only a great honor for him, but for the whole Bradley Central athletic program.”
“Winning was a big surprise. After seeing the competition, I didn’t figure I had a chance,” declared Sanders. “When he (Mike Keith, the voice of the Tennessee Titans) called my name all I heard was ‘The winner is Aus...’ I didn’t hear the rest of my name. I said, ‘Did I just win?’ It’s awesome to know I'm the first from the program, and that I'll be a part of Bradley history," he added. “I’m excited for my family and the school.”
The 6-foot-6, 300-pounder, who has committed to play at the University of Tennessee, was chosen for the award by a panel of sportswriters from across the state, outdistancing fellow finalist Frank Herron, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end who has verbally committed to LSU, and Brentwood’s Logan Teichmann, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound offensive tackle who plans to play for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Although he played some defensive tackle, the three-year starter was a mainstay at offensive tackle, grading out at 91 percent with 47 pancake blocks last season to help the Bears to their third straight TSSAA playoff appearance.
Ranked as the No. 8 prospect in the state by both ESPN RecruitingNation and Rivals.com, Sanders is known for his physical strength, squatting 510 pounds, with a 375-pound bench press and a 315 clean-and-jerk. With 5.5 speed in the 40-yard dash, Sanders is also ranked 26th nationally among offensive tackles.
"Austin is very special. He’s without a doubt the best offensive lineman I have coached," commented coach Floyd. "He is not only a great player, but he is one of the most humble people you’ll meet. He has great character. Austin has put in the time it takes to be a excellent player."
When he committed to play for the University of Tennessee in August 2011, Sanders became the first player in Vol history to be offered a scholarship before playing his high school junior season.
Despite the recent firing of head coach Derek Dooley, Sanders has reaffirmed his commitment to play at Tennessee.
“Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and a lot of others have called asking me to come play for them,” he related. “I told them I didn’t commit to the coach. I committed to the Vols. I grew up wanting to play there, so why would I go anywhere else?”
Since the TSSAA began the Mr. Tennessee Awards in 1985, Sanders is just the second Bradley player to be nominated and the first to win. Although he rushed for more than 2,500 yards, Bear standout Blake Morris was a 2000 finalist in the lineman category because of his defensive prowess at linebacker.
Bradley Central has had two players named Miss and Mr. Tennessee Basketball — Brittany Jackson in 2001 and Josh Hare in 2000.
Sanders became the first area Mr. Football winner since Ooltewah standout and current Vol Jacques Smith was the Lineman of the Year in 2008 and ’09.
Polk County’s Mike Hammons won the kicker award in 2007, while Jacques McClendon, who was from Cleveland but played at the Baylor School in Chattanooga, won in 2005.
Cleveland High has had three winners of the award, including two in one year when Stephon Woods and Eric Stout were named the Class 4A Back and Lineman of the Year respectively in 1996. Former Blue Raider Demetrius Fields won the same award for backs in 1999. CHS basketball standout Vincent Yarbrough won the Mr. Tennessee Basketball award in 1998.
Sanders was the only one of five Chattanooga area finalists this year to bring home the top prize.
Other Southeast Tennessee nominees were Malik Brewer, from Boyd-Buchanan; South Pittsburg’s Demetric Johnson; 6-foot-9, 290-pound Brandon Walters of Howard; and Baylor kicker Rafael Gaglianone.
The Mr. Tennessee award isn’t the first honor to come Sanders’ way this postseason. He has also been chosen to play in the 2013 Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl. Sponsored by the United States Marines, the nationally televised game, which features the nation’s best and brightest high school football players, will take place at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., on Jan. 4.
Although he’s had several other invites to play in all-star type games, the only other one Sanders has decided to participate in is the Toyota East-West Game set for Dec. 8 at Tennessee Tech. The two-time All-State selection chose to participate in that tilt because it will give him one more opportunity to play for coach Floyd, who is helping to coach the East squad.
“I really appreciate all that coach Floyd and Bradley have done for me,” Sanders commented. “It’s been awesome to be a part of the Bear program and this (the award) is a great way to cap off my career.”