Playing in his second all-star game of the prep postseason, Mr. Tennessee Football Award winner Austin Sanders is currently on the California State-Fullerton University campus preparing for Friday night’s nationally televised game, supported by the United States Marine Corps.
The 6-foot-6, 300-pound offensive tackle helped lead the East Team to a record-setting 41-20 victory in the sixth annual Toyota East-West All-Star Classic in a statewide game at Tennessee Tech back in early December.
One of 100 players from across the nation to be chosen to participate in this year’s Semper Fidelis Bowl, Sanders and Memphis Central wide receiver Latevius Rayford are the only two participants from the Volunteer State.
“It’s a great honor to be chosen to play in a game like this,” commented Sanders, who was also invited to play in the U.S. Army All-American Game. “I never expected to get this kind of opportunity.”
Unexpected accolades and honors have continually surrounded the very unassuming and humble young man, who became the first player in University of Tennessee football history to be offered a scholarship before his junior high school season.
The Vols first took note of Sanders while scouting former Bear and current Naval Academy wide receiver James Stovall. Bradley head coach Damon Floyd asked them to take a look at Sanders, who was just a sophomore at the time, on the films.
“They invited me to come up to a camp (in the summer of 2011) and had me working out with guys who were seniors, and I was beating them,” Sanders recalled. “I began to realize then that I might have a chance of playing college ball.”
The Tennessee coaches invited Sanders, who was just 6-foot-3, 280 pounds at the time, to come back for another workout, after which they sent him to see then-head coach Derrick Dooley.
“He offered me a scholarship. I didn’t know at the time I was the first junior they’d ever offered. All I knew is it was a dream come true,” he stated. “I was 16. It was hard to believe. I was excited. I told him I had to make sure it was all right with my parents. They were thrilled.
“Right after that Alabama and the other schools starting calling and coming around,” Sanders related. “I visited Vanderbilt and Alabama, but Tennessee is where I want to be.”
Just before and after Dooley was fired in November, the two-time all-state blocker received numerous calls from other major college programs trying to woo him away from his Knoxville commitment, but the lifelong Big Orange fan told them he was going to stick with his decision and is looking forward to playing for new coach Butch Jones.
Although he played some defensive tackle, the three-year starter was a mainstay on Bradley’s offensive line, grading out at 91 percent with 47 pancake blocks this past 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."
Sanders and the other players traveling to Los Angeles for the Semper Fidelis Bowl arrived Sunday, with the East Team traveling to Cal State Fullerton for the weeklong preparation, while the West Team used the facilities at Santa Ana Stadium.
The game will air on the NFL Network from the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., showcasing student athletes who embody the Marine Corps values of honor, courage and commitment.
According to the game’s website, The Semper Fidelis Football Program includes a series of youth football camps, an All-American Selection tour and the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl to collectively celebrate academic excellence, proven physical fitness and quality of character in the next generation of our nation’s leaders.
The inaugural game was held in Phoenix, at Chase Field last January. In a closely contested game, the West defeated the East 17-14 and wide receiver Jaydon Mickens, a Los Angeles native playing for the West squad and now enrolled at the University of Washington, was named MVP.
Last year’s game featured the top high school players in the nation from the 2011 graduating class, with many already making an immediate impact on their college teams including: Wes Lunt (Oklahoma State), Bryce Treggs (California), DJ Foster (Arizona State), Malin Jones (Northwestern), Todd Gurley (Georgia) and Nick Patti (Boise State).
“We believe this game is different for many great reasons, but being able to identify college ready student athletes is a key ingredient for what makes this game so special,” stated Shaon Berry, Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl founder and JuniorRank Sports president on the game’s website. “Players across the nation have an opportunity to have standout senior seasons and earn their way onto the playing field beyond media hype and Internet analysis. These guys are immediate impact guys; they are the real deal.”
The Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl is designed to be different than other such contests. The players selected to represent the eastern and western halves of the country are chosen not only because they are among the most talented players in the nation, but also because they bring something more to the game, organizers said.
“The commitment these players have demonstrated to their education, the leadership they have shown in their school and community, and the courage they have displayed in choosing a positive life path makes them an inspiration and worthy to be seen on a national stage,” stated Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, commanding general, MCRC, on the website. “The title Marine is ‘Earned, Never Given.’ There are thousands of skilled football players in the country we could select to play in our Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, but we are only offering this opportunity to the best players with high moral character who demonstrate leadership in all aspects of their lives.”
Along with the daily team meetings and practices, the players were also treated to a special New Year’s Eve activity, as well as a tour of the Knott’s Berry Farm facilities on New Year’s Day. Wednesday evening the players participated in a community service activity and tonight will be treated to a special banquet to celebrate the bowl participants.
This is the second straight year a local standout has participated in the game, as former Cleveland High long snapper Camden Bell played in last year’s contest.
Former Blue Raider and current University of Pittsburgh quarterback Chad Voytik traveled to San Antonio for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl last year, as well as being selected to play for the U.S. Under-19 national team in the International Bowl.