“I tried both basketball and baseball for a while, but as I got bigger, I wanted to try football,” the Bradley Central senior explained. “On the first hit in practice I knocked the other kid’s helmet off and I loved the game.”
Ten years later, the 6-foot-6, 300-pound 17-year-old is still dominating opponents to the point where he has been named as a finalist for the Tennessee Titans’ Mr. Tennessee Football Award.
“This (the nomination) was a big surprise,” declared Sanders, who became the first football player in University of Tennessee history to be offered a scholarship before his high school junior season, in the summer of 2011.
“This is a great honor. I never thought anything about ever being nominated for it,” he added. “My family is all excited. We, and my girlfriend’s family, are all planning on going over (to Murfreesboro) for it.” More than 600 people are expected for the awards luncheon at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center tomorrow.
Although he played some defensive tackle, the three-year starter at offensive tackle graded out at 91 percent and had 47 pancake blocks this past season while helping the Bears to their third straight TSSAA playoff appearance.
Rated by ESPN as the No. 8 prospect in the state, ESPN’s RecruitingNation says of him, “Sanders' strong suit is his upper body playing strength as a run blocker — he can maul and maneuver opponents with dominating hand strength. He has the size and athleticism for the offensive tackle position at the major level of competition.” With 5.5 speed in the 40-yard dash, Sanders is also ranked 26th nationally among offensive tackles.
“It’s nice to see his hard work and dedication pay off for him,” proclaimed Bradley head coach Damon Floyd. “He is such an humble kid. Although he’s gotten all this recognition and opportunities, he’s isn’t a bit cocky.
“With all the tradition and great players who have come through here, Austin is just the second Bradley player to ever be nominated for the (Mr. Tennessee Football) award (which dates back to 1985),” the coach commented. Despite rushing for more than 2,500 yards his senior season, former Bear standout Blake Morris was a 2000 finalist in the lineman category because of his defensive prowess at linebacker.
Sanders is one of three finalists in the Division I, Class AAA lineman category this year, along with Frank Herron of Memphis Central and Brentwood’s Logan Teichmann.
Herron is a 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end who has verbally committed to LSU, while Teichmann is a 6-foot-5, 280-pound offensive tackle who plans to play for UT-Chattanooga.
In 2009 Ooltewah lineman and current Vol Jacques Smith was the Lineman of the Year. The local area hasn’t had a Mr. Football winner since 2007 when Polk County’s Mike Hammons won the kicker award.
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. Former Blue Raider Demetrius Fields won the same award for backs in 1999.
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 Marine Corp, 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.
“I was also nominated for the U.S. Army All-American game, but I didn’t get my papers back in time,” Sanders related.
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. Being played Dec. 8 at Tennessee Tech, Sanders chose to participate because it would be an opportunity to play for coach Floyd one last time.
“I agreed to play in it because coach Floyd was coaching in it,” he related. “I’ve really enjoyed playing for him at Bradley. To get the chance to play one more game under him was something I’m glad to get the opportunity to do.”
Cleveland High linebacker David Morgan, plus McMinn County running back Kelvin Wells Jr. and defensive linemen Aaron Kimpson and Kalluante Hammonds are also on the East roster for the game.
Although Sanders made his commitment to play for Tennessee in August of 2011, he is still being continually wooed by other schools, especially with the recent firing of Vol head coach Derek Dooley.
“Alabama and Ohio State came down a couple of weeks ago. After coach Dooley got fired, they were two of about 10 schools that called me that day,” he related. The list of schools also contained Michigan and Ole Miss. He made a trip to Knoxville the day after Dooley was let go to confirm to the school he still wanted to be a Vol.
“I really like coach Dooley, but I told all of them I didn’t commit to the coach. I committed to Tennessee,” Sanders remarked. “That’s where I’ve always wanted to play. I’m excited about who the new coach may be. I think whoever comes in will probably keep (offensive line) coach (Sam) Pittman and (running backs) coach (Jay) Graham. That’s who I’ve been working with.
“The offense has been really good this year, especially the line,” he added. “I really like them (Pittman and Graham) and feel confident they will stay.”
Tennessee first took notice of Sanders while scouting former Bear wide receiver James Stovall. Coach 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 Vol coaches invited Sanders, who was just 6-foot-3, 280 at the time, to come back for another workout, after which they sent him to see coach 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.”