On Wednesday he honored that commitment, signing a National Letter of Intent to play for the Vols although he has several offers trying to woo him away from Knoxville.
“I’ve said all along that Tennessee is where I wanted to go, so there was never any doubt in my mind,” the lifelong Vol fan said when asked about the recent changes in the UT coaching staff.
“I liked (former) coach (Derek) Dooley, but (new) coach (Butch) Jones, with his success at his previous schools and success in bowl games, brings an excitement that you just want to be a part of,” Sanders expressed.
“Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and a lot of others called asking me to come play for them, but 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?”
A four-star prospect according to both ESPN and Rivals, Sanders was one of 21 Vol signees on National Signing Day.
Tennessee first took notice of Sanders while scouting former Bear wide receiver James Stovall, who is now playing for Navy. Bradley head coach Damon Floyd asked the Vol coaches 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 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.”
Sanders has grown a couple of inches since that first meeting in Knoxville, now stretching the tape to 6-foot-5 with a 285-pound frame.
“I’m working to get stronger, bigger and faster to round myself out,” he related. “Right now I’m focusing on my school work. In a couple of weeks I’ll be able to get with the (UT) coaches and begin working out with a program they want me to do.”
Although he would prefer not to redshirt his freshman season, Sanders realizes that may be a possibility as he adjusts to college life and to the increased speed and strength at the collegiate competition level.
Rated as the No. 8 prospect in the state and 20th (ESPN) and 24th (Rivals) offensive tackle in the nation, Sanders graded out at 91 percent with 47 pancake blocks this past season to help the Bears to their third straight TSSAA playoff appearance.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing here (Bradley) and the coaches have really helped me develop,” he commented.
Sanders became the first player in Bradley football history to win the TSSAA’s Mr. Tennessee Award.
“He’s a great player, but a better person,” proclaimed coach Floyd after Sanders was named the Tennessee Titans’ Division I, Class AAA Lineman of the Year in December.
“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.
“Austin winning the Mr. Tennessee award and now signing with the Vols is not only a great honor for him, but for the whole Bradley Central athletic program as well.”
Sanders was one of only two Tennesseans chosen to participate in the U.S. Marine Corps 2013 Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, helping to lead the East to a 17-14 win at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., in early January.
He also played a big role in the East's 41-20 victory in the Toyota East-West All-Star Classic in Cookeville in December.
Sanders is the first Bear football player to sign with Tennessee since Chris White and Dale Jones (who went to TMI for a year after high school before going to play at Knoxville) did so in 1981.
Along with the signing ceremonies in the morning, Sanders was surprised with an Orange and White decorated celebration party with more than 100 friends and family gathering at a local restaurant Wednesday evening.