Eighteen days after receiving his high school diploma from Bradley Cental, the 6-foot-6, 300-plus pounder moved into the athletic dorm in Knoxville, and his adventure began.
“I moved up (to Knoxville) May 28. The next day, I got my class and workout schedules,” the 2012 Mr. Tennessee Football Lineman award winner explained. “I only took one class the first (summer) session. I have two the second.”
Sanders completed his English 101 class before getting to come home for a short break over the July 4th holiday. He will begin the second summer class session Monday.
“I’m just taking some of my basics (core requirement classes) this summer,” he said.
Since the football players aren’t allowed to be under the direction of the coaches until the first of August, the summer workout sessions are conducted by some of the senior players.
“Ja’Wuan James is heading up the lineman workouts. They have been intense,” explained Sanders.
Getting ready to start his senior season, James (6-foot-6, 318) has started at right offensive tackle (37 games) for the Vols since arriving on campus from Suwanne, Ga., three years ago.
“The hardest workout we had when I was at Bradley was nowhere near what we go through everyday,” Sanders related. “We are sometimes doing 100 nine-sets, 1,000 to 1,300 reps in a day and 25 sets of three squats, then we go run 20-30 110-yard sprints.”
“We have study hall and class in the mornings, then have workouts in the afternoons and evenings,” the two-time all-state former Bear lineman added. “It takes up a lot of our time, but that’s good. I admit I got a little homesick the first couple of weeks, but it didn’t take long to adjust.”
Sanders was the first player ever offered a scholarship before playing a down of his junior high school season two summers ago. He has been around the Vol program ever since.
“Already knowing a lot of the players has really helped, plus their is a totally different attitude since coach (Butch) Jones has come in,” expressed Sanders, who was recruited and committed to play for the Vols under former head coach Derek Dooley.
“There’s a ‘winning attitude’ around everything we do,” he continued. “Before (in Dooley’s final year) you could tell some guys had begun to slack off some, but that’s not how it is now. Everybody comes into the workouts excited and wanting to work hard.”
“There’s a different atmosphere on campus and around the team,” remarked Sanders. “When we have a great workout, that just pumps you up to come back the next day and do even better.”
The turnaround in the program’s attitude is something Sanders can relate to as he experienced the same thing while playing at Bradley. The Bears had muddled through seven straight losing seasons when he got to the South Lee Highway campus and went 4-6 his freshman season, just missing the playoffs.
Coach Damon Floyd’s squad turned the corner in Sanders’ first season in the starting lineup as a sophomore, going 5-5 and making their first TSSAA playoff appearance since the turn of the century (2000). Bradley went 16-7 his final two seasons, making postseason play in both.
After losing to eventual national champion LSU in the 2007 SEC Championship Game and bouncing back to knock off Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl for a 10-4 overall record, Tennessee has gone through three head coaches with a combined 28-34 record in the five seasons since.
The firing of Dooley, who is now an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys, and subsequent hiring of Jones has rejuvenated the high hopes of the Big Orange faithful.
Jones comes to Knoxville with lofty credentials, having directed very successful programs at the University of Cincinnati and Central Michigan University.
Hired by UT on Dec. 7, 2012, Jones is the university’s 24th head football coach. He posted a 50-27 record (.649) in six seasons as a head coach — three in Cincinnati, where his Bearcats went 23-14, plus three at Central Michigan where his Chippewas went 27-13.
He has won at least eight games in five of six years as a head coach, including three seasons of nine-plus wins in the last four years. Five of Jones’ teams (as head coach) have made bowl appearances and three have finished in the Top 25 of the national coaches’ poll and two in the Associated Press poll.
Tennessee will open the 2013 season at home against Austin Peay State University on Aug. 31 and then host Western Kentucky on Sept. 7.
The Vols will get their first real tests the following two weeks against national powerhouse teams. On Sept. 14 the Big Orange will make the long cross-country trip to Oregon to face the Ducks on their home field in Eugene. The following week (Sept. 21), it will be the treacherous trip to “The Swamp” in Gainesville to open SEC play against the Florida Gators.
Returning home for three straight games, the Vols will entertain South Alabama (Sept. 28), Georgia (Oct. 5) and after a week off, South Carolina (Oct. 21).
Tennessee will once again hit the road with a trip Bryant-Denny Stadium to face arch rival and reigning national champion Alabama (Oct. 26) and make their first SEC appearance at Missouri (Nov. 2).
Home games against Auburn (Nov. 9) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 23) will precede the regular season finale in Lexington, Ky. on Nov. 30.