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August 17, 2011

Sanders not resting on freshman laurels

As one of only three true freshmen to play extensively last season, Ace Sanders could have spent the summer being fat and happy, counting on his experience to give him an edge over any challengers as he began his sophomore campaign.

Then he looked around.

Damiere Byrd. K.J. Brent. Shamier Jeffery. Nick Jones. DeAngelo Smith. Bruce Ellington.

"That's scary," Sanders said. "That's a lot of speed out there."

And that was just the young guys. Throw in returnees Jason Barnes, D.L. Moore, Lamar Scruggs and the massively talented Alshon Jeffery, and Sanders figured out any "guaranteed" spot not held by Jeffery was about as solid as investing with Bernie Madoff.

Even being the team's fourth-leading receiver in 2010 and known as the fastest pass-catcher on the roster, Sanders knew his days were numbered - if he didn't work to protect it. One of the smallest players on the team (a generous 5-foot-7 in the media guide) added 15 to 17 pounds to his frame, yet worked on becoming quicker.

"I guess I'm exactly what they say, just faster," Sanders said. "I put in a lot of work in the weight room, and conditioning and progress was made. Cut down time on your takeoff, shorten up dipping, instead of just bursting out. My first step is quicker, accelerating faster."

In short, Sanders is learning how to be a complete receiver. He did well in 2010, catching 25 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns, plus posting a couple of highlight-reel plays with a 53-yard burst on his first collegiate carry and throwing a touchdown in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

But not enough to think he had a definite spot once all of South Carolina's talented recruiting class enrolled.

The 6-foot-3 Brent has already made strides in preseason camp, coach Steve Spurrier comparing him to former Florida star Chris Doering. "K.J. had a bunch of balls come his way and he played well," receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. recently said. "It's all about opportunities at receiver."

Ellington has also drawn praise for his quarterbacking skills in the "Wildcat" package as well as his slot receiver play. Shamier Jeffery seems to be on the same path as his older brother, while Byrd won a foot race against cornerback Marty Markett, a former track and field sprinter and former fastest player on the team.

Sanders realized he had an advantage, with experience and with simple knowledge. While studying the playbook and knowing how to block are desired traits, actually performing and proving are worlds different from book-smarts, especially on the battlegrounds of the SEC.

So Sanders recognized his weaknesses and set out to try and erase them, while the new guys were dealing with the entire first-year experience as Sanders once did.

"Doing a lot less standing around, watching the play going on," he said. "I'm actually playing the whole play, know what angles to take when I'm blocking. We're still friends on and off the field. I'd rather everybody be on the same page if we're going to be on the same team."

They are all on the same team, one that is being lauded as perhaps the most talented group of Gamecocks in history. Sanders, who was part of the first team to taste SEC success, isn't taking it for granted.

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