Mark Story

UK football may have a gem in Ga. recruit

When Raymond Sanders — a 5-foot-7 running back whose other scholarship offers were Marshall, Toledo, Air Force, Louisiana Tech and East Carolina — committed to Kentucky last August, the UK message boards were not exactly gleeful.

So-so recruit. I believe that Brooks and staff could have done better.

We are in the SEC and we are competing with Marshall, Toledo and ECU for recruits?

In the fickle, manic-depressive world of recruiting, it is amazing how quickly 'Who?' can turn into 'Wow!'

Of the present recruits committed to sign with Kentucky and new head coach Joker Phillips Wednesday, the first day of college football's national signing period, the one generating the most buzz now is ... Raymond Sanders.

For the Stone Mountain, Ga., product, the tipping point where 'Who?' became 'Wow!' was Oct. 16, 2009.

That evening, ESPNU televised a showdown of unbeaten Georgia high school powers Martin Luther King High School and Sanders' Stephenson High.

It was a game filled with high-voltage star power. Mack Brown, MLK's star running back, is a Florida commitment. Stephenson standout defensive tackle Mike Thornton is one of the most sought-after prospects in the South.

In all, there likely were more than 20 future Division I football players on the field. Then-Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin flew in for the game in a helicopter.

Amid all the big hype, it was the little guy who stood tall. Sanders ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns and led the Jaguars to a 20-0 win.

Just like that, Raymond Sanders, Who? became Raymond Sanders, Wow!

"My coach told me all that week to go out and show I was the best running back in the state," Sanders said last week. "Being on TV and everything, that was pretty fun. I was excited."

In the aftermath of that game, ESPN southeast recruiting blogger JC Shurburtt proclaimed Sanders "one of the more underrated recruits heading to the Southeastern Conference."

Kiffin was impressed enough that he dispatched Tennessee coaches to Stephenson High to try to talk with Sanders. Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson suddenly had eyes for Sanders, too.

"After that game on national TV, he had a lot of big football schools calling," says Corey Johnson, a Stephenson assistant coach who handles most of the recruiting logistics for the school (which will have nine players sign Division I scholarships Wednesday). "And he held firm with Kentucky, wouldn't even talk to schools, because he felt like he'd found a place where he'd be appreciated."

Before he committed to UK on Aug. 2, Raymond Sanders says his high school coaches and his parents quizzed him. What if this school or that school comes in later, would you still want to go to Kentucky?

"The more I thought about it, I knew Kentucky was the right fit for me," Sanders said. "I just appreciated how Kentucky came in early and believed in me before a lot of other schools did."

According to family lore, there's always been a certain clarity in Raymond Sanders' decision making.

Though the running back's father (also named Raymond) had played football at Western Carolina, when the UK recruit was a little boy, his family had him playing soccer.

One day, a youth football coach saw Raymond running and asked if he'd be interested in trying a new sport.

"We took him by the football field, he noticed the cheerleaders and said he wanted to play football because there were girls there," Carla Sanders, the player's mom, says with a laugh. "He was only 8 or 9. We kid him that he became a football player because of girls."

Getting Raymond Sanders to commit to Kentucky has proven a boon for the Blue. When UK's Phillips went to watch him, he found two other Stephenson players, linebacker Jabari Johnson and receiver Ronnie Shields, worthy of Cats' scholarship offers.

When the three made their official visits to Kentucky last month, the highly recruited Thornton came along. The 6-2, 280-pound defensive lineman is ranked the No. 3 prospect in the state of Georgia by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"We're pretty close," Sanders says of his relationship with Thornton. "Mike, it looks like it's us (Kentucky), Georgia and Penn State. Hopefully, on signing day, he'll decide he wants to play four more years with us (his Stephenson teammates bound for UK) and we'll reel him in."

In Sanders, UK appears to have reeled in another potential big-impact player in a small package. In recent years, Kentucky has made its living off such playmakers — think Rafael Little, Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb.

"I think he fits the scheme there really well," says Johnson, the Stephenson assistant. "People want to put this 'scatback tag' on him, but he runs hard. He can impact games as a runner, a receiver and on special teams."

Sanders says he presently stands 5-71/2 and weighs 184 pounds. He runs the 40-yard dash consistently at 4.4 and says he was timed at 4.31 at a camp at the University of Georgia.

The homestate Bulldogs "didn't think I was big enough," Sanders said. "But it's like my mom always says: It's not the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog."

Raymond Sanders has already shown enough fight to go from Who? to Wow!