If the Arkansas football team is going to snap a 15-game losing streak Saturday, it will likely need a big performance from the player who could end an even longer drought for the Razorbacks next April.
Just four games into his first season in Fayetteville, linebacker Drew Sanders has established himself as one of the nation’s top pass rushers and, at least according to one well-known analyst, a potential first-round pick.
In his latest Big Board, which was released a couple days ahead of the Texas A&M game, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. not only included the Alabama transfer among his top linebackers, but slotted him as the 14th overall prospect for the 2023 NFL Draft.
Although Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. and Army’s Andre Carter II are ranked ahead of him, they are classified as outside linebackers, making Sanders the No. 1 inside linebacker.
“He’s playing all over the field for the Razorbacks, showing off his burst and range to chase down ball carriers,” Kiper wrote. “He’s a hit, lift and drive tackler who can fill a hole in the run game. He plays super hard and has great size for the position.”
The Razorbacks haven’t had a linebacker taken in the first round since Billy Ray Smith Jr. went fifth overall to the San Diego Chargers in 1983. In the nearly four decades since, only 11 Arkansas linebackers have been drafted, with the highest being Quinton Caver going 55th overall — in the second round — in 2001.
It’s easy to see why Sanders could finally end that lengthy drought. His 5.5 sacks through four games are tied for the most in the country and put him well on pace to become the first Arkansas player to notch double-digit sacks in a season since Jake Bequette had 10 in 2011.
Even head coach Sam Pittman has admitted Sanders has been better than he expected when landing him out of the transfer portal, despite his five-star accolades. His former coach seemed less surprised, though.
“Drew was a good player when he was here,” Alabama football coach Nick Saban said earlier this week. “He’s certainly playing well for them. It’s good to see that he’s doing a good job for them. We’re happy for him and his family.”
Alabama Football’s Loss is Arkansas’ Gain
Had it not been for what Nick Saban has described as an “unfortunate injury” that held him back last year, Drew Sanders might never have entered the transfer portal.
However, after starting three of the first five games of the season, a wrist/hand injury forced him out of the lineup and allowed another one of Alabama’s five-star freaks, Dallas Turner, to fill in. By the time Sanders was healthy a few weeks later, he had been Wally Pipped.
Had he stuck around in Tuscaloosa, the overriding thought was that he’d have a significant role on this year’s defense, with Saban saying before the season that he likely would have been a starter for the Crimson Tide.
Based on his comments to the media, it sounds like Saban feels Sanders is the one who got away. He even said a plan to move him from outside to inside linebacker — one reason he wanted to come to Arkansas — was in the works.
“That was probably what we were going to do, but it never worked out,” Saban said. “It is what it is. It’s good for him that he can play both positions and that he’s doing well.”
That could be chalked up as coach-speak, but there may be some truth to it. Tony Tsoukalas, the managing editor of Tide Illustrated, said he’d likely be starting at Alabama’s Will linebacker spot, assuming he was playing at the same level as he’s shown at Arkansas.
“I believe Saban in that Drew Sanders would have been a starter in this year’s defense,” Tsoukalas said. “To be fair, the way he’s been playing, he’d be a starter anywhere in the country.”
Instead, fifth-year senior Jaylen Moody, who also briefly entered the transfer portal this offseason, is finally getting an opportunity to start for Alabama football. Moody has a team-high 25 tackles and solid 71.8 grade from Pro Football Focus, but isn’t the same caliber of player as Sanders.
“Jaylen Moody has been playing pretty well,” Tsoukalas said. “That being said, he isn’t at the same level as Sanders. Right now, there aren’t many college defenders who are.”
In addition to his 5.5 official sacks, PFF credits Sanders with a whopping 18 total pressures, which is tied for the most among FBS linebackers. Moody has generated only four total pressures.
Also, Sanders likely would have given Alabama the undisputed best linebacker corps in the country.
Will Anderson finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting after leading the country in sacks last year and is viewed as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Turner is viewed as a possible first-round pick in 2024, while Henry To’oTo’o — the inside linebacker Sanders would be playing beside — is an early second-round prospect who could sneak into Day 1.
Rather than giving Alabama three — or arguably four — potential first-round linebackers, which it has had five of since Saban took over in 2007, Sanders could be the Razorbacks’ first such player in 40 years.
“He’s getting what he deserves,” Anderson said. “He’s been playing extremely well. I’m happy for him, very proud of him. … Both of us came in here and we worked extremely hard. We were roommates, actually, and we talked about things all the time, like, ‘Hey, we got this, just keep going.’ We motivated each other. To see him doing well at Arkansas, I’m very proud of him.”
Drew Sanders Dominant for Arkansas Football
There is a reason Drew Sanders was a five-star prospect and ranked No. 13 overall in the Class of 2020 by 247Sports.
Playing all over the field at Denton Ryan, he likely could have played on either side of the ball in college, but linebacker/edge rusher is where he ended up. Gabe Brooks, a recruiting analyst at 247Sports, compared him to linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who was in the midst of an All-Rookie season with the Cowboys at the time.
“We could not put that guy up against our starting offensive tackle,” Sanders’ high school defensive coordinator, Shane Tolleson, told Tide Illustrated in 2020. “I jumped his butt so many times because he didn’t have a three-quarter speed… ‘I said, ‘Drew, what the hell is wrong with you? We need that kid. What are you doing?’ When he has that helmet on, he’s different. Every time he tackles a guy, he tries to break them.”
While at Alabama, the difference in talent wasn’t as great, but it was still very evident. Last season, JC Latham — the Crimson Tide’s current starting right tackle — got a taste of that in practice.
A heralded prospect in his own right, ranked as the No. 3 overall player in the country for 2021 by the 247Sports Composite, Latham described Sanders as “a great player, a great athlete.”
“I went against him a lot in fall camp last year as a freshman, so I know a little bit about him and we did get to watch a little of the Texas A&M game,” Latham said. “He plays really physical and he has a nose for the football, so he really likes to go for the ball. It’ll be a great matchup.”
Even though he was used primarily as an edge rusher at Alabama, there were times Sanders showcased an ability to do the things he’s doing now with the Razorbacks — something Will Anderson Jr. admitted he probably couldn’t do.
“A couple of instances last year when we were playing a couple different teams, he was kind of stacked back a little bit or he was in coverage,” Anderson said. “He can break out and go make plays in space and I think that’s where he’s comfortable at, but he can also get to the quarterback if you need him to. Drew’s a very good athlete.”
The results have been amazing. Sanders has at least half of a sack in each game this season and had multiple against South Carolina and Missouri State. In the opener against Cincinnati, he notched his first sack when he ran by an offensive lineman and through a running back before bringing down quarterback Ben Bryant.
Sanders is officially credited with 31 tackles, including a team-high 16 solo stops, plus he leads the team in tackles for loss (6.5), sacks (5.5) and forced fumbles (2) He also has two pass breakups and two quarterback hurries.
All of his former Alabama teammates have spoken highly of Sanders, including reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young.
“On the field, (he was a) very fierce competitor,” Young said. “He always wanted to win. He’s always giving extra in practice, always working hard. I just think that fierce competitive nature that he has is what makes him as great of a player as he is.”
If the Razorbacks are going to slow down Young and beat the Crimson Tide for the first time since 2006, they probably won’t be able to count on someone like Leigh Tiffin missing multiple kicks. It will likely take superstar efforts from superstars just like Drew Sanders.
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