LEXINGTON — For as long as he can remember, Raymond Sanders has been told why he’s too small to be a big-time football player.
Yet going into his sophomore season, the 5-8 Sanders is poised to be Kentucky’s starting tailback after a solid all-around freshman campaign in which he ran for 254 yards and three touchdowns on 68 attempts and caught 16 passes for 114 yards and another score.
“I have been dealing with that my whole life. My mom always told me it was not the size of the dog but the size of the fight in the dog,” Sanders said. “I have a bunch of heart. Everyone knows that. I am not going to back down from anyone. I don’t care how big you are.
“I use my size as an advantage. I can hide behind my linemen. I am quick, shifty and fast. I can make myself small and hard to tackle. That is something I take advantage of. It doesn’t matter how tall you are. If you use your speed right, you will make the right cuts and are so small they can’t hit you as much as those big guys that run high.”
His mother, Carla Sanders, says the more her son was told what he couldn’t do growing up in Stone Mountain, Ga., the more determined he became to succeed.
“The more he heard about his size, the more competitive he got. People were surprised with what he did in high school because they did not expect much out of him,” she said. “When he was younger, everybody was bigger than him. He had a twin sister taller than him, but he caught her in middle school.
“The way we always handled his size was that was something out of his control. He just had to play with the hand he was dealt. If you have lemons, make lemonade. You can’t control your height, but you can control your work ethic. I think that motivated him and made him want to work harder.”
It certainly has since he underwent minor knee surgery earlier this summer that will keep him out of full contact drills early in practice.
“The knee is getting a lot better. The trainers are doing a great job getting me back, and I¿will be ready. There is no way I¿won’t be ready to play. I¿will be there for my team. The trainers have stayed on top of me to make sure I¿am doing all the right things to get me back where I¿need to be,” Sanders said Friday at Kentucky’s media day.
Sanders, who had 79 yards rushing and 77 yards receiving against Georgia last season when Derrick Locke was injured and did not play, ran for 1,604 yards and 25 touchdowns as a high school senior and was rated the nation’s No. 15 all-purpose back by Rivals.com. Now he’s raised his weight to 198 pounds, more than 10 pounds higher than his playing weight in high school, thanks to workouts with UK strength coach Ray “Rock” Oliver.
“That’s pretty good weight for me. I¿am on a good diet. That is actually up three pounds from spring. I got up more, but they got me running and on the right diet, so it is coming back down to where I¿really want to be at,” Sanders said. “When I weighed more, it was not the right weight. It was bad weight to hold me back instead of muscle that I needed like I have now.
“I can go 60 or 70 plays a game. I feel like this is a perfect weight for me, and I¿kept my speed and shiftiness. This is a physical league. You are going to get hit. That’s why coach Rock has talked to me and told me I had to get my weight to a weight where I could keep my speed and shiftiness and also be able to take the pounding, which I am excited about. The weight I have put on has helped. I played 47 plays the last scrimmage of spring practice and felt perfect after the scrimmage.”
His mom considers herself a “nudger” who has helped push her son when needed.
“I am his No. 1 fan and his No. 1 critic,” she said. “I am always pushing him. He always worked hard, but I¿am always thinking there is something else he can do. Everybody would be happy and telling him how good he was, and I would be on him to do more. You can demand, and he will rise to the challenge. Hard work is pretty natural for him, but if you raise the bar, he will reach it.
“I have just always thought there is more you can do, and there is always somebody better or just as good as you out there. You can’t rest. That keeps him humble. You never know what can happen tomorrow. People lay down and don’t get back up. Everything he has is by the grace of God, so there’s no reason for him to ever have a big head about anything he does. He knows to be thankful and enjoy every day.
“I will always help push him. I do try to keep him humble at the same time, because there is always so much attention on Division I¿players and I don’t want him caught up in that. There’s always more he can do to be better. He should never be satisfied with what he’s done.”
He says his mom “is on top of me 24/7” and always has been.
“She gives me a compliment every now and then. But for the most part she is making sure I¿stay humble and making sure I never get satisfied, which is what I¿really need in my life right now as a young athlete going through so much,” Sanders smiled and said.
Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders likes what the young running back has done, but wants him to also concentrate on what he can do on a consistent basis to help Kentucky¿and offset the loss of Locke, UK’s top rusher the last two years.
“I think Raymond can be a good, solid running back for us,”¿Randy Sanders said. “I don’t think he is going to provide the big plays that Derrick Locke provided for us because he doesn’t have Derrick’s speed. At the same time, he’s probably a tougher, more physical runner than Derrick was.
“The measure of a great back is not how many 60-yard runs you have, it is how many 5- and 6-yard runs that you have. He has made a lot of progress toward being a consistent yard-gainer for us. He is fast and quick enough that he does provide some dynamics, too.”
Raymond Sanders laughs when asked about his coach’s emphasis on consistency.
“He has been telling me that since I have been here. In high school he knew I had a lot of big runs and I want to be a playmaker,” he said. “He always tells me to be patient and get the three or four yards or get a first down for your teammates and those big gains will come. That is something I am still working on and trying to learn. I don’t want to have that big-play mentality.”
Sanders’ mother said the one time her son was not competitive was when it came to his twin sister.
“Maybe it was because they were the opposite sex. He didn’t care about the things she was good at, either,” Carla Sanders said. “They were never competitive with each other.
“He’s always been one of those really great test-takers. He always came out on top of her. She worked so hard all semester and did all the extra-credit work and then bombed the test. He would make sure he did just enough before the exam and then did really well on the exam, and they would end up with the same grade.
“But Raymond always loved to read. We kept taking the newspaper because of him. He had to have the paper to read daily. I don’t know if that’s where he learned his vocabulary or if he just relied on his test skills, but something made him a very good test-taker.”
His mother thinks he used the same learning skills to improve while playing behind Locke, who is now with the Philadelphia Eagles, during his first year at Kentucky.
“Last year he really listened to his coaches. Now he knows more about what is doing and how to move,” she said. “He did not look as fast last year, but now that he knows what he’s doing he’ll move a lot faster. He’s grown into his role. He has always studied and observed things. That’s one reason he has excelled the way he has.
“He would always ask questions. He wants to know what is going on, what is expected. He would ask Derrick a lot, and then thank him. I saw him (Locke) at the spring game and thanked him again. I know Raymond and him did not let anybody outwork them.”
Raymond Sanders knows that talented freshmen Marcus Caffey and Josh Clemons could contend for playing time this season and that sophomore Jonathan George has been patiently waiting for his chance to play, too. But Sanders goes into preseason practice No. 1 on the depth chart at tailback.
“It is fun, but I can’t get comfortable. I have to keep learning and keep improving on the field every day to keep that job,” Sanders said. “That is one thing Locke taught me. He worked hard and made sure that he kept his job. That is one thing that I¿am going to try and do and come to practice every day and give my team 100 percent and make sure that I am able to keep my job.
“Right now it is my job, but I¿am not getting comfortable. I¿can never get satisfied, because those guys behind me are going to do a great job pushing me. I am going to teach them and help them learn the offense and be productive and help us win, too.”
Sanders hopes he can showcase more of his overall ability this year.
“I hope my receiving skills show a little more this year. That is something I like to keep in my arsenal so coaches can split me out or use screen plays and different things just to get the ball in my hands,” he said. “I feel like I can catch the ball and that (quarterback) Morgan (Newton) trusts me to catch the ball out of the backfield. That is something I like to do.
“I love to return kicks. Kick return is going to be my specialty. Coach (Joker Phillips) has said when he needs me, he is going to put me back on punt return. Right now I am just going to focus on kick return and hopefully take a couple back this year if I get the chance to return kicks.”
His mother senses how excited her son is about the opportunity ahead of him this year.
“Excited might not be the correct word,” she laughed and said. “Starting is not as big a deal as playing. He’s more excited about getting more carries and showing what he can do. Starting at Kentucky is big, but the team winning is more important to him. He just wants to get on the field and do more.
“One reason he took the opportunity to go to Kentucky was to play early. He had quite a few offers that came in after he committed to Kentucky, but looking at the roster he thought he had a chance to play a little sooner at Kentucky, and now it looks like that’s about to happen just like he thought.”
Sanders’ mom trusts coaches
Carla Sanders, the mother of Kentucky running back Raymond Sanders, says it was impossible not to worry about her son when he left Stone Mountain, Ga., a year ago to come to UK.
“The hardest thing is worrying about the environment he is in and who he is with when he is not playing football,” she said. “They get exposed to so many different things and have opportunities to get into a lot of things. That is the hardest part of it. Being an athlete’s mother is hard. That even starts when we were going to junior days and he was out with other boys for visits. I worried how he would handle it and what decisions he would make.”
So how does she cope with her son being that far from home in an environment she cannot control?
“You have to trust the coaches. That was really major for me with him going to Kentucky,” Carla Sanders said. “As a mom, I knew nothing about the (Southeastern) Conference until he was recruited. I talked to (then Florida defensive coordinator) Charlie Strong, who is now the head coach at Louisville, and told him I knew nothing about Florida. My husband about lost his mind when I said that. I had no idea they had so much respect in football.
“I was just looking at what was happening in regard to my son. I didn’t want him to be at a place where it would be cool to be in trouble, take risks and do silly things. That’s why I say trusting coaches is what you have to be able to do, or you would never stop worrying. Or at least I wouldn’t.”