South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders will skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft, according to a Twitter post Tuesday night by former USC cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who now plays for the Buffalo Bills.
“S/o to my homie @AceSanders1 going pro, another gamecock going to make his dream come true. Good luck bro work hard. #respect,” Gilmore wrote on his verified Twitter account.
The Twitter account attributed to Sanders is not officially verified as belonging to him, but it did re-tweet the Gilmore post. Just before Gilmore chimed in, this post appeared on the Twitter account attributed to Sanders: “Day full of emotion for. Thank you everyone apart of #GamecockNation. I appreciate everything you did for me. #TearsOfJoy I love you guys!!!”
Tuesday was the deadline for underclassmen to put their names in the draft. If they change their minds, they can withdraw by Friday, as long as they don’t sign with an agent.
Sanders, who is 5-8 and 175 pounds, just finished his third and most productive season at USC. He had 45 catches for 531 yards and nine touchdowns. He ranked first on the team in catches and touchdowns and second in yards to sophomore Bruce Ellington, who had 40 catches for 600 yards and seven touchdowns.
If he decides to play football in 2013, Ellington will be USC’s leading returning receiver. Ellington said before the bowl game that he hadn’t decided yet about his plans for next season – basketball, football or both for the third straight school year.
Sanders increased his production after receiver Alshon Jeffery decided to turn pro early, following the 2011 season. In 2011, Sanders had 29 catches for 383 yards and two touchdowns and was USC’s second-leading receiver in yards and catches. In 2010, he had 26 catches for 319 yards and two touchdowns.
He was also a dangerous punt returner the past two seasons. In 2011, he returned 16 punts for 149 yards and a touchdown. In 2012, he returned 28 for 429 yards and two touchdowns.
Sanders in 2012 set a USC single-season record for punt return yards. The previous record, 362, was set by Dick Harris in 1971. Sanders finishes his career with 594 punt return yards, still well behind Harris’ school record of 825, though Sanders certainly could have broken the record if he returned for the 2013 season.
Sanders’ average yardage per return jumped from 9.3 in 2011 to 15.3 in 2012, which ranked No. 6 nationally. He was also one of just nine players in the country in 2012 who returned more than one punt for a touchdown.
Though Sanders is a big loss for USC, it could return every other significant receiving threat from 2012 with the exception of senior tight end Justice Cunningham, who ranked fourth on the team in catches (23) and yards (324). That is, if Ellington plays football again.
Sanders is the second USC player from the current team to leave with eligibility remaining. Running back Marcus Lattimore announced before the bowl game that he was turning pro, after suffering season-ending injuries to opposite knees in 2011 and 2012.
Last season, Gilmore and Jeffery turned pro early. Gilmore was drafted 10th overall, Jeffery 45th by the Chicago Bears.
Because of his size, Sanders seems unlikely to be picked in the first two rounds. NFL teams might wonder about his ability to create separation against bigger, physical cornerbacks. But his speed is an asset, and he can obviously do more than just play receiver, as evidenced by his punt return exploits at USC.