Photo: Geraud Sanders
#AFAN (Air Force/Army/Navy) stories: My series is about more than academy football players. These stories are about future officers selflessly committed to serving their country during a seemingly endless war on terrorism. There are only 0.5 percent Americans making up the military. Throughout our history Cadets and Midshipmen have answered the call to serve in times of war, but this is a generation of volunteers.
--- “I get to work daily with heroes that joined the military AFTER we were attacked on 9/11, AFTER the war started in Afghanistan and AFTER the war started in Iraq. I would like to think I’m that brave, but I’m not so sure."
-- Phil McConkey, 1979 Navy grad and New York Giants Super Bowl champion
By TOM SHANAHAN
College football recruits typically dream they have an NFL future. They think as a scholarship athlete they have a leg up. Don’t bother telling them that a 2019 NCAA study showed only 1.6 percent of college players play pro football.
That’s a short leg.
If the scale of odds for a prospect to make the NFL were charted -- leaving out the obviously gifted athlete -- most players would label their chances as closer to “realistic” than "long shot.”
Now consider sons of an NFL player. Generally speaking, they have expectations about their pro potential thrust upon them. They can be inwardly or outwardly -- or both -- expected to follow in their dad’s footsteps.
But Air Force senior wide receiver Geraud Sanders isn’t like most college football recruits, even though he is the son of an NFL player (Glen Sanders, four seasons) – not to mention has a distant uncle (Matthew Reed) on his mother’s side that played in the Canadian Football League and a godfather he refers to as an "uncle" with an NFL resume (Darryl Wren, two seasons).
If Sanders was among the typical, he wouldn’t have cast his college career with Air Force, where a five-year military commitment follows graduation.
“My dad always told me anyone can take football away from you – injuries can take football away from you – but no one can take education away from you,” Sanders said this week. “My dad and my mom (Gwen Sanders) always instilled in me that education comes first. I learned that at an early age, and I never separated myself from it when it was time to make my college choice.
“I felt coming to the Air Force Academy gave me the best opportunities to further my life without football. I want to be a pilot … I’ve put in for pilot training after graduation. Football only lasts a certain time and the Air Force is giving me a jump start in life. You can get paid in the NFL, but it comes to an end. I can continue to do what I want to do from my Air Force career.”
Sanders took to the air last summer as part of an Air Force pilot training program. That’s turned out to be a good metaphor for Air Force's offense taking flight this season.
The Falcons (5-2, 3-1 MW Mountain) are only seven games into the season while entering their crucial conference game against Utah State (4-2, 3-0 MW Mountain) on Saturday night at Falcon Stadium, but Sanders has already topped his previous career yardage total, career touchdown total and he is close to surpassing his career catches.
He leads the nation with 23.95 yards per catch along with season totals of 20 receptions for 497 yards and four touchdowns that lead the Falcons. He entered his senior season with 23 for 430 and three TDs, but it’s not like he wasn’t playing as a sophomore and junior. He was third on the team in catches in both 2018 (14-236-0) and 2017 (9-194-3).
The uptick this season has been the confidence Air Force coach Troy Calhoun and offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen have in their arm strength of their quarterback, D.J. Hammond. And it doesn’t hurt that Sanders has an NFL height as a 6-foot-2, 193-pounder.
So far, Sanders has a season long of reception of 75 yards, while senior Ben Waters has a long of 81.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Sanders said. “We’ve been putting in the work since we got here, specially this summer. I knew this year there was a possibility of taking on that role. I’m love playing with (Ben) Waters, (Ben) Peterson and (Daniel) Morris.”
Although the 6-2, 220-pound Hammond has a big arm, Air Force’s 56-26 win at Hawaii last week demonstrated there is more to this year’s passing attack than combining Hammond’s arm and play-making ability of Sanders and Waters.
When Hammond went down with an injury on Air Force’s opening drive midway through the first quarter, the Falcons were forced to turn to third-team quarterback Mike Schmidt; No. 2 QB Isaiah Sanders was not on the trip with a knee injury.
Schmidt produced, finishing with 267 yards total offense in basically three-and-a-half quarters (120 rushing with three touchdowns and 147 passing with one TD).
“Coach always stresses everybody top to bottom has to be ready every week,” Sanders said. “Mike is always ready. We didn’t have a doubt. We didn’t think there would be a drop off, and he showed it.”
The coaches didn’t narrow down the playbook, either.
Schmidt entered the game with a first-and-goal at the 6-yard line after Hammond’s injury suffered on a 9-yard run. The Falcons scored three plays later for a 7-3 lead.
But on the second possession, Schmidt completed a 39-yard pass to tight end Kad Waguespack to the Hawaii 1. That set up Schmidt’s 1-yard run for a 14-3 lead.
On the second play of Air Force’s third possession, Schmidt connected with Sanders for a 75-yard touchdown pass, extending the lead to 21-10. That swept aside Sanders’ previous season long TD reception of 64 against San Jose State.
Sanders said in addition to help from his Air Force coaches, he says he credits improvement to work with Margin Hook, a former BYU-great who operates "Sky's The Limit," an elite athlete training service based in Dallas.
"This summer I sent him film and we talked to him about it,” he said. “I took everything he said to heart. He said you run well and catch the ball, but it’s the small things that separate you. I’ve worked on patterns, footwork, head movement and shoulder movement so I’m not giving away my routes.”
As 3-star recruit out of Bishop Dunne in Dallas, Sanders had 10 offers, including Army and Navy along with Northwestern, Rice and Louisiana Tech. With that resume and senior year production turning heads, the NFL still floats in his mind despite putting his education first.
“I’d like to pursue the NFL, but I still want to serve,” he said. “I don’t want to get out of my commitment. We’ll have our pro day and we’ll see how it goes. The NFL is something I’d like to attempt, but my end goal is to be a pilot in the Air Force.”
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”