COLUMBIA —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 (shout-out) to my homie @AceSanders1 going pro, another gamecock going to make his dream come true,” Gilmore wrote on his verified Twitter account. “Good luck bro work hard.”
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 and Berkeley High graduate Bruce Ellington, who had 40 catches for 600 yards and seven touchdowns.
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 year. Though Sanders is a big loss for USC, it could still 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).
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 ranked second on the team in catches and yards. 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, setting the school’s single-season record for punt return yards. The previous record, 362, was set by Dick Harris in 1971, on 37 returns.
Sanders’ yards per punt 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. Sanders is the second USC player from the 2012 team to leave with eligibility remaining. Junior 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. Most observers expected both to turn pro.
Sanders’ decision comes as more of a surprise. Because of his size, he seems unlikely to be picked in the first two rounds, which is usually the threshold for which USC coach Steve Spurrier advises players to leave school early.
NFL teams might wonder about Sanders’ ability to create separation against bigger, physical cornerbacks. But his speed is an asset at receiver and punt returner, which NFL teams could find to be his most effective role at the next level.