A year ago, Texas Longhorns sophomore tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders needed consistent individual instruction from position coach Jeff Banks as he tried to transition from playing wide receiver and defensive end at Denton Ryan.
Now, with the 2022 season opener against the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks looming in less than two weeks, Sanders has distinguished himself enough to become the first Longhorns tight end to meet with the media during preseason camp.
“I love JT Sanders. Probably one of, if not arguably the most improved player on our team from a year ago this time. He’s a big, physical guy,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Monday.
The journey for Sanders hasn’t been easy.
Ranked as the No. 13 player nationally and the No. 1 athlete in the 2021 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Sanders was the crown jewel of a largely disappointing cycle that mostly held together despite the Tom Herman era teetering on the edge of collapse all fall prior to Herman’s dismissal not long after Sanders signed.
“I’ve known JT for a while — he’s a tremendous player, very versatile player, as everybody well knows, and we’ve definitely had dialogue,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said of the future position for Sanders. “He’s a guy who’s a tremendous defensive end. I mean, he can rush the passer, he has all the skill set to rush, and then you look at him on offense at the tight end position, he’s a real difference maker, he can win one-on-one matchups, he can separate, he’s got great ball skills.”
Initially, Sarkisian said he planned to use Sanders on both sides of the ball, but when Sanders arrived on the Forty Acres last summer, the adjustment to playing tight end was difficult enough that the Longhorns never explored his potential off the edge.
“Getting my run blocking down — I was never used to blocking in perimeter area, so that was really a struggle for me when I first got down here,” Sanders said on Friday.
And Sanders felt he was a better fit in Sarkisian’s offense, anyway, but faced with a depth chart that included super senior starter Cade Brewer, a multi-year starter, and junior Jared Wiley, as well as early enrollee Gunnar Helm, whose experience at the position helped his learning curve at Texas, Sanders played primarily on special teams with the field goal unit as a freshman.
Meanwhile, the Longhorns pass rush failed to create sacks, leading to speculation about why the team’s best edge talent was buried on the offensive depth chart. Sanders even heard it from his own family.
But Sanders believed he was a better offensive player in high school and stuck the course, flashing with an impressive touchdown catch during a spring scrimmage and then turning in a strong performance in the Orange-White game.
Playing a highly-demanding position in Sarkisian’s offense, Sanders started to put it together over the final two thirds of spring practice.
“The first five days of spring ball this year, we were encouraged, but he wasn’t there yet,” Banks said at the start of preseason camp. “And we were still upset a little bit about his lack of physicality, quite frankly. He took that challenge and exceeded our expectations. The next 10 practices, I don’t think he dropped the ball, and he was moving defenders and holding his own in the C area (outside the tackles), which is what we need.”
The struggles from Sanders produced some hard coaching from Banks, but the Denton Ryan product said he’s used to it and admitted he was making simple mistakes. It wasn’t that Sanders wasn’t willing to block — “I’m a physical guy, so I like blocking, for sure,” he said — it was just a matter of executing.
As as receiver, Sanders projects as a reliable target in the short passing game, a dangerous threat up the seam — as he proved in the Orange-White game — and a player who could once again split out and serve as a jump-ball target in the red zone because of his size and strong hands.
“Probably gonna upset Xavier and J-Whitt and Bijan, but he’s probably got the best hands on our team,” Sarkisian said of Sanders. “He’s got very strong hands, can make contested catches. He’s a guy we’re definitely very excited about.”
In the running game, Sanders continues to take his role as an in-line blocker seriously, understanding the need to control the C gap in case junior running back Bijan Robinson wants to bounce a run outside, as well as the need to step up as a more vocal leader on a young team.
The diverse skill set and positive trajectory for Sanders means he has the potential to become one of the team’s most impactful dual-threat tight ends in recent history — with his big frame and strong hands, Sanders could emerge as the same type of security blanket for Quinn Ewers that David Thomas was for Vince Young.
It took a year for Sanders to adjust to a position with a difficult learning curve, but now he looks poised for a breakout sophomore season.