Ja’Tavion Sanders was the most talented 2021 recruit Texas brought in according to all of the major recruiting websites. Listed as an athlete coming out of high school, there were questions if he would play on offense as a tight end/receiver or if he would play on defense as an edge-defender/pass-rusher. When he arrived at Texas Steve Sarkisian and the staff decided that his best fit would be at tight end.
Steve Sarkisian has said the tight end position is the most important position in his offense behind only quarterback. The reason being, tight ends are asked to do a multitude of things. They must block like an offensive tackle in the run-game and run routes like a slot receiver in the pass-game.
The tight end position had two entrenched starters going into the 2021 season. However, there was not any significant depth behind Cade Brewer and Jared Wiley. The 2021 recruiting class brought in Gunnar Helm (three-star) and Juan Davis (three-star), as well as Ja’Tavion Sanders to help inject more talent into the tight end room.
However, Ja’Tavion Sanders did not see the field in 2021 on offense or defense. With Cade Brewer graduating and Jared Wiley transferring to TCU, the tight end room was filled with unproven talent.
That was until Alabama tight end Jahleel Billingsley entered the transfer portal and decided to re-connect with his former coaches, Steve Sarkisian and Jeff Banks. With Jahleel Billingsley in Austin as the presumed starter, where does that leave ultra-talented athlete Ja’Tavion Sanders? Grab yourself your favorite beer, cocktail, or a cup of coffee and let’s talk about it!
Ja’Tavion Sanders Fit In The Tight End Room
Ja’Tavion Sanders is still the most talented player in the tight end room probably. However, his limited experience as a blocker will hurt his chances at playing time. Gunner Helm has reportedly been very impressive as a blocker and continues to blossom as a pass-catcher. Jahleel Billingsley is a former four-star recruit with three seasons of college experience, including two seasons with Jeff Banks (Texas tight ends coach) and Steve Sarkisian.
With a player as talented as Sanders its going to be hard to keep him off of the football field. Even if Gunnar Helm provides a boost as a run-blocker or if Billingsley has a better knowledge of the offense, Sanders should see the field as a detached tight end, also known as a ‘big-slot’. I hinted at that usage in my Go-Go Offense article.
Sanders As A Playmaker
Ja’Tavion Sanders was close to un-guardable in high school. At Denton Ryan, Sanders accumulated 1,244 yards and 19 touchdowns his senior year. Putting up numbers like those at a premier high school like Denton Ryan are head turning. Which is why I use the term “playmaker” instead of tight end or wide receiver. He is a player you can line up anywhere and have success.
Sander’s best attribute as a receiver are his natural hands when catching the ball. Almost always catching the ball with his hands and being able to track deep balls down the football field is an instinct that not every football player has.
Ja’Tavion Sanders also has a great ability to gain yards after the catch. At 6’4″ and 256 pounds, Sanders moves incredibly well for his size. Using his strength and powerful lower body to run through would-be tacklers. He also has wiggle, juking and evade tackles altogether. His balance as a runner is what sets him apart though. When he does get hit, he keeps his balance and continues to run forward.
Sanders has the chance to improve as a blocker as well. At his size and with his background on defense, Sanders should be well-equipped to be a good blocker. The most important part as a blocker is having the willingness to throw your body around to benefit your teammates. If Sanders proves he can do that there is no reason why he shouldn’t be a regular in the Longhorns rotation and maybe even the starter at tight end.
Ja’Tavion Sanders Potential On Defense
At Denton Ryan, Sanders was more than just a dynamic playmaker on offense. He was also a disruptive force off the edge. Sanders tallied 17.5 sacks and 36 tackles for loss in his three seasons on varsity.
Although raw as a pass rusher, Sanders used his incredible athleticism to create havoc for opposing offenses. Constantly using a speed rush to beat offensive tackles around the corner for a sack.
Ja’Tavion Sanders would also use his athleticism to drop into coverage. He would slip away from the offensive tackle and snatch passes out of the air intended for a running back who had swung out as a check-down option.
Although Sanders doesn’t have a refined technique as a pass rusher at the moment, he still showed that he has a bull rush move in his toolbox. He also showed he can long arm offensive tackles and disengage from their grasp to help as a run defender. Sanders most impressive skill was his tackling ability. Consistently wrapping up ball carriers and stopping them in their tracks whenever he had the chance.
Overall, Sanders would have a spot on this defense as an outside linebacker. He would be able to use his athleticism to drop into coverage at times while still rushing the passer often. Being able to do both is beneficial for the defense, to keep the offense guessing where pressure will come from.
The Debate On Where To Play Sanders
After talking about Sanders qualities at both positions it’s clear he would likely be successful in both areas. His incredible athleticism and natural instincts as a football player are obvious.
On one hand, edge defender is a premium position. Rushing the quarterback and creating pressure is typically a defenses goal. Having an athlete off the edge of Ja’Tavion Sanders’ caliber is what most premier college football programs have.
As for Ja’Tavion Sanders, pass-rushers also have the second highest average salary in the NFL, only behind quarterbacks. Positional value matters in the draft as well. Last season six edge defenders went in the first around, compared to one tight end. This season there are a projected seven first round edge players, compared to zero tight ends.
On the other hand, Ja’Tavion Sanders already has spent a season in the tight end room. He has been developing with Jeff Banks and having him switch to the defensive side of the ball now would waste another year for him.
Although Texas is not short on playmakers with Bijan Robinson, Xavier Worthy, and incoming wide receiver Isaiah Neyor, Sanders breaking out would be a huge boost to this offense. Texas has to bounce back from the terrible 2021 season they had. Having Sanders as an immediate contributor would help with that bounce back.
Ultimately, Ja’Tavion Sander’s year at tight end as a freshman points to him staying there for the 2022 season and beyond. As previously mentioned, moving Sanders to the defensive side of the ball this off-season would burn another year of eligibility for him while he learns his new position and assignments.
Steve Sarkisian and this staff are in a win-now mode. Sanders as a playmaking tight end is going to bring an immediate boost to this offense. Furthermore, to attract recruits in the transfer portal and in the 2023 class, Texas will have to show they can develop talent. Showcasing Ja’Tavion Sanders and his growth as a receiver and blocker would highlight this staff’s talent development.
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