Sanders excels for SMU


POSTED: Tuesday, December 22, 2009

SMU waited 25 years to return to a bowl game.

Emmanuel Sanders had endured the last three often-trying seasons without a postseason appearance.

Still, even as his teammates embarked on their journey to Hawaii on Saturday, Sanders didn't mind waiting a little while longer to start soaking up the bowl experience.

The senior receiver finally arrived Sunday afternoon after participating in SMU's graduation ceremony and is looking forward to capping his college career in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Thursday.

“;I'm just enjoying it. God has been good,”; Sanders said. “;Hard work pays off and it shows.”;

Hard work mixed with heavy doses of patience and perseverance.

After a redshirt season, Sanders emerged as a playmaker his freshman and sophomore seasons. His workload picked up when June Jones brought the run-and-shoot from Hawaii to Dallas, though wins remained elusive.

The struggles may have sweetened this season's payoff as Sanders racked up career-best numbers while helping SMU to its first bowl game since the 1984 Aloha Bowl.

“;That's like the exclamation point of the season,”; Sanders said of the Mustangs' Hawaii Bowl matchup against Nevada. “;We've been through a lot of ups and downs this season and made it to a bowl game and we just have to finish strong.”;

Sanders will leave the program as SMU's career leader in receptions, yards and touchdown catches. With a year in Jones' offense behind him, Sanders pulled in 91 passes for 1,215 yards and six touchdowns this season to earn first-team All-Conference USA honors.

Sanders pined for a chance to play in the run-and-shoot when he'd stay up late to watch Colt Brennan fire passes to Davone Bess, Ryan Grice-Mullen and company during the Warriors' ESPN appearances.





        » Who: Nevada (8-4) vs. SMU (7-5)

» When: Thursday, 3 p.m.


» Where: Aloha Stadium




» Radio: KKEA, 1420-AM


He got his wish when Jones was hired, which meant spending even more time studying the former Warriors slots.

“;We watched film and the cut-ups and everything and he got tired of watching them,”; Jones said during yesterday's Hawaii Bowl press conference.

“;I couldn't wait to watch myself out there,”; added Sanders, seated next to the coach.

Sanders averaged 95.8 yards per game in his 10 starts as a junior, but the Mustangs continued to struggle.

They finished Jones' first season in Dallas with a second straight 1-11 season, dropping to 0-16 in conference play in Sanders' sophomore and junior seasons.

He was suspended for disciplinary reasons for the final two games of 2008, but worked his way back into the fold and scored the Mustangs' first touchdown of the season on a 79-yard punt return to spark a win over Stephen F. Austin in the opener.

The Mustangs followed with a road win over UAB, though a 3-0 start eluded them with an overtime loss to Washington State in which Sanders caught a school-record 18 passes for 178 yards.

The Mustangs went on to pull out tight wins over East Carolina, Navy, Rice and UTEP to pull off the nation's biggest turnaround and become bowl eligible.

“;We had the youngest team in the country last year. No one was familiar with Coach Jones and his system and what he preached, so it showed on the field,”; Sanders said. “;The second year, we still have a young team, but guys are more acclimated with the system, people know where the ball is supposed to go and know how to run routes.”;

Sanders has also made an impact on special teams, ranking fifth nationally in punt returns with an average of 15.4 yards and a touchdown.

The Mustangs will face a Nevada defense that ranked 119th in the country in pass defense, giving up an average of 284.3 yards per game through the air, including 374 against Hawaii's run-and-shoot attack.

But “;we're going to overlook that because on any given day they can be No. 1 in the secondary,”; Sanders said.

Homecoming game

For all of the talk of Jones' return to Hawaii, the game represents a homecoming for players on both sides.

Nevada defensive tackle Mike Andrews is a Kalaheo graduate. His brother, Bruce, was in town last month as a Navy receiver. Local products on the SMU roster are defensive back Jay Angotti (Punahou) and receivers Charles Clay (Hilo) and Marcus Holyfield (Mid-Pacific).

Short yardage

As of yesterday afternoon, 28,500 tickets had been distributed for the game. ... Nevada has been designated as the visiting team for the game, but will wear dark uniforms.