By LARRY VAUGHT
He’s got big goals for himself, but Kentucky senior running back Raymond Sanders likes one aspect of this year’s team.
“We are doing it as a team this year,” said Sanders. “I think the offense is simple, but there are a lot of motions and things. (Offensive coordinator) Neal Brown wants to catch the defense off guard. There’s not to learn as much as last year. You just have to go out there and execute what you do on that play. We just try to go out there and study and do what we have to do to make plays. But we are doing everything as a team, not as individuals.”
Brown and head coach Mark Stoops have bought into Sanders’ ability. He led UK in rushing last year with 669 yards — 5.4 yards per carry — and five touchdowns. He has played in 29 games, including seven starts, and has rushed for 1,078 yards and caught 39 passes for 238 yards. He can also return punts and kickoffs.
“The last time he ran out there in Commonwealth Stadium, his body looks a lot better now. I think this style of offense is probably the better fit for him,” Brown said. “It’s what he did in high school, he’s really comfortable in it. And I think he’s got more confidence than he’s ever had. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised by him. I expect big things from him this year.”
“We think he’s a very good player. He’s very talented,” Stoops said. “And hopefully his skill set will shine in this offense. We think he has the ability to make some big plays.”
Sanders has tried not to look ahead to the season-opening game in Nashville against Western Kentucky. But he remembers how the Hilltoppers celebrated when they won in overtime at Commonwealth Stadium last year, a game he could only watch after being suspended for an off-field incident.
“We are tired of going against our defense. We understand that it is a process to get to the first game and that we have to take things one at a time so we can focus on each week. But we are ready to play,” Sanders said. “We have more energy, more guys flying around.”
The 5-11, 210-pound Sanders is not a big back and has missed games each of the last two seasons with various injuries.
“Everyone’s just telling me I’m too small, too small,” Sanders said. “My mom always told me it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. My sophomore year was a bad year because I had my two knee surgeries. Last year I feel like I improved. If I keep improving every year, it will be better. We have a lot of guys that are stronger, faster across the board. We are playing harder and making more plays and that will open the passing game and running game. We are just going to balance each other out and make plays for each other.”
He got the ultimate compliment from Brown and running backs coach Chad Scott when they basically held him out of UK’s last scrimmage to avoid any injury.
“It felt good but I had to be into it mentally,” Sanders said. “I was looking for things mentally that I might not see when I am on the field. It feels good to know the coach knows I understand the offense. I was glad to help the younger guys.”
“His attitude and passion toward the game have changed. He really put in a lot of time in the offseason, studied film. He’s a leader now. He’s become a terrific blocker. He’s doing some things now that we didn’t see last season,” Scott said.
Sanders says the offense “is fitting me well” and should give him the opportunity to play in space more when he can break big plays.
“Those other guys are pushing me and helping me be competitive, too,” Sanders said. “I just want to go out and make plays for my team. I am one who can help get us going. We have a lot of people that can make plays. It’s going to be a fun offense to get me in space and try to make some guys miss and try to hit some home runs.”
“I feel like I am back to 100 percent. I have my speed and quickness all back and my knees feel good. I feel like this year will be a better year than last year. My goal is to get over that 1,000-yard mark and make a lot of plays.”