TAMPA — If it wasn't going to be the national championship game, Tuesday's Outback Bowl is exactly where South Carolina receiver Ace Sanders wanted the Gamecocks to be bowling, a 35-minute drive from his home in Bradenton.
It's just another happy return for the former Manatee standout, whose punt return prowess earned him co-special teams player of the year honors in the SEC, part of a breakout season for the speedy junior.
"I can't ask for more," Sanders on Friday morning from the Tampa Convention Center, his garnet No. 1 jersey draped across his legs. "The location is perfect. Good weather, all my family is here. Everybody gets to see me play."
As Sanders prepares to take on Michigan and the nation's No. 2 pass defense, he takes great pride in the lack of size among South Carolina's top receivers. He's 5 feet 8 and 175 pounds; Bruce Ellington is 5-9, 197, and Damiere Byrd is 5-9, 168.
"We like it that way. With defensive backs, people don't know. You don't like to chase little guys around the field," Sanders said. "We don't get tired. … Having them follow us around the field, they'll come up and tell you, 'Y'all slow down.' "
Michigan has faced its share of speedy offensive skill players this season, but the Wolverines are aware of the quickness they'll face from the Gamecocks and the need to prevent game-changing big gains.
"They aren't very big. They're 5-8, 5-9, but they're solid ballplayers, good frames. They've got a lot of speed on that side of the ball, and I think it starts with Sanders," Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. "They have good hands, run good routes, but they're most dangerous in space, after the catch. Our motto all year is, 'Don't give up the big play.' If they're going to score, make them drive down the field. Bend, but don't break.
"It's much easier said than done, but they've got talent on that side of the ball, that's for sure."
With Alshon Jeffery now with the Chicago Bears, Sanders has also emerged as a top receiver for the Gamecocks, with a team-high seven touchdown catches after totaling four in his first two seasons. He has submitted his name to the NFL's advisory board for underclassmen to get a better sense of where he might go if he were to enter the NFL draft, but he made it clear Friday he's just curious at this point.
Punt returns had been a weak spot for South Carolina; when Sanders took one 68 yards for a touchdown against East Carolina last year, it was the team's first punt return score since 2003. He had an electric 70-yard return (opening with a fumble, no less) in the Gamecocks' 35-7 rout of Georgia and just missed another with a 49-yard return against Missouri where he stepped out of bounds inside the 5-yard line.
"Once you get that first one, you see the whole demeanor of the punt-return team change: We got one. That means we can do it again," said Sanders, careful to thank his blockers for his success. "They're pumped up more than I am to get back there. They get me going."
Sanders has averaged 14.5 yards on punt returns, third nationally, and he reset a 41-year-old school record with 363 return yards, doing so on 12 fewer returns than Dick Harris needed in 1971. The Outback Bowl has had two punt returns for touchdowns in its history; Georgia's Brandon Boykin did so last year, and Michigan's Derrick Alexander did it in 1994. Boykin's single-game record of 92 yards (set on a single return) is well within Sanders' reach.
"Everybody has the mind-set that we can break it at any time," he said. "In past years, everybody didn't understand how big special-teams was. This team now, they know we can do it again, so they go hard every time. They say, 'We're going to block. You just do the running.' "