Team-first attitude has Ja'Tavion Sanders in CFB Playoffs, on verge of NFL Stardom

Photo by John Hamilton | Edit by DCTF

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NEW ORLEANS – Ja’Tavion Sanders admits he wasn’t always the best teammate. 

Denton Ryan head coach Dave Henigan vividly remembers reading his former five-star pupil the riot act following a controversial touchdown in Sanders’ junior season with the Raiders. The play was designed to get the ball in Sanders’ hands. Instead, quarterback Seth Henigan, the son of the head coach and current starter at Memphis, checked the play and threw a touchdown to one of Sanders’ teammates.  

“He was noticeably angry after the play,” Dave Henigan said. “I called him into my office the next day along with his parents and told him, ‘That’s not how we operate.’ To his credit, he humbled himself and became a great leader for us the next year.”

The next year was special for Denton Ryan and Sanders. He starred on both sides of the ball, hauling in 63 receptions for 1,161 yards and 16 touchdowns, including some one-handed highlight reels that made Randy Moss blush. He also ran for three touchdowns, recorded four sacks, and had an interception. Denton Ryan went 15-0 and won the Class 5A Division I state championship. 

Despite the circus grabs like the one-handed snags against Frisco Lone Star and Highland Park and Arlington Martin, most recruitniks pegged Sanders as a future edge rusher. He played on that side of the ball in spots for a talented Denton Ryan squad, but he spent most of his time at wide receiver and occasionally as a true tight end. Sanders was the top-ranked athlete in the 2021 recruiting cycle and a top 15 player nationally on the 247Sports Composite rankings. 

The question was never talent. The question was fit. Where would the 6-3, 235-pound five-star play in college? Even he didn’t know at that time. 

“The smart ones recruited him on both sides of the ball,” Henigan joked. “He was elite. He could’ve played anything he wanted, honestly. He probably still can.” 

Tom Herman was the head coach at Texas when Sanders pledged to the Longhorns. Now a junior, Sanders said that his thoughts of playing both ways ended when Herman was replaced by Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian weeks after the early signing period. Any thoughts that Sanders would be the next Joseph Ossai flew out the window. 

“When Sark got the job, I was like, I gotta play offense,” Sanders said at Sugar Bowl availability on Friday. “He’s one of the best play callers in college football. I never had any doubts about not playing defensive end. In my heart, I always wanted to be on offense scoring touchdowns.” 

Denton Ryan was 58-3 in the four years Sanders was in school. He moved up to varsity for the first time for the Raiders’ playoff run in 2017 as a freshman. He became a starter the next year and a household name in recruiting circles by the end of the 2018 season. Sanders was the best player on the field, and his team won a lot. 

That changed when he arrived at Texas. The Longhorns went 5-7 during Sanders’ freshman season of 2021 and he was a non-factor. He played in 12 games primarily on special teams with the field goal unit. Sanders was a talent, but he wasn’t polished. He was a big-bodied wide receiver who outjumped defenders and plucked balls from thin air in high school. He needed to be a three-down tight end to excel for the Longhorns. 

Like in high school, Sanders arrived on the big scene on the Forty Acres as a sophomore. He was a first-team All-Big 12 selection and a John Mackey Award semifinalist after catching a program record, for a tight end, 54 catches. His 613 receiving yards were second-most by a tight end in program history. Sanders had learned how to be a great college tight end. He wa still learning how to be an elite teammate.

“Last year, I had some moments where I was thinking about myself more than the team and not being the best leader I could be,” he said. “That was one of my goals in the offseason, to be a better leader on and off the field and I think I’ve shown that.” 

Sanders battled through injuries as a junior while Texas went 12-1 in the regular season and won its first Big 12 championship since 2009. His numbers were down, but his impact was up. Sanders caught 39 passes for 607 yards and two scores this year. His growth as a leader was more important than any of those catches, however. Well, except maybe the ones against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 title game. 

“It is not about yourself, it about the team,” Sanders said. “If you want to be a leader, you need to do everything right because everyone’s eyes are on you. If you say one thing and doing another, how is that going to look in their eyes? You can’t be a hypocrite.” 

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