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Texas tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders comes into his own

Eric Nahlin10/04/22
Article written by:On3 imageEric Nahlin
On3 image
Ja'Tavion Sanders (Will Gallagher/Inside Texas)

Five games into his sophomore season Texas tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders has emerged as a player defensive coordinators need to account for at all times. His 20 receptions on the season are only one behind receiving co-leaders Jordan Whittington and Xavier Worthy. He’s tied with Worthy for team lead in touchdown receptions with three, a number that will dramatically increase as the season goes on. In 2021, Texas tight ends totaled only 32 receptions and five touchdowns.

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Given his ability and corresponding recruiting ranking coming out of Denton Ryan high school, Sanders’ success comes as no surprise. Though, in his weekly press conference Steve Sarkisian touched on how early expectations might have been unfair.

Said Sarkisian, “I love JT. I said it before and I’ll say it again; I’ll give him a lot of credit. In this day and age of the five-star recruit, it’s instant gratification. He’s supposed to walk in the door and become a starter the day that he gets here, because that’s what he hears on social media and that’s what everybody writes about, and all those things. When in reality, there’s this idea of development and developing players. I think JT put in a lot of work last year with Coach (Jeff) Banks.”

At Inside Texas our early reports regarding Sanders centered around the extra attention he was seeing from Banks, UT’s tight ends coach. As Sark goes on to hint, Sanders came is as more of an athlete than fully evolved tight end.

Sark continues, “We asked him to do things that were different than maybe what he had done before. He had the skillset to do it, but we really wanted to drive into him that way to become a complete tight end and not just be a one-dimensional pass reciever. He’s done it. He really put in the work and we’re seeing it.”

Most offensive/defensive college prospects are wide receivers/defensive backs. Sanders was more rare as a legit star prospect at tight end and defensive end. But tight end was a bit of a misnomer as he was more of a jumbo wide receiver. His hands and movement skills were always tremendous but he wasn’t asked to be fully integrated into the tight end position. So much more goes into beyond splitting out wide and making one-handed receptions.

Our January practice reports told the story of a young tight end ready to take the next step. Word was trickling out of how hard Sanders was working, and given his natural ability, hard work was really all it was going to take for him to become a very good player.

That attitude was reflected in Sark’s comments here, “Obviously, we see the playmaking ability he provides and the versatility he provides us, but one thing I think goes a little unnoticed for a guy who’s a true sophomore in his second year (is) he’s a really good leader. This guy has got the right makeup of a great player in that he has the leadership qualities necessary to be that kind of guy. He stands up, he’s not afraid, and the more guys like that we can get, the better for us. I love the progression he’s made to get to this point. His development is not over by any means, but the trajectory that he’s on is a really good one.”

His development is massive for a program looking to create room for both star receivers and running backs. He’s no longer just a talented receiver, but he’s also become a good perimeter blocker. Look at the fourth play here.

Perhaps most importantly though, he allows Steve Sarkisian to test the limits of his own creativity. Sark hasn’t had a tight end to work with like this since he had Austin Hooper on the Atlanta Falcons. The NFL is in Sanders’ future, but as Sark says, he has more developing to do. He better hurry, it’s possible he’s already about halfway through his career.