BRADENTON, Fla. – Alabama recruit Trey Sanders doesn’t much care for five-yard runs or anything close to that.
Sanders, a 6-1, 205-pound junior for host IMG Academy, prefers to go 65 yards … or more, a feat he has accomplished four times in three games this season.
That fourth long-gainer occurred Friday night, when his Ascenders (3-0), ranked second in the nation by USA TODAY Sports, rallied to defeat No. 5 Miami Central 24-15.
Trailing 15-10 with 5:53 to play, Sanders broke free around left end, stepping back before sprinting forward for 65 yards and the winning touchdown.
“I came up to my offensive line just like I always do and said, ‘It’s time. This is what we live for – it’s why we schedule the big games’,” said Sanders, who finished with 99 yards on 10 carries. “That’s why we’re at IMG.
“The next you know, the hole opened up.”
IMG Coach Kevin Wright said Sanders, who is from the Florida Panhandle town of Port St. Joe, was not an immediate hit last year with the Ascenders.
“Trey got here last year as a sophomore, and people labeled him an athlete,” Wright said. “We played him at safety, and he was injured for the first half of the year.
“In the first game we used him at running back, he ran for 210 yards against Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, and he had a couple of runs over 60 yards.”
That trend has continued this year. Besides Friday’s back-breaking run, Sanders had an 89-yarder in the opener at Chandler (Ariz.). In IMG’s second game, Sanders had two runs longer than 70 yards in San Diego versus Centennial Cathedral.
On Friday, IMG appeared headed for a defeat. The Ascenders hadn’t played in 20 days, and Central (3-1), which hadn’t played in two weeks – both due to Hurricane Irma – seemingly had the game locked up.
Then Sanders got loose.
“He’s a home run hitter,” Wright said. “He gets stronger as the game goes on. Half of his long runs are in the fourth quarter.
“When he gets a crease, he can take it to the house.”
After two plays, lightning delayed the next snap for 109 minutes.
Once play resumed, IMG lost star left tackle Daniel Faalele to an injury to his right ankle.
In addition, IMG quarterback Artur Sitkowski, a Miami Hurricanes recruit and the No. 5 pro-style passer in the nation, was benched in the second quarter after throwing a second interception. He completed just 5-of-13 passes for 10 yards, although Wright said a bruised shoulder was the reason he was pulled.
Meanwhile, Central, which had knocked off No. 7 Bishop Gorman two weeks ago in Las Vegas, led 9-0 in the second quarter, sparked by a 22-yard touchdown run from James Cook, the highly rated running back whose brother Dalvin Cook plays the same position for the Minnesota Vikings.
Central led 9-3 at halftime, but IMG took a 10-9 lead when Xavier Thomas recovered a blocked punt in the end zone. It was IMG’s second blocked punt of the game. For the season, IMG has blocked four punts in three games, two of them for scores.
“I don’t think the better team won tonight,” Central coach Roland Smith said. “But we gave up a blocked punt that turned the tide, and we gave up a big run (to Sanders) late in the game that we cannot do.
“(Sanders) made a tremendous run. He broke a couple of tackles and took it to the house. But I’m proud of my team and the way we fought.”
Indeed, Central regained the lead on a 43-yard touchdown run by Willie Davis, one of three Rockets running backs who impressed in the game, along with Cook and freshman Amari Daniels.
Sanders, though, made the game-breaking play, and he said the presence of Cook on the opposite sideline served as motivation.
“He’s a hell of a player – just like his brother,” Sanders said. “(Central has) five Division I running backs. I was ready for this game.”
Cook ran 14 times for 79 yards (5.6 average); Davis ran nine times for 74 yards (8.2 average); Daniels ran 10 times for 60 yards (6.0 average).
But Sanders – thanks to his big run – put up the best numbers, and he again handled the pressure that comes with playing at IMG, where the roster boasts players from 26 states and eight countries.
“We got a lot of pressure on ourselves at IMG,” Sanders said. “Every week, it’s like college football. You are playing a good team every week.“