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January 16, 2013

Hood: Sanders' exit opens doors for others

In the never-say-never world of major college football, Tuesday's decision by dynamic wide receiver Ace Sanders to declare for the 2013 NFL Draft shouldn't surprise anyone.

Some NFL Draft analysts were already on record saying that Sanders could be a Top 100 pick, likely putting him somewhere in the second or third round, a Day 2 pick.

For a guy that's 5-foot-8 and runs like the wind, that's pretty good. Chances are, Sanders' diminutive size would have kept teams from taking him in the first round anyway, so Sanders felt (or was convinced) that he wasn't going to drastically improve his draft stock by playing another year of SEC football.

In my opinion, Sanders intended to return to USC in 2013 heading into the regular-season finale at Clemson. He caught six passes for 119 yards and one touchdown against the rival Tigers, but topped that with an electrifying performance in the Outback Bowl when he had nine receptions for 92 yards and two touchdowns and returned a punt 63 yards for another score, earning him MVP honors.

After the Outback Bowl, I'm sure Sanders was told by people with NFL connections that he was primed to play on Sundays. Of course, he announced a couple of weeks ago on his Instagram account that he was coming back for his senior campaign.

However, as we've seen again and again in the ferocious and relentless world of recruiting, it's never over until it's over.

Tough pill to swallow for USC fans? Absolutely. But it wasn't totally unforeseen since we've seen past players reverse course shortly before the deadline to declare.

Being a junior, Sanders isn't eligible to appear in any all-star game, but he's a virtual lock to secure an invitation to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, joining other former Gamecocks such as Devin Taylor, D.J. Swearinger and DeVonte Holloman at Lucas Oil Field.

Sanders' decision means two things for the Gamecocks: 1) They really, really need Bruce Ellington to play football in 2013; 2) The door is now wide open for a promising group of young receivers to emerge.

Ellington (40 receptions for 600 yards and seven touchdowns) is now the ONLY receiver among the top five pass-catchers in 2012 to return next season. Sanders (45 receptions), Marcus Lattimore (26), Justice Cunningham (26) and Kenny Miles (20) have all moved on.

The second-most productive receiver returning in 2013? Rising junior Damiere Byrd, who had 14 receptions for 366 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore. His 94-yard touchdown catch against UAB early in the season and 56-yard TD grab in the early moments of the Outback Bowl supply mouth-watering highlights to Gamecock fans, but now he must step up and become a significant factor in the passing offense.

Put Nick Jones in the same category. He had just five receptions in the first 11 games, but concluded the season on a high note with four catches against Clemson and three for 78 yards in the Outback Bowl, including a key 70-yard catch-and-run down the middle of the field.

Did that play offer a preview of 2013 for Jones? Perhaps.

Sanders' departure also means that after making little noise in 2012, it is essential for USC's group of "tall receivers" to become a bigger force within the passing offense.

D.L. Moore's career-ending suspension meant that heralded 2012 signee Shaq Roland entered the Outback Bowl as the top-producing "tall receiver" in 2012. And he had all of five receptions.

Rattle off the names: Roland, K.J. Brent, Shamier Jeffery, Kwinton Smith, Jody Fuller. The group possesses enough talent to spark a renaissance at the "tall" receiver spot.

Will they? With Sanders gone, there is no time better than right now.

Roland's signing last year was greeted by euphoric celebrations by Gamecock fans. Many people expected that Roland would quickly become a major force in USC's passing offense.

However, for a variety of reasons, Roland spent last season in the background, learning the offense and how to succeed in the SEC. He showed flashes of his seemingly limitless skills during the scrimmages in preseason camp, but once the season started, he fell back.

The time has come for Roland to step into the spotlight, and flourish.

Same for Brent and Jeffery. They've combined for three receptions (all by Brent) in two years. Both players are entering their third seasons with the program and spring practice marks a pivotal point in their careers.

You get only so many opportunities to demonstrate that you're capable of performing at the SEC level before the coaches turn to someone else, and for Brent and Jeffery, they must make a solid impression in March and April.

In other words, time is running out. They have Smith and Fuller nipping at their heels, and dynamic 2013 commitment Pharoh Cooper (watch the Shrine Bowl highlights if you have doubts) could start out at wide receiver when he joins the program during the summer.

Competition never ends, which should make for a very intriguing spring practice.

When one door closes, another one opens. How far, we'll find out in a couple of months.

If you have any questions about this feature or wish to discuss it, please visit The Insiders Forum, Gamecock Central's members-only message board for Gamecock fans.

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