Monday, April 26, 2010
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Louis DeLuca/Dallas Morning News
Steelers draft pick Emmanuel Sanders is SMU's all-time leader in receptions (235), receiving yards (3,791) and touchdown receptions (34).
It's not as though the Steelers needed any more convincing about Emmanuel Sanders, a slippery wide receiver from Southern Methodist. In fact, not wanting to risk waiting until the fourth round to draft him, director of football operations Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin decided to take Sanders in the third round for fear of losing him to another team.
But, during the process of evaluating Sanders as a possible replacement for Santonio Holmes, the Steelers received a character reference and scouting report about the 5-foot-11, 180-pound receiver from an unlikely source. And he just happened to be next door in the same building.
Before he became the defensive coordinator at Pitt, Phil Bennett was the head coach at SMU and the man responsible for recruiting Sanders, who went on to become the school's all-time leader in receptions (235), receiving yards (3,791) and touchdown receptions (34).
When Sanders visited the Steelers' South Side facility for a pre-draft interview several weeks ago, he and his former head coach had lunch together in the team's cafeteria.
Now Bennett can visit with Sanders whenever he wants.
"I'm pretty proud of Emmanuel," Bennett was saying the other day, less than 24 hours after the Steelers selected Sanders with the 82nd pick in the National Football League draft. "He was gung-ho from the day he got on campus. He made everyone around him better. He loves to play the game of football. We used to call him 'Go-Go' because he never stops."
Bennett, who has been at Pitt since he was fired at SMU during the 2007 season, said Sanders reminds him of Steelers receiver Mike Wallace because they are both always smiling, both very personable.
The Steelers will settle for Sanders looking like Wallace, a third-round draft choice in 2009, on the football field.
All Wallace did his rookie season was catch 39 passes for 756 yards and six touchdowns. He was the second-fastest receiver in the draft and used his speed to get behind defenses, catching seven passes of 40 yards or longer, including four for touchdowns.
Sanders is not as fast as Wallace, but he was timed at 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and has what receivers coach Scottie Montgomery calls "quick to the tuck." That means Sanders starts upfield as soon as he catches the ball.
And he caught a lot of them last season -- a school-record 98 in the run-and-shoot-style offense used by SMU coach June Jones.
"He really came to the forefront," Colbert said. "We had evaluated him during the fall, but at the East-West [game], he really stood out among the wide receivers. The more work we did, the better we liked him, including when we had him here for a visit."
Bennett had a similar experience when he went to Bellville, Texas, to recruit Sanders, who was a first-team all-district selection at three positions -- quarterback, wide receiver and safety.
"You couldn't get anyone to say anything bad about Emmanuel -- principals, counselors, nobody," Bennett said. "They were all just emphatic about him."
Sanders, though, did develop one blemish.
At SMU, he was suspended for the final two games of the 2008 season, leading some to believe he was a problem player. But Sanders said the suspension was because he was 15 minutes late twice to study hall and another time he was five minutes late to practice. They were minor infractions, but they added up to three strikes, which, under the penal system of Jones, who was in his first season at SMU, equated to a two-game suspension.
"My coach had implemented a three-strike policy, regardless of what you did," Sanders said. "It was three strikes and you got a two-game suspension."
Sanders said the suspension changed his perspective. He worked harder, in the weight room and the classroom. And his coaches noticed.
Bennett noticed a similar reaction during Sanders' freshman season at SMU when he didn't get to play because he was being redshirted. He reacted positively to a negative challenge.
"He would get so mad at me," Bennett said. "He could have helped us as a freshman, but I had made up my mind he was going to be redshirted. He was only about 158 pounds and I had decided we were going to bite the bullet and get him stronger.
"Well, he'd get on that scout team and every day would be an adventure. Our coaches would say to me, 'Why aren't we playing him?'
The Steelers hope they don't have to ask the same question.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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