Running back Reid Sanders makes the move to outside linebacker

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Liberty Hill’s Reid Sanders (#3) throws a stiff arm during a carry against La Vega on Oct. 13. Sanders, who broke out for the Panthers as a running back last year, is in the process of transitioning to defense. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By KEITH SPARKS

Following a few months of frustration on the sidelines, last year’s breakout running back Reid Sanders was finally able to make his season debut against Waco La Vega on Oct. 13, playing the halfback position. Sanders finished with 72 yards and a touchdown in his first game back as the Panthers fell to the number two state-ranked Pirates by a final score of 33-18.

The following Friday, however, Sanders had a much different role. Against the Lampasas Badgers on Oct. 20, he was on the other side of the ball. He didn’t get a single carry, but played outside linebacker for just about every defensive snap.

While the time Sanders spent injured on the sidelines to begin his junior season was one of the worst experiences of his football career, his return has been one of the most rewarding.

“It was amazing. There hasn’t been another feeling in my life like it,” he said of his return to the field.

After spending five weeks on the sidelines, Sanders is confident that, although it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable process, his rehabilitation was worth the wait.

“It was terrible,” Sanders said of being forced to sit out due to a hamstring injury. “It was mentally challenging, honestly, just keeping my mind right the whole time and trying to stay focused and prepared game-by-game, but it’s good to be back. They kept me out for a long time, so I got the rest and recovery I needed. It’s good to be back and playing. I feel great.”

Although he broke out last year as one of the Panthers’ most prolific running threats as a sophomore, Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker thinks Sanders can make an even bigger impact on the defensive end, considering the fact that the drop off in talent from Sanders to Elijah Davis, the senior newcomer in the backfield, isn’t nearly as big as the drop off from Sanders to a backup at linebacker.

“I think he can help our defense,” Walker said prior to the Panthers’ game against Lampasas. “We’re real high on Reid. He may not play as much halfback this week. We may let Elijah (Davis) play a little more and move some things around and let Reid play defense and see how he helps. We’re trying to find the best 22. He can help us on offense, but is he going to help us more if he played defense, since there’s not as big a drop off, offensively? Him being healthy is going to help our football team. Offensively, I don’t know, we may go back to looking at different things and moving some people around and trying to find the right fit.”

For Sanders, the transition won’t be an easy one, considering that prior to Friday’s matchup with the Badgers, he hadn’t taken a defensive snap in-game since his eighth-grade season. Although at this point, he’d rather have the ball in his hands, Sanders will do what is asked of him in order to support his teammates and coaching staff.

“I love running the ball,” Sanders said. “I love it. There’s nothing likerunning the ball, but it’s all the same. I’m doing it for the guys around me and the coaches that are coaching for me. It’s just that now my carries are going to be my tackles.”

The hardest part of the transition, Sanders said, has been has been the mental shift between the thought processes of making a move on offense and predicting what that move will be on defense.

“I’m so used to running away from people, now I have to guess what they’re doing,” he said. “Just switching my mind over to judge somebody on what they’re doing instead of what I’m going to do.”

Walker made it clear that Sanders’ move to the defense has nothing to do with his performance in the backfield. In fact, he may continue to see the occasional carry on the offensive end. The move is simply about maximizing the team’s potential as a whole and allowing the 22 best players to shine.

“He may play a little bit more defense and not as much offense, but it’s not because of what he did (against La Vega),” Walker said. “I told him today, I said, ‘You’re still our best halfback, but I don’t know if your separation with the other halfbacks is that much of a difference. We’re thinking, defensively, you may be that much better than those other guys, and it makes us just a better football team.’ Once again, we’re just trying to get that perfect piece of the puzzle here to get our best 22 out there. He may get some carries on offense, but I don’t know if he’s going to be the starter.”

Defensive Coordinator Kent Walker considered starting Sanders at linebacker against Austin Anderson on Sept. 28, but the combination of pouring rain, the likelihood of a victory, and the upcoming bye week kept him on the sideline.

Sanders’ start at outside linebacker against Lampasas on Friday, Oct. 20 was his first since his eighth-grade season, so the brothers Walker will evaluate his performance in practices and on Friday nights before making a decision about his role moving forward.

“He may be better with us on the offensive side of the ball, but we don’t know,” Walker said. “He’s a big, strong, athletic young man. When you look at him, you think, ‘Man,’ and he’s got good football sense. You think, ‘He’s got to help somewhere. Where is he going to help more?” That’s what we’re looking at right now, because we played four games without him and did all well other than some blunders in Port Lavaca. We know he’s going to help us on one side of the ball, but where is he going to help us more? We don’t know that, yet. We’ll play him a little on defense, and if he helps us more on defense, we’re going to play him there. If we think, ‘Well, he didn’t help us that much on defense,’ then we’ll move him back to offense.”

Following Sanders’ defensive performance against the Badgers, Walker’s vision of his future isn’t much clearer. What he does know, however, is that Sanders will be on the field one way or another. He’s simply too athletic not to be.

“He’s going to be on the football field,” Walker said. “He’s too big, too fast, too strong, too good a football player to be standing on the sidelines, so we’re just trying to find the best fit for him.”

The transition may take a while for all parties involved to get used to, but in the words of Sanders, “It’s just football.”

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