By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
August 13, 2008
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – You don’t see too many 6-foot-5-inch free safeties running around in college football, but there is a pretty good chance you will be seeing one on the field at Milan Puskar Stadium this fall.
||Robert Sands has stood tall in the Mountaineer secondary this fall.
Brian Persinger photo
Freshman Robert Sands has certainly stood out this fall not only because he’s much taller than the rest of the DBs he’s working with, but also because he’s a pretty good football player. Sands says he has benefited from his stature because it affords him the opportunity of seeing the entire field.
“It gives me an advantage because most safeties can’t see over the line and even when I’m backpedaling I can see most stuff over the line,” Sands explained. “I also have a big wing span so I can get my hand on the ball and stuff like that.”
Sands picked safety early in his high school career at Carol City High School because his high school coach discouraged two-way players and also because there were just too many running backs to crack the lineup.
“When I got to high school I was actually a running back. I wasn’t this tall. I asked myself what I liked more. There were too many people at running back and there weren’t that many at safety,” Sands said. “I also liked Kenny Phillips, who plays for the Giants now. I looked up to him and I was like, I want to be like him.”
Sands earned second-team all-state honors and was rated by the Miami Herald as one of Dade County’s Top 25 prep players. His best game came against No. 5-rated Booker T. Washington High School when he made two interceptions and broke up five passes.
Many schools were interested in Sands including Florida, whose safety coach at the time, Doc Holliday, was keeping in touch.
“Doc recruited me at Florida and then he left. Pittsburgh was recruiting me at the same time. The coach at Florida told me if this person doesn’t commit then they would have a scholarship for me. I felt like they really didn’t want me so I’ll go to Pitt then,” Sands said.
That’s when Holliday reentered the picture at West Virginia.
“Doc called me up after my visit from Pitt and he told me he was at West Virginia and they wanted me there as a Mountaineer. He got me on a visit. I came up here and I liked it. They showed me a lot of film and I liked the defense,” Sands said. “They run around a lot and they do a lot of different stuff. You are never in one spot; they’re always disguising stuff.”
The fact that safeties play such a prominent role in West Virginia’s defense was very appealing to Sands.
“It let me know that I have the opportunity to get on the field because there are three positions that I can learn to play,” Sands said. “That was a plus.”
Another plus was the attitude Sands took when he arrived at West Virginia.
“My whole mindset when I came in here was just to work, get into the film and get these plays down,” Sands said. “I know the plays somewhat but it’s not to where I can just run around and not worry about, should I do this? Should I do that? I didn’t come here big headed. I came here knowing that I have to work and when it’s my turn to be on the field I’ve got to be ready.”
That may turn out to be sooner rather than later. Asked Monday if he thought Sands was ready to play in the opener against Villanova, Defensive Coordinator Jeff Casteel smiled and nodded.
“Yes, I think so,” Casteel said. “He has really progressed and he’s a smart kid and a great athlete. We’re really pleased with him. He has a lot of ability but he’s going to make a lot of mistakes as a young guy. But we’re really pleased with him after our 10th or 11th practice. Everyday he makes plays and (Monday) he was running with the ones and the twos.”
“I’m not going to say I’m fully ready because there is lots of room for improvement but right now I’m looking good,” Sands said. “I’ve made a couple of mental mistakes because I didn’t get back far enough. In high school I was back far enough but in college you’ve got to get back even farther because they’ve got some big arms out there.”
Because Sands is taller than most safeties, there are technical things he must pay attention to in order to play the position. He is reminded of those technical things daily.
“My coaches have always emphasized that since I’m tall I’ve got to get my hips down,” Sands said. “They are constantly training me to be ready to break on the ball. Don’t be high hat. When I tackle make sure I’m low and drive my feet. (Being tall) is unique but it also has its advantages, too.”
And just because a player is fast going forward doesn’t mean he’s fast going backward. Backpedaling is hard for anyone let alone a player standing 6-feet-5 inches tall.
“It’s hard for anybody if you don’t get your shoulders over your knees and your knees over your feet,” Sands explained. “If you don’t do that then, of course, it’s going to be a problem for anybody. I figure if I get the technique down it will be fine for me.”
Sands says right now he’s learning his responsibilities and getting a handle on the defense as quickly as he can.
“Any defense you’ve got to come in and learn,” Sands said. “There is always an adjustment with everything. It’s a whole different league. The game is faster. Everybody is stronger.
“In this defense I have to stay back but they also give me a free hit,” he said. “I can roam around a little bit and make some plays when I can. It’s a good defense.”