By Shannon McNamara for MSNsportsNET.com
June 30, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - The next big thing has officially arrived for the West Virginia University football team.
||Junior Robert Sands is making a name for himself as West Virginia's big-play man in the secondary.
WVU Photographic Services/M.G. Ellis photo
To be fair, defensive back Robert Sands has resided within the Morgantown city limits for more than two years. His No. 2 jersey has appeared in all 26 Mountaineer games since 2008, and his 6-foot-5, 221-pound, freakishly-athletic body has accounted for 98 tackles, 65 in 2009 alone, and a combined 13 interceptions and pass break-ups.
Yet, often times, a collegiate athlete’s talent is measured strictly by what others say about him – and this offseason, Sand’s name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
The Sporting News anointed him as the “hardest hitter” in the BIG EAST Conference. Phil Steele boldly named him a preseason second team All-American. Additionally, the publication joins a cast of three other organizations that have placed the Miami, Fla., native on their preseason all-BIG EAST first team.
While most are citing Sands for accomplishments already achieved, ESPN.com BIG EAST blogger Brian Bennett, who just six days ago labeled the WVU Gridiron Gladiator as the conference’s eighth-best player for the 2010 season, surmised that Sands’ ability, not size, will prove to be the difference maker on the field.
Sands’ maturation has been a pleasant sight for Mountaineer fans and an easy observation for pundits. Rarely mentioned in most of the accompanying articles surrounding his accolades is all of the extra hours, off of the field and away from the weight room, that Sands, a communications major, spends with videotapes. His frequent viewing companion? Mountaineer offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. Though vacations have hindered the time throughout the offseason that Sands and Mullen spend together, the emerging defensive leader remains dedicated to the practice.
“I go in there and watch film on my own now since I’ve been watching it for the past couple of years,” the 2009 first team all-BIG EAST honoree said. “I go in there, watch the film and look at some of the opponents we’ll be seeing this year.”
In an effort to replace Mullen’s void in the film room, Sands has been recruiting incoming freshmen, such as free safety Travis Bell, to join him.
“My role is to get him (Bell) into film early,” Sands explained. “That’s the best thing for him – it’s the only way he is going to learn early. Then, he can take it out on the field, and I can coach him out there as well. The most important thing for him to do is to get out on the field and understand what he is doing.”
Bell, a 6-foot-2, 187-pound rookie out of Belle Glade, Fla., has impressed Sands since arriving on campus in mid-May. Sands says Bell, a 2009 Florida Class 2A all-state first team member, is competing well in the seven-on-seven drills and showing his potential on the field.
“Travis has a swagger about himself,” said Sands. “He’s pretty confident in his talent, which he should be – he was a good player coming out of high school. He’s come in here and he has intercepted some passes already.”
Sands also has noticed a few of the freshmen on the other side of the ball, specifically Ivan “Sticks” McCartney, a highly-recruited, 6-foot-3, 183-pound wide receiver from Miramar, Fla.
“We’re trying to work some of the freshmen in (the seven-on-seven drills), and they are doing pretty well,” Sands divulged. “Sticks came in and made some plays. There are some fast kids out there, and I think we’re going to be pretty good.”
If Sands’ prediction comes to fruition, the Mountaineers have the potential to surpass preseason expectations. As of now, most of the same pundits that have pegged Sands as one of the top players to watch in 2010 have also slated WVU as the second or third best BIG EAST team, with Pitt chosen as the team to beat.
Assuming that preseason forecasts hold true, Mountaineer fans could be looking at another Backyard Brawl to determine the conference champion. Regardless, Sands, who registered seven tackles, including five solo stops, an interception and three pass-breakups in WVU’s thrilling 19-16 win over Pitt last year, is always ready for a rumble with the Panthers.
“I realized my freshman year how important that game (the Backyard Brawl) is,” he laughed. “Fans come up to you and tell you to make sure you beat Pitt. I realize the game is a big deal to the fans; it’s a deep rivalry. I enjoy it.”
Sands, the BIG EAST leader in interceptions (five) last year, enjoys every game he plays in, saying that not only does he approach each the same, but he also tries to do his best to win them all – more for the fans than for himself.
“(Morgantown) is a college town and all of the fans love the players,” he said. “We are the NFL team; we are the pro team. We try to do our best to represent the Mountaineers and West Virginia as best as possible.”
Two-years deep into what is shaping up to be a prolific Mountaineer career, Sands’ play has already made WVU fans proud. With preseason accolades to spare, and his name poised to top many postseason lists by year’s end, one can only assume that Sands is destined to one day play for an actual NFL team. Until then, he’s Morgantown’s next big thing, and the Mountaineer faithful should brace themselves for the fireworks he is guaranteed to produce this season.