The second-year East Tennessee State football coach takes a more pragmatic approach when really calling plays.
“Sometimes the easiest way to beat teams is to run the ball,” Sanders said Friday. “If they let you run the ball, you’re able to move the ball and score points, there’s not as many things that can go wrong. Now, I’m also an old quarterback. My dream game, you never run the ball. Every play is a pass.”
That was Sanders the quarterback speaking. Sanders the coach has a different approach. He knows his team has to run the ball to be successful and he has a couple of pretty good options when it comes to handing it off.
Quay Holmes and Jacob Saylors formed one of the Southern Conference’s top 1-2 punches in the backfield last season — their first in the college ranks. Holmes was a redshirt freshman, Saylors a true freshman.
The two combined to rush for 1,543 yards and score 19 touchdowns.
“They had good freshman years and they’re both good football players,” Sanders said. “I expect them to be one year better. I think, having played as much as they played, they should understand about the conditioning that’s required. They’re both heavier. They don’t look too heavy. They still have their quickness.”
Holmes, from Powder Springs, Georgia, rushed for 928 yards and 13 TDs last season. He also had 34 receptions, second on the team, and caught two TD passes. He returned kickoffs and took one 69 yards.
Holmes was named the SoCon’s offensive freshman of the year and voted to several freshman All-America teams.
“I just want to improve in all aspects of the game and just become the best player I can to help this team, no matter what role it is,” said Holmes, who switched jersey numbers from No. 11 to No. 1 this season.
While Holmes was expected to be the go-to guy in the backfield last season after a strong spring game, Saylors’ route to offensive stardom took a different turn. He showed up on campus listed as an “athlete,” usually a designation for a player the coaches hope will help the team, but they’re just not sure where.
Saylors began the 2018 preseason practice in a secondary that would turn out to be one of the team’s strong points. With some prodding from running backs coach Gary Downs, the staff decided to give Saylors a shot on offense, where he excelled at Marion County High School in Jasper, Tennessee.
“It happened really quickly,” Saylors said “I was just working to get on the field in any way possible. Our defensive back corps was pretty strong and we were kind of light in the offensive backfield. Coach Downs saw most of my film was on the offensive side of the ball and he wanted to give me the opportunity to see what I can do. I’m thankful I got that chance.”
Once Saylors got that chance, he ran with it — literally. Two long touchdown runs in his first scrimmage as a running back cemented his place on offense, and he hasn’t slowed yet.
Saylors ran for 620 yards in a backup role — averaging 7.2 yards per carry — with four touchdowns. He showed a burst of speed that made him a threat to score at any time.
“I guess it was a good freshman year, but I’m not satisfied,” Saylors said. “I have a lot bigger goals.”
There really isn’t a starter and a backup in ETSU’s backfield. They’re more like backs 1A and 1B. Both have shown they can get the job done.
“He’s a great back as well,” Holmes said of Saylors. “I’m excited to see what he can do this year. A lot of teams are going to have their hands full with us.”
Holmes and Saylors will be competing for carries and yards, and that competition could make them both better, even though they remain friends regardless of what’s happening on the field.
“That’s my boy,” Saylors said. “We’re close. We joke around and we have a good relationship, but we both know when we go on the field, it’s a competition.”