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ASU Football: Giovanni Sanders emerging as leader in receiver room

Former walk-on poised for breakout season

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Arizona Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. - Giovanni Sanders is no stranger to earning his stripes.

When he walked on at Arizona State in the summer of 2020, he was betting on himself, in what emerged as his only shot at playing Division I football.

After a high school career where he racked up over 2,300 yards and scored 30 touchdowns, Sanders spent his first collegiate season at Dixie State (now Utah Tech), which at the time fielded a Division II football program.

Sanders didn’t have an abundance of opportunities in Saint George but still grabbed 19 catches for 295 yards.

He returned to California in 2019, playing at Riverside Community College, about 40 miles north of his hometown of Murrieta, with hopes that a solid season would bring Division I offers.

Sanders had a great season, emerging as the Tigers’ number-one target, hauling in 59 catches and tallying 854 yards and eight touchdowns.

But the offers never came.

When the pandemic hit, Sanders took a job at a local market, hoping for an opportunity that he wasn’t sure would ever come. Eventually, former ASU co-wide receivers coach Prentice Gill reached out.

It wasn’t a scholarship offer, but it was a chance. Sanders came to Tempe as a preferred walk-on.

During the shortened 2020 season, Sanders joined the scout team in practice, facing off against Chase Lucas and Jack Jones. Just as he had at Riverside, he took the opportunity in stride, learning from each rep and continuing to hone his skills.

He even earned a few snaps in the Devils’ win over Oregon State at the end of the 2020 season, a sign of the respect he had earned among the coaching staff. In 2021, the staff reinforced their belief in Sanders, putting him on scholarship.

In 2021, he saw limited playing time, but he carved out a role as a staple in 2022, tallying 500 yards on 40 catches, both second on the team behind Elijhah Badger.

He tallied 94 yards against nationally-ranked Oklahoma State in September and had a few solid performances throughout the year, but he saved his best performance for last.

In the Territorial Cup, Sanders snagged eight catches, going for 120 yards and scoring his first touchdown at the Division I level.

“Of course, it was the best game of the year, but I feel like that’s something I could normally do,” Sanders said. “I feel like the opportunities really came my way that game and I felt like I capitalized on it.

“Going into the offseason with that momentum. It gives me the knowledge, okay, I could go for 100-plus yards and a touchdown for a game. I literally just did it. It just gives me confidence that I could just do it again.”

Even after a coaching change, Sanders said he never gave any thought to leaving ASU.

“If I would have left it would have been for the league,” Sanders said, while acknowledging that his 2022 season wasn’t the best he felt he could perform. “I didn’t really have a thought in my mind to leave for another college.

“I have my year here. I feel like I proved myself. I wanted to stay here. I felt like it was home … there wasn’t any doubt leaving for another college.”

Under new head coach Kenny Dillingham, Sanders should see an uptick in usage and production, something he hopes will help his stock heading into the 2024 NFL Draft. Even with the game film from last year, Sanders says he wants to continue to prove himself to the new staff by making an impact in practice, just as he did on the scout team in 2020.

“Just go out there and be the best player on the field,” Sanders said of his goals this spring. “I want to have the best reviews from all the coaches on the staff.”

When looking at receivers currently in the league, Sanders says he tries to model his game after players that have a similar skillset and frame.

“I look at guys who are my size, use my abilities, things like that. Rather than like a 6-5 dude, of course, I like them, or like a dude who runs a 4.2. But that’s not me.

“I like Cooper Kupp, of course, route surgeon. Hunter Renfrow. Dudes who, rather than trying to be like ‘Oh I’m gonna run past you,’ they’re gonna be like ‘Oh I’m gonna use my technique and some extra savviness to get around him.’”

Defensive backs have taken notice, including Willie Harts, who said that he and Sanders share a good amount of friendly banter between reps.

“Gio is one of the most shiftiest receivers I have ever gone against,” Harts said. “He could sell you on some good routes. I love that he’s on my team.”

While continuing to make his own impact, Sanders is also emerging as a leader on offense, helping other receivers who have come into the program, including Melquan Stovall, who spent the 2022 season at Colorado State after three years at Nevada.

“Since day one when I came in, he showed me the ropes,” Stovall said about Sanders. “Showing me different things he’s learned throughout his career, I’ve been able to take that and utilize it for my game as well.”

Badger and Sanders will likely be the top-two returning receivers for whichever quarterback wins the job this fall. Transfers Stovall and Xavier Guillory are all-but-locks to receive meaningful snaps. While the number one QB is yet to be determined, Sanders did say he was more comfortable with the fact that the room is full, noting he and the other receivers are already working on getting on the same page as the quarterbacks.

He also highlighted that the competition will drive everyone to be better, regardless of position.

“It’s gonna bring a new level of intensity,” Sanders said. “I really think this is gonna take everyone’s game to a new level.

Trenton (Bourguet) had a good year last year, but with them bringing in three or four new QBs, he’s gonna wanna be that much better, he’s not gonna want to lose that spot. I really think it’s the competition that I look most forward to, not only for QB but for every position.”

Just as he has since heading to Utah in 2018, Sanders will continue to compete to be the best, a goal that has served him well and has him poised for his best season yet.