South Carolina Football: Defensive tackle TJ Sanders has been a bright spot

South Carolina football defensive tackle TJ Sanders after a big hit on Florida's Graham Mertz. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina football defensive tackle TJ Sanders after a big hit on Florida's Graham Mertz. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /

The 2023 version of the South Carolina football team has not had the type of year anyone associated with the program was hoping they would have. A 2-5 start to the year has the Gamecocks’ bowl hopes teetering between “unlikely” and “almost impossible,” and the team’s fanbase is calling for some changes to the coaching staff.

A lot of the on-field problems have stemmed from poor defensive play this season. However, a couple of Gamecock defenders have put together really nice years despite the unit’s overall struggles.

One of these defensive standouts is tackle TJ Sanders. Sanders, a redshirt sophomore from Marion High School, is getting his most extensive action in garnet and black this season. Sanders has repaid the South Carolina football coaching staff by being the team’s top defensive lineman.

Through seven games, big #90 leads the Gamecocks in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss in the run game (7.5). He has accomplished this despite not being a full-time starter this season. Sanders has been part of a 3-man rotation in the starting lineup at defensive tackle with veterans Tonka Hemingway and Boogie Huntley but still leads the d-line unit in tackles.

Sanders’ strong play has started to earn him some NFL buzz. PFF’s Trevor Sikkema has the 6’5″, 300-pound defensive tackle in the top-150 of his 2024 NFL Draft Big Board, indicating that he believes Sanders would be selected in the 5th round if he were to declare for the draft this offseason.

That’s not bad for a player who got a late start playing football in high school and who had never started a game in college until this season.

Sanders’ impressive athleticism at his size is probably his top trait as it allows him to be a disruptive force no matter the matchup. He left the Tennessee game early with a minor injury, but in his other 6 games, he’s averaged 4 tackles and more than a tackle for loss per game.

His best game of the year came against the Georgia Bulldogs. Sanders had a tremendous showing in which he logged 9 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, a pass breakup, and a full game of disruption up front. The game earned Sanders the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week award.

He has had a handful of dominant plays this year, including destroying a double team and stuffing the Georgia Bulldogs on 3rd-and-1,

Shedding a blocker and lighting up running back Kendall Milton in the same game,

Blowing up Missouri’s patented stretch play,

and utilizing a classic throw technique to get a pass rush win against Mississippi State before throwing quarterback Will Rogers like a rag doll.

His impact is much larger than just his statistical contribution, however, as his disruption leads to success for his teammates. He often faces double teams as the top player up front for the Gamecocks, and against Mississippi State, Sanders dominated the Bulldog line, leading to a sack for Boogie Huntley.

Things haven’t gone well for the Gamecocks in 2023, but it hasn’t been because of poor play from TJ Sanders.

Sanders and his South Carolina football teammates will look to get back on track with an upset win over the Texas A&M Aggies in College Station on Saturday. The game will be played at 12:00 and will be shown on the SECNetwork and ESPN app.

Related Story. South Carolina Football: Updates on NFL Draft stock for several Gamecocks. light