Why college football's top inside linebacker left Alabama for Arkansas

McElroy says Hogs need Jefferson at his best vs. Bama (1:57)

SEC analyst Greg McElroy joins The Paul Finebaum Show and says No. 20 Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson needs to be "accurate and decisive" against the No. 2 Tide. (1:57)

WHEN DREW SANDERS' name appeared in the transfer portal database on Jan. 11, an Arkansas staff member was quick to run it up the ladder to head coach Sam Pittman.

Pittman thought the name sounded familiar, but he had to ask: "Is that No. 20 from Alabama?"

A staff member told him it was, and that he was from Denton, Texas, which is only about an hour's flight from Fayetteville. Pittman could close his eyes and recall seeing Sanders in uniform. It's hard to forget a linebacker with his size and speed.

"He could really run," Pittman said.

Sanders visited campus once when he was in high school, but that was when Chad Morris was coach and Arkansas was floundering. About a week and a half earlier, Pittman wrapped up a resurgent second season with nine wins and victory over Penn State in the Outback Bowl. "Well," he thought, "maybe now we've won enough to have a chance with him."

A staff member contacted Sanders, who was receptive and said he was interested in moving to inside linebacker. And wouldn't you know it, Arkansas had just lost a pair of starters at the position. So they arranged a visit. There were no frills, Pittman said, just a clear sense that Sanders and his parents wanted to look coaches in the eye, have an honest conversation and see what felt right.

Because Alabama played in the College Football Playoff National Championship game on Jan. 10 and enrollment at many universities would close within a week, there was no time to waste. Pittman isn't even sure Sanders' family stayed the night before moving on to other visits.

"We sweated him going to Oklahoma and going to Texas," Pittman said. "Then he called and said he decided to come."

"I just kind of knew what I was looking for," Sanders said.

Pittman credited linebackers coach Michael Scherer for spearheading the recruitment.

"It was a big, big get for us," Pittman said.

Eight months later, Sanders has become the centerpiece of the Arkansas defense and one of the most productive players in college football. Through four games, he's tied for the most sacks among FBS players with 5.5. He has seven tackles for loss, 10 pressures and represents a rare win-win in the era of the transfer portal.

While Alabama would have liked to have kept him, there's no obvious ill will emanating from Tuscaloosa. Who could blame Sanders for leaving with three All-SEC linebackers already on the Alabama roster? Earlier this week, ahead of Saturday afternoon's game in Fayetteville between Sanders' old team and his new team (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS), Alabama coach Nick Saban said it was good to see Sanders playing well. He added, "We're happy for him and his family."

It was reminiscent of the well wishes from Ohio State last season when Jameson Williams, who was similarly buried on the depth chart in Columbus, left for Alabama and became the best deep threat in college football and a top-15 draft pick. Pittman said he expects they'll have a conversation with Sanders about his future once the season is over; ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has Sanders as his No. 1-rated inside linebacker. But that's a matter for another day.

Some players change schools because they're no longer welcome and some leave in search of more name, image and likeness money. But Pittman said it was refreshing that Sanders didn't fit into either category.

"He was looking for the right fit and to earn his way into the National Football League," he said. "He's everything that's right with the portal."

Staying put might have meant getting overlooked. Leaving gave Sanders a chance to show how good he can be.

THE TRANSFER PORTAL has always sounded vaguely like a time machine, so let's travel back before Sanders made the decision to leave Alabama for Arkansas; before he broke his hand five games into the 2021 season and was replaced by a future star in freshman Dallas Turner; before he was eclipsed a year earlier by fellow outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who would go on to establish himself as the best pass-rusher, best defender and maybe the best overall player in college football.

To put an exact date on it, go back to Aug. 29, 2020, and a moment when Anderson and Sanders were talked about as equals. Saban was speaking to the media that afternoon and was asked about the outside linebackers. Veterans Christopher Allen and Ben Davis had valuable experience, Saban said, but then he singled out a pair of freshmen, Anderson and Sanders, as having "shown some promise." They still needed to learn what to do and how to do it, Saban explained, "but they're both guys that I think can probably contribute."

Remember, this was the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alabama canceled spring practice, so there was no nationally televised spring game. And once fall camp rolled around, the media was prohibited from attending practice. Which is all to say that no one outside of the football staff had actually seen Anderson and Sanders in person. All we knew was they were both highly sought-after recruits. Anderson was the 49th highest-rated player in the Class of 2020, according to ESPN. Sanders was 36th.

Defensive backs coach Karl Scott was Sanders' primary recruiter at Alabama. He called him the ideal prospect in the sense that, "It wasn't a lot of fluff. It was very direct, to the point, which kind of fit his personality as a no-nonsense guy." The only problem? Sanders was committed to Oklahoma since his sophomore year. A projected tight end at the time, it made all the sense in the world that he wanted to play in Lincoln Riley's wide-open offense.

But in the spring going into Sanders' senior season, Scott was told he was beginning to gravitate toward defense.

"Hearing that," Scott said, "it was kind of like, 'OK, there is some light at the end of this tunnel.'"

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While Scott believed Sanders could play Power 5 football at any position -- he was a quarterback, receiver, tight end, defensive end, inside and outside linebacker in high school -- the Alabama staff projected him as an outside linebacker/edge rusher.

Sanders took an official visit to Oklahoma on April 12, 2019. Two weeks later, he was in Alabama. And three days after that, he flipped his commitment to the Tide.

While the staff felt great about signing both Sanders and Anderson, they weren't certain of anything. College football is littered with blue-chip prospects who never pan out. But there were early glimpses of greatness from both players. They were relentless, tough, talented and had good work ethics, Scott said.

"If you put a blindfold on -- maybe even if you were color-blind -- it would be hard to tell the difference between the two as freshmen," Scott added.

Anderson would be the first to start and contribute as a freshman, but Sanders was no slouch. He stood out, especially on special teams, and was named to the coaching staff's players of the week three times.

When Allen broke his hand in the 2021 season opener against Miami, Sanders came off the bench and registered six tackles. Against Mercer the following week, Sanders had a pair of pass breakups. Then, at Florida a week later, he showed the world what Scott and others had only witnessed behind the scenes. Sanders was big, physical and fast. His closing speed was on full display when he recognized a screen pass to a running back and hit him like a freight train. CBS's Gary Danielson groaned "Oh!" as Sanders made contact right as the ball was caught, dropping the back for a 4-yard loss.

But two weeks, six tackles and three quarterback hurries later, Sanders broke his hand against Ole Miss. And the following week, Turner was inserted into the starting lineup against Texas A&M and had five tackles, including one for a 5-yard loss.

Sanders came back a month later and tried to contribute, but with a cast on his hand he was limited. Besides, the writing was on the wall. Over Alabama's final seven games -- including the SEC championship and both rounds of the playoff -- Turner had a coming-out party with 8.5 sacks.

"We probably wouldn't even know about Dallas Turner if it wasn't for Drew breaking his hand, you know?" Scott said.

For that matter, what about Allen breaking his foot? In 2020, he led the SEC with 13 tackles for loss.

"Exactly," Scott said. "It's the domino effect, man. Unfortunately, guys get hurt, but that's just the nature of the beast."

But in the era of the transfer portal, the next-man-up mentality allows the last man a way out.

ARKANSAS SAFETY JALEN CATALON became fast friends with Sanders upon his arrival in January. They bonded over their shared home state of Texas and their love of fishing. It wasn't unusual, Catalon said, for Sanders to come to his house, hang out and watch football.

At the football facility, the two always seemed to be crossing paths -- in the weight room, the locker room, grabbing a bite to eat.

Like him, Catalon said, "Drew is a guy that's hungry to be his very best."

So they pushed one another through spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp. They were always looking for ways to get better.

"And then also just working on his weaknesses, too," Catalon said.

He smiled.

"I know sometimes he makes it look like he doesn't have weaknesses," Catalon said, laughing.

Sanders once ran a sub-11 second 100-meter dash.

"He can do everything," Pittman said of the . "He can run. Very strong. He's a remarkable athlete for any size. But for what he is" -- 6-foot-5 and 244 pounds -- "he's great. And honestly, it's his heart, it's his makeup that makes him a great player. He has that desire to be great."

Pittman said a lot of the time it's the guys who aren't naturally gifted who put in the extra film work and lift extra weights.

"Well," he said. "He's got all this talent and he acts like a guy that has deficiencies."

Scherer, who is in his second season coaching linebackers at Arkansas, marveled at how quickly Sanders transitioned from outside to inside linebacker. He said it took about a week and a half before he turned on the film and thought, "Oh God, this kid's good."

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"A lot of my challenge with Drew is getting him to trust and believe how talented he is," Scherer told reporters earlier this summer. "And once he does that and lets it loose and once he gets the reps there in the middle and he's not thinking about what he's got to do, he can do some special, special things."

At SEC media days, veteran linebacker Bumper Pool said Sanders was "unbelievable" in practice. He predicted, "I feel like people are going to be able to see his talent this year."

They certainly have. Thanks in large part to Sanders, Arkansas currently leads the country in sacks (20). Against an Alabama offensive line that struggled on the road at Texas -- not to mention much of last season -- the Hogs' ability to get in the backfield and pressure the quarterback could go a long way in determining the outcome of the game on Saturday.

Two years ago, Sanders and Anderson were teaming up to chase fellow freshman Bryce Young around practice in Tuscaloosa. They were roommates as well. Anderson said he and Sanders would encourage one another, "Hey, we got this. Just keep going."

Sanders did, and it ultimately meant leaving the program. But Anderson said he's happy that Sanders is "getting what he deserves" after so much hard work.

"To see him doing well at Arkansas," he said, "I'm very proud of him."