The situation was this:
As the game clock ticked down in the second quarter of the 2016 New Mexico Bowl, the New Mexico Lobos were down to their final play of the half. They had the ball on the UTSA 35-yard line.
Their options? A 52-yard field-goal attempt into a 26-mph wind, or a heave into the end zone.
For the Lobos, that decision was easy. Why?
Jason Sanders, that’s why.
Sanders, UNM’s junior kicker, hammered the ball through the uprights with room to spare. His prodigious kick gave the Lobos a 10-6 halftime lead, and ultimately their winning margin in a 23-20 victory.
“I think that’s my favorite kick of my career,” Sanders said in a recent phone interview.
Sanders, who concluded his college career in November, wants to make more memories. Arguably, he’s the Lobos No. 1 pro prospect.
Sanders has had private workouts with the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets.
“They sounded like they both liked me,” he said. “I know the Jets guy really liked me.”
He has upcoming workouts with the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers, and he’ll also participate in UNM’s Pro Day on Thursday.
The power in Sanders’ right leg gives him, yes, a leg up on some of his competition.
Though his 53-yard game-winner at Tulsa last fall was his career longest — it might have been good from 60 — Sanders said he has hit field goals from 70 yards out in workouts.
Sanders’ leg strength is also reflected in his ability to limit the opposition’s kickoff returns.
Of his 219 career kickoffs at UNM, only 66 were returned. The past two seasons, only 22 of 132 kickoffs came back.
“I think kicking the ball out of the end zone is what opened the eyes of people,” he said. “You can teach someone accuracy, but you can’t teach power.”
Early in Sanders’ UNM career, though, accuracy was a problem.
Sanders came to New Mexico on scholarship from Villa Park High School in Orange, Calif., where he’d been both a kicker and a punter. He’d been recruited by Washington, Utah, Virginia Tech and Colorado.
Yet, as a freshman, he was beaten out as a kicker by Rio Rancho graduate Zack Rogers. Sanders won the kickoff duties but never attempted a field goal in 2014.
Sanders won the kicker’s job the next year but struggled, connecting on only three of seven attempts before giving way to Rogers.
Of the adversity during his first two seasons, he said, “I can look back and tell you how much I’ve matured each year that I’ve been here.
“That’s kind of what got me to this point, is having those little setbacks.”
As a junior, Sanders was near-perfect — making good on 12 of 13 field-goal attempts (6-of-6 from 40 yards or more, 2-of-2 from 50 or more).
Sanders made all three of his field-goal attempts in a 24-21 victory at Utah State, and his 40-yarder with 66 seconds left in the game provided the winning margin.
Only 13 of his 84 kickoffs that season were returned.
Last season, just as the team slumped to a 3-9 season, so did Sanders, just a bit. He was 10-of-15 on field goals, but did hit the 53-yard game-winner at Tulsa and a 51-yarder in a 27-24 loss to Colorado State. Only nine of his 48 kickoffs were returned.
For any NFL team willing to bring him to camp, Sanders said, he believes the best is yet to come.
Having graduated from UNM, he said, “I’ve never had this much time to focus on kicking alone. I feel like I’ve bettered myself this off-season more than I ever have.”
Based on the level of interest, Sanders said, he’s confident he’ll get his opportunity.
When that opportunity comes, he said, “It’s just all about me. It’s not about who’s better; it’s just about me making my case.”