As a senior at Villa Park High School in Orange, Calif., Jason Sanders wanted nothing more than to be a scholarship athlete at an NCAA Division I school.
That spring, in 2014, the University of New Mexico was the only school to offer Sanders that scholarship.
To say things worked out for Sanders is sort of like saying LeBron James has no reason to regret not playing college basketball.
Four years and a couple of weeks after accepting that scholarship offer from UNM, Sanders is a rookie kicker for the Miami Dolphins. Selected in the seventh round of the NFL Draft with the 229th overall pick, he was one of only two kickers to be drafted.
According to the website overthecap.com, Sanders has signed a four-year contract worth $480,000 annually, the first-year minimum.
For players drafted below the second round, only signing bonuses are guaranteed.
“I knew there was a chance they were gonna draft me,” Sanders said this week in a phone interview. “If I was gonna be drafted, it was gonna be (the Dolphins).”
Some 10 minutes before that 229th pick, on April 28, Miami special teams coach Darren Rizzi called to say the Dolphins had identified other needs and would not draft Sanders.
Some five minutes later, Rizzi called back. Yes, they were going to draft him after all — and did.
This, though, wasn’t the first time he’d been drafted.
When he entered Villa Park in the fall of 2010, Sanders had no intention of ever kicking an oblong ball. Soccer was his first and only athletic love, though his older brother, Andrew, then was Villa Park’s kicker.
But Dusan Ancich, Villa Park’s football coach, wouldn’t take no for an answer. As a junior in 2012, Sanders became the Spartans’ punter and kicker.
Still, after two outstanding seasons at Villa Park, Sanders remained focused on a college soccer career.
With no scholarship offers, the tentative plan was to “play at a junior college and try to play soccer and football.”
Then came the scholarship offer from New Mexico, and that changed everything.
The power in Sanders’ right leg (4-of-5 on field goal attempts beyond 50 yards, a 73-percent kickoff touchback percentage during his UNM career) made him the Lobos’ No. 1 pro prospect this spring.
If the Dolphins hadn’t drafted him, they — or one of several other NFL teams — would have quickly signed him as a free agent.
The Dolphins do not have a veteran kicker on their roster. Last year’s kicker, Cody Parkey, signed with Chicago during the offseason.
Sanders, though, will not lack for competition. The Dolphins signed Greg Joseph, a kicker from Florida Atlantic, shortly after the NFL Draft concluded.
Joseph’s and Sanders’ 2017 statistics are strikingly similar. Joseph had a slightly better field-goal percentage (.714 to .667), and he has a strong leg — having kicked a 54-yarder against Navy. Sanders’ career long is 53 yards, the game winner at Tulsa on Sept. 23. But Lobo fans will recall fondly his 52-yarder into a stiff wind in a 23-20 win over UTSA in the 2016 Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
On kickoffs, Sanders has a slightly better touchback percentage: 79 percent to 76 for Joseph.
Miami, of course, still can sign a veteran kicker.
Whatever happens, Sanders believes both the ups and downs of his UNM career will help him compete.
As a freshman, he lost the kicker’s job to Rio Rancho grad Zack Rogers. Sanders won the job as a sophomore, but struggled initially and again lost out to Rogers.
Then came 2016, when Sanders went 12-of-13 on field goals, hit that 52-yarder into a 26 mph wind in the bowl game and drove home a 40-yard game-winner at Utah State.
And the pro scouts came running.
“There’s a lot of experience that I’ve gone through, setbacks that turned into learning (experiences),” Sanders said. “… There’s a lot of things that helped me become the kicker I am.”
PRESSLEY TO THE CFL: Former UNM running back Jhurell Pressley (2012-2015) has signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League.
During his four seasons at UNM, Pressley rushed for 2,725 yards on 394 carries (6.9 yards per carry), and had 35 touchdowns. In 2014, he led the nation in yards per carry in 2004 at 9.5 while rushing for 1,083 yards.