Eli Sanders is a sophomore, which is a good thing and a bad one for the Mountain Pointe running back. As a youngster, he still has a lot to learn as he grows and eases into a key role for the Pride. The good news: The potential Division 1 prospect still has two more seasons ahead of him.
Mountain Pointe running back Eli Sanders doesn’t shy away from the bright lights on Friday nights, even though he is only a sophomore.
“When I get my chance I have to use all of my God-given talent,” Sanders said. “It’s what I worked hard for my entire life. I have to take advantage of my chance.”
Sanders was promoted to the Pride varsity from the JVs after he impressed coach Rich Wellbrock and the new Pride coaching staff during spring ball.
He still had moments that showed how young he is, joking around during a drill or not paying attention, but Mountain Pointe running backs coach Trace Carroll knew there was something special about Sanders.
“I was a little worried about him in the spring because he was still young,” Carroll said. “We knew it would be a slower transition but he started to get the hang of things. The sky really is the limit for him. He can go as far as he wants to.”
Sanders’ athleticism was passed down from his father, Steve, who played wide receiver at the University of Washington. It was Steve and Kelly, Eli’s mother, who gave their son the passion and ability to compete at the highest level.
“They’ve really pushed me and gave me the inspiration to play,” Eli said. “They made me work harder. I want to go out and accomplish everything I have worked for.”
Exactly what Sanders is working toward is a feat that doesn’t happen often: He wants to be the best running back ever from Mountain Pointe.
“He always says how he wants to be great and be the best,” Carroll said. “His work ethic during the week shows that.”
Sanders was the backup to standout senior running back Jakim McKinney, but Sanders’ playing time increased as the season unfolded.
McKinney, who has rushed for 984 yards and 13 touchdowns, has been among the state’s top backs for two years. He was the workhorse early for Mountain Pointe, receiving most of the touches and remaining on the field nearly every offensive snap.
It wasn’t until Mountain Pointe’s close loss to national power South Jordan (Utah) Bingham that Carroll and the coaching staff gave Sanders more touches, in hopes of preserving McKinney for the playoffs with a lighter load while developing Sanders.
Sander’s role has morphed into a change-of-pace back, but not in the traditional way.
“I call them lightning and lightning but Eli is the faster of the two,” Carroll said. “I always say Eli is all gas and no breaks. When he gets into the open field it’s something special to watch.
“But he still has trouble breaking down defenders in open space.”
Sanders (6 feet, 175 pounds) has a bigger body than McKinney (5-8, 170).
Still with room for improvement, Sanders has rushed for 724 yards and nine touchdowns.
That’s where McKinney’s leadership qualities come into play.
Sanders said playing behind McKinney is a constant learning experience with regard to techniques and ways to make defenders miss.
“Jakim is wonderful,” Sanders said. “Every time I watch him I learn something new. He’s a great back. He runs hard, he’s physical, he can make a cut and get away. Everything he does I can learn from him.”
Their relationship is similar to that of brothers. On the field, they are close and constantly motivating one another. Off the field, they joke around and Sanders often becomes the victim of friendly pranks.
Their friendship and ability to feed off each other has helped both as Mountain Pointe prepares to host rival Brophy Prep in a 7 p.m. first-round playoff game on Friday at Karl Kiefer Stadium in Ahwatukee.
“Eli really looks up to Jakim,” Carroll said. “Their relationship is probably the best for a two-back system that I have had coaching for 10 years.”
In recent games, the two have been on the field together, on either side of quarterback Nick Wallerstedt in the shotgun, a formation that has been nearly unstoppable with three threats to take it all the way on every snap.
Sanders’ speed has transferred to the track for Mountain Pointe. As a freshman, he was part of the 4×100-meter relay state-championship team. He also competes in long jump.
Running back has been his passion his entire life, and Sanders hopes to capitalize on the knowledge he gains from McKinney and other Pride seniors as his career continues.
“I’ve coached a lot of great backs in my time, including Devonte Neal and Darvon Hubbard at Chaparral last year,” Carroll said. “He is a mixture of them with speed and power. As a sophomore, he is up there at the elite level. He just has to keep going.”