Arkansas junior Drew Sanders says he's entering NFL draft

Arkansas junior linebacker Drew Sanders told ESPN on Tuesday that he'll be entering the NFL draft.

Sanders projects as one of the draft's top linebacker prospects, as he's No. 17 overall on Mel Kiper's Big Board and ranks as Kiper's top-ranked inside linebacker prospect.

Sanders told ESPN that he will not take part in Liberty Bowl against Kansas on Dec. 28 and will head to California this week to begin training for the NFL combine.

"Football isn't a lifetime sport; it's a once-in-a-lifetime sport," Sanders said in a phone interview with ESPN. "I've enjoyed playing in college. It's always been a dream for me to play in the NFL, ever since I can remember. There's an opportunity for me to take, and I want to take it."

Sanders' decision caps a precipitous ascent to the upper regions of the NFL draft, as he transferred to Arkansas from Alabama this year and surged into the spotlight.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder started three games over two seasons for the Crimson Tide and immediately flashed star potential upon arriving at Arkansas, as his 9.5 sacks were second in the SEC to only Alabama's Will Anderson. Sanders also finished fourth in the SEC in tackles (103) and racked up 13.5 tackles for loss.

ESPN NFL draft analyst Matt Miller projects the versatile Sanders as a top 30 draft prospect, with Kiper ranking him ahead of Iowa's Jack Campbell, Oregon's Noah Sewell and Clemson's Trenton Simpson.

Sanders arrived in Fayetteville in January and immediately impressed the Arkansas coaching staff. He earned a starting role and immediately performed, accumulating five sacks and 27 tackles in the first three games of 2022.

He credited Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, defensive coordinator Barry Odom and linebacker coach Michael Scherer for the opportunity and positioning him to showcase his skill set.

"To me, the only way to get better at football is playing football," Sanders said. "I've never doubted my skills. Arkansas has given me an opportunity for me to show my skills and get better by playing and providing the opportunity to be versatile."

Sanders is the son of Mitch Sanders, a high school coach for 25 years in both Oregon and Texas. He said his son had been talking about playing three years of college football and entering the NFL draft since he was a sophomore in high school.

That looked unlikely when he suffered a broken hand midway through his sophomore year at Alabama after playing significant snaps the first five games. Upon returning to the lineup, a scheme change limited Sanders' snaps, which led to his transfer.

"We're Arkansas fans through and through, but we still love Alabama," Mitch Sanders said. "We have zero hard feelings. It was a great experience."

He said his son's draft declaration was "bittersweet" because he and his wife, Shelly, know that Drew enjoyed Fayetteville so much. But Mitch Sanders said playing pro football is the culmination of a dream for his son that began with him attending coaches meetings for his father's teams all the way back to kindergarten.

"it's very surreal, and you're just happy for him because it's been his dream forever," Mitch Sanders said. "To see him have the opportunity to live out his childhood dream is pretty awesome as parents."