Mohamed Sanu

Speak softly and carry a big stick. It’s the way Rutgers WR Mohamed Sanu, the Maxwell Football Club’s 11th Tri-State Player of the Year, has conducted himself from the moment he arrived in Piscataway early in 2009.

Sanu isn’t one to boast, draw too much attention to himself or participate in a lot of self-indulgent showmanship. It’s just not his style. His voice doesn’t resonate. His game, though, can injure an eardrum. In three seasons as a Scarlet Knight, he emerged as more than just one of the Big East’s most incendiary offensive weapons. He became, along with predecessors, such as RB Ray Rice, FB Brian Leonard, WR Kenny Britt, OT Anthony Davis and DT Eric Foster, the embodiment of the rise to respectability of Rutgers football. The caliber of athlete who would have been a Garden State import for Boston College or Iowa or some other more recognizable program in the past, Sanu was yet another symbol of the strides that were made over the past decade on the banks of the Old Raritan.

The local product of South Brunswick (N.J.) High School was one of the state’s top recruits of his class, flashing the versatility and explosiveness that would become his calling cards in Piscataway. He hit the ground running in his debut, participating in spring drills, winning a starting job and capping a sterling rookie campaign by being named St. Petersburg Bowl MVP. Toward the end of his first year, Sanu really started to blossom, both as a traditional pass-catcher and as the quarterback out of “Wildcat” packages.

“I’ve always had a willingness to do whatever it takes to help my team win,” admitted Sanu. “I made a lot of sacrifices in high school, and was happy to do the same thing when I got to Rutgers. If it puts us in a better position to win, I’ll do whatever is necessary.”

Although Sanu’s production dipped as a sophomore, a direct correlation to youth and inconsistency behind center, he still wound up tying for the team-high with four touchdown runs, tying for the team-high with 44 receptions and throwing for three scores. For the Scarlet Knights’ version of a Swiss Army knife, it set the table for the best season by a Rutgers wide receiver in school history.

From the outset of 2011, Rutgers was committed to using Sanu almost exclusively as a wide receiver. Sure, he could do it all for the offense, but the coaching staff wanted to explore his limits when he was able to focus on one responsibility and one segment of the playbook. The decision wound up being a windfall for the player, the offense and the entire program. The junior would catch a Big East-record 115 passes for 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns, laying the groundwork for early entry into the 2012 NFL Draft. And playing an instrumental role in the school’s five-win improvement from 4-8 in 2010 to 9-4 last fall.

Despite operating in an offense that got minimal support from the ground game, and juggled inexperienced quarterbacks, Sanu was an unstoppable force for the Scarlet Knights. Even though everyone in the building knew where Chas Dodd and Gary Nova were looking, No. 6 still averaged nearly nine receptions a game. He’s a multi-skilled athlete, who’s capable of schooling defenders in all types of ways. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, he possesses the size and strength to beat press coverage at the line of scrimmage and pick up additional yards after contact. Yet, despite his thick frame, he can also unleash the jets required to perforate the seams of a defense without being touched.

Where Sanu bloomed the most in 2011 was in the finer, less visible aspects of the position, such as running tighter routes, expanding his catch radius and locating the soft spots in opposing defenses, whether a zone or man coverage was employed. With an opportunity to finally concentrate on one spot on the field, Sanu had completed the journey from elite all-around athlete to elite all-around wide receiver in under three years.

“Mo is just an incredible athlete, a real freak of nature,” said former Rutgers QB Tom Savage, who was a battery mate with Sanu in 2009 and 2010. “His versatility and ability to absorb punishment were huge for the team in my first year with the program, especially when he took direct snaps. Off the field, he’s a great role model and one of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet.”

Sanu will be missed in ways that extend beyond just his gaudy numbers and knack for deflating the air out of opposing defenses with long jaunts for six. His presence and leadership in the locker room, examples that were set for younger Knights and will to be the best he could be will be impossible to replace with just a single player in 2012 and beyond.

“From the moment I arrived at Rutgers, I focused every day on just doing my job, improving my play and letting the game come to me,” offered Sanu, with just a hint of melancholy as he contemplated his career in Piscataway. “I came here as a boy, but leave as a man, a better man in all areas of life because of what I learned from Coach (Greg) Schiano.”

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