A dream that was launched on the fields of South Brunswick High School will soon reach a culmination for Mohamed Sanu with the start of the NFL Draft tonight.
Sanu’s path to the NFL was not an easy one, but for the Rutgers University record-setter's former head coach, Sanu's ability was obvious the moment he put on the Vikings' uniform.
"Just watching Mohamed run around practice when he got here, we got the sense that this was a special player," said SBHS Coach Rick Mantz. "Everyday at practice he would do something that just blew your mind. His ability to throw, run, and change direction, we just knew he was something special. When he got to Rutgers I was talking to (former Rutgers Head Coach and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach) Greg Schiano and they were just amazed by his ability. They were so impressed and knew right away he was an impact guy."
Though Sanu's otherworldly athletic ability seems to give the impression that things came easy to him, his journey to NFL prospect was filled with hardships. Even Sanu's path to South Brunswick was long and difficult. He was born in New Brunswick on August 22, 1989. He would then move to Sayreville, before moving to Sierra Leone in West Africa, where his mother still lives. Sanu then moved to Atlanta to live with his father.
"Mo is such a special person, with the things he's overcome and what he's gone through moving around so much," Mantz said.
As he was ready to go into the sixth grade, Sanu's sister, Haja Jabbie offered up a more permanent home for him in South Brunswick.
"Moving around I got to have a lot of different experiences and got to meet a lot of different people," Sanu said . "It was good to settle down somewhere."
According to Sanu, South Brunswick was a great place to establish his roots.
"Coming through South Brunswick, I got a great foundation to start from," Sanu said. "I got a great education."
Sanu's versatility stood out for Mantz immediately. Sanu played quarterback (threw for roughly 900 yards his junior year), he was a great runner (ran for about 700 yards his junior year), he also punted and was a top-rated safety.
"I think the whole town kind of feels like they helped raise Mo," Mantz said. "He was always around town, at basketball games, track meets, football, and he still comes back to watch the teams when he can. He's always been here and we will always embrace him and feel like we're a small part of the success he achieves."
Thanks in large part to Sanu, the 2007 South Brunswick High School football team was the first from the school to make the state playoffs in 30 years.
"It was very satisfying," Sanu noted of making the playoffs. "We were very excited about that. We felt we could do better (South Brunswick lost in the first round of the states), but it was our first year together."
Unfortunately, Sanu was unable to compete with his teammates his senior year. He turned 19 before the season began, so he was only allowed to practice with the team, but was not permitted to play in any games.
"It was a unique situation, but I learned how to deal with it," Sanu said. "I looked at the positives. I was able to practice and help my teammates get better. I was also able to prepare for college."
The scariest part of Sanu's ability is the fact that wide receiver may not even be his best position. Sanu was one of the top ranked safety recruits in the country coming out of SBHS.
"If not for injuries during his first spring at Rutgers, where they had to move him to receiver, Mo might've never lined up there," Mantz said. "I think what jumped out to the staff at Rutgers was his athletic ability. He can do so many things. Catch the ball, play 'Wildcat' quarterback, play defense, and punt. Plus he's just such a wonderful person off the field and so hard working."
Former Rutgers wide receivers coach PJ Fleck, who left the school to join Schiano on the Tampa Bay coaching staff, agreed that Sanu could do it all.
"If football can be played with only one person on the field, (Sanu) can probably play every position that is out there," . "We really can do anything with him. He can play any position for us. He kind of already has."
During the 2010 season for Rutgers, Sanu carried the ball 59 times for 309 yards and four touchdowns out of the "Wildcat" formation. In the 2009 season, he carried the ball 62 times for 346 yards and five touchdowns. During the 2009 season, Sanu also returned punts and kicks.
"From a selfish standpoint as the wide receivers coach, I'm glad I have him the whole time," Fleck noted before last season. "There were times when we were working on things when he had to go be the quarterback or do the run game."
Once the 2011 college season began, Sanu captured the attention of scouts with some eye-popping numbers. He enjoyed a stellar year at Rutgers, breaking current Arizona Cardinals and former Pitt Panther wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's Big East record for receptions in a season. Sanu finished the year with 115 catches for 1,206 yards. Sanu was a unanimous All-Big East selection in 2011, was named a Fourth Team All-America selection by Phil Steele, and was an honorable mention All-America pick by Sports Illustrated. Sanu also won the Homer Hazel Trophy as Rutgers' most valuable player.
Sanu's draft stock took a hit after he ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. However, he answered questions about his speed at the Rutgers Pro Day, when he recorded 40 times of 4.55 and 4.54 seconds. ESPN's Todd McShay called Sanu "overrated" and questioned his ability to get open at the pro level. Mantz said the NFL Draft scouting process often focuses too heavily on measurables.
"You look at his body of work at Rutgers, when he was their offense, and everybody had to stop number 6, yet he still caught over 100 balls," Mantz said. "That speaks to Mo's ability to adapt, and he can do other things like block on third and eight, and is willing to get himself banged up. He's smart and talented. People said Jerry Rice didn't have elite speed either and look what happened there. Mohamed will be a guy whose productivity on the field will be more valuable than what he runs on a track."
ESPN NFL blogger Andrea Adelson agrees. She called Sanu "vastly underrated" in an article on ESPN.com.
"To me, the tape speaks to what type of player you are going to get," she said in the article. "Turn on the tape of Sanu last season, and you know exactly what you are in for -- a dependable receiver unafraid to go over the middle, to block, to put an entire team on his shoulders and carry them for an entire season. Sanu does not feel pressure. He thrives in big situations."
Mock drafts from ESPN gurus McShay and Mel Kiper don’t list Sanu as being drafted in the first three rounds, while other various mock drafts have Sanu being selected in the second round.
"It's all a crap shoot but I know a lot of teams love him," Mantz said. "The Giants have worked him out, so have the Jets, Bengals, and obviously the Bucs with Coach Schiano would love to have him. I'm curious myself to see how it shakes out. I'm excited for him and hopefully his stock has risen to where he's a first or second round pick."
CBS Sports lists Sanu as the seventh ranked wide receiver in this year's draft class. But Mantz said whichever team that drafts Sanu will be getting an impact player on the field and a positive influence on the community off the field.
"He's very coachable and his work ethic is as important as his physical skills," Mantz said. "You hear of a lot of guys with these great physical skills but they're not disciplined and don't work hard enough. Mo has those intangibles. Maybe they wish he was quicker, but he has intangibles that offset his speed."
Mantz is no stranger to coaching NFL prospects. During his time at Hillsborough High School he coached future NFL players Shaun O'Hara (New York Giants), Shawn Mayer (New England Patriots) and Jared Jones (Philadelphia Eagles).
"For me it's obviously a gratifying experience," Mantz said. "I'm a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan and when O'Hara was playing his first NFL preseason game for the Cleveland Browns they played the Packers, so me and my dad drove down there to the game. It was the first time in my life I rooted against the Packers because I became a Shaun O'Hara fan, so that was special. Wherever Mo ends up it will be even more special, because he's just such a great kid."
The first round of the NFL Draft will be held on April 26, followed by the second and third rounds on April 27. By that time Sanu should hear his name called and thousands of residents in South Brunswick will have a new team to root for.
"Wherever he goes, hopefully to the Giants or Jets so we can still be close to see him play, but wherever he goes I know he'll be happy and he'll enjoy himself," Mantz said.