Meet Drew Sanders, the man nicknamed Drago who's next up for Alabama football at outside linebacker

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Ivan Drago, Thor and Bob the Builder walk into a bar, but don’t worry. It’s not the start of a bad joke.

It’s the entrance of Alabama football sophomore edge rusher Drew Sanders.

As to which of the three characters Sanders embodies, that depends on whom you ask and when. Shane Tolleson and Shane Montgomery, who coached him at Ryan High School in Denton, Texas, would tell you he’s like Drago, the fictional Russian rival of Rocky Balboa.

“Every time he hit somebody, we’d always say, ‘If he dies, he dies,’” Tolleson said. “Drew would just give you a little smirk.”

Sanders’ persona, business-like approach, dedication and muscular physique have contributed to the nickname that started around the time he was a wrestler at age 13 or 14. They’re the same qualities that have played a role in helping the former five-star prospect reach where he is today, with a starting opportunity in front of him. 

Starting outside linebacker Christopher Allen will likely miss the rest of the season with a foot fracture he suffered in the opener, Nick Saban said Monday. So, Sanders, as well as a few other young linebackers, will be called on to take a bigger role, starting with the home opener against Mercer on Saturday.

“He’s different,” defensive back Brian Branch said. “He comes to work every day. His work ethic is incredible.”

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A hug from Thor

Sanders has been working for this opportunity for a long time. At 5, he drew up playbooks that he wanted his football coach dad, Mitch Sanders, to use. At 6, Sanders begged his dad to let him sit in football meetings on Saturdays and Sundays.

“He has kind of always been a football junkie,” Mitch Sanders said.

That only increased in high school. Sanders moved to Ryan High School his junior year when his dad took a job there. That’s when Sanders met Aaron De La Torre, who became one of his defensive line coaches.

“When he showed up, I called him Thor,” De La Torre said. “I said, ‘Good god, he looks like Thor.”

No long hair or hammer, but his look impressed De La Torre anyway. That day, Sanders walked in, said ‘hey’ and not much more. Then, De La Torre decided he wanted to try to make Thor laugh.  

“I made him give me a hug and he started giggling,” De La Torre said.

Sanders is known more for his hard work than his jokes, but he still finds ways to be humorous.

Tolleson, his 5-foot-11 defensive coordinator, doesn’t like his head touched. So of course, the 6-foot-5 Sanders took any opportunity he could get to tap his coach’s head.  

“He would say, ‘I could eat peanuts off your head,’” Tolleson said.

Sep 4, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA;  Alabama linebacker Drew Sanders (20) rushes on a punt block attempt at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Alabama defeated Miami 44-13. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

Feeding Bob the Builder

Speaking of food, few consumed more than Sanders in high school.

Sanders would eat before and after his morning lift. He’d have lunch, a pre-practice meal, eat dinner at home and have a shake or something before going to bed. Plus, snacks.

Thanks to his mom, Shelly Sanders, who frequently prepared food, he practically carried a pantry around with him, continually pulling Tupperware after Tupperware out of his bag.

“I always called him Bob the Builder,” De La Torre said. “(I said), ‘You’re at work with your sack of lunch.’”

Bob’s tools? The food. What he was building? His body – and ultimately, his football career.

Sanders made healthy and disciplined food decisions not because anyone made him but because of how much football success meant to him.

The same can be said for his dedication to lifting, part of the reason he had to eat so much. For example, as everyone else was getting dressed and heading home after a high school game, Sanders often hit the weight room.

“All he wanted to do was when that game was over, he was getting ready for the next game,” Montgomery said.

'His soul is still on the turf'

Sanders could only do much in practice. The coaching staff, fearful for the health of his teammates, didn’t allow Sanders to take part in any live defensive drills.

“He went in one day and body slammed the fullback on the side,” Tolleson said. “I said, ‘All right, Drew you stand over here beside me and you watch.”

That meant plenty more physicality saved up for opponents. During the fourth quarter of a playoff game against Lone Star in Allen, Texas, Sanders broke past the line on third down and planted the quarterback.  

“He hit the quarterback so hard that I joke with him that his soul is still on the turf over there at Allen,” De La Torre said.

Then there’s the time Tolleson moved Sanders inside as a three-technique at defensive tackle, and Tolleson said he almost got fired for it.

Once the offensive linemen saw Sanders, they automatically went for his knees with a cut block. No problem for him, though. He hit his stomach and bounced right back up. While hitting the quarterback, his teammates popped the ball loose, then Sanders grabbed it and ran for a touchdown.

“I think that was one of the most impressive athletic things I’ve seen in high school football,” Tolleson said.

Here’s the crazy part: Sanders hasn’t been an edge rusher for that long. His high school coaches didn’t move him to defensive end until his senior year, while he was still playing offense. He had been a receiver, played quarterback and spent time at linebacker.

“I told my head football coach: I can’t imagine Drew Sanders only learning one position and one position only,” Tolleson said, “and how great he will be when he doesn’t have to think that much.”

Quarterbacks won’t have to imagine it. Starting this week, everyone will have a chance to see it for themselves.

Contact Alabama football reporter Nick Kelly: Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly