It was a whirlwind of a week for former Western Illinois defensive tackle Khalen Saunders.
First, a video of the 320-pounder doing a backflip went viral. Then, he drew headlines again at the beginning of Senior Bowl week in late January when media found out his fiancée, Ayanna Hall, had given birth to their first baby during the first practice and the two decided it was best for him to stay and impress the scouts instead of being there for the delivery.
Saunders did just that throughout the week of practice and the game. Described as dominant by scouts and analysts in attendance, he improved his NFL Draft stock immensely.
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After the Senior Bowl, Saunders went to Chicago to train and be closer to his daughter, Kambridge, his fiancée and her parents, who are helping with the baby. Five days into training, Ayanna and her parents told Saunders he should go back to California – where he was training before the Senior Bowl – because they knew it was a better opportunity out there.
"We'll take care of everything here," they told him. "Go out and chase your dream."
It's that kind of support that has allowed Saunders to stay the course in pursuit of the NFL. NFLDraftScout currently ranks him the 12th best defensive tackle prospect and a projected fourth-round draft pick. The buzz around his name may not be at this level had he left the Senior Bowl.
“I have some of the best in-laws ever," Saunders told HERO Sports. "You always get that stereotypical thing where it’s ‘oh man, I gotta go to my in-laws now.’ But I absolutely love going to my in-laws and they’re looking out for us by letting my daughter stay with them while I do all this tedious training."
Saunders says it's challenging being away from his daughter. But he and his family are all on the same page in realizing him being away for a few months is worth the reward.
“It’s definitely hard," he said. "You wish you could be there. I want to see my little girl every night. I want to hold her and kiss her. But when you think about the future and think about what you want for your kids, this is the best opportunity. Professional sports is a helluva opportunity.”
Saunders was a bit of a mystery when national outlets began talking about his backflip and the birth of his daughter. He was an FCS All-American who totaled 72 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in his senior year.
When he took the field during Senior Bowl week, Saunders gave them something else to write about. The dude can play.
“That was the biggest thing and the whole reason I decided to stay instead of go back home for my daughter," Saunders said. "It was a job interview and it was me proving I can play against the top competition. With FCS guys, people think 'oh they can’t play against the top competition.’ I wanted to prove that I don't care who I’m playing, you’re going to get the same result."
Scouts have already fallen in love with his tape. Saunders has shown athleticism, explosiveness, power and burst. But when they saw it up close at the Senior Bowl, Saunders drew even more praise. He hopes his testing numbers at the NFL Combine and his Pro Day keeps his stock going in the right direction.
So where does all this athleticism come from? How can Saunders take on a double team on the interior of the defensive line one play, line up on the edge and sack the quarterback another play and then catch a touchdown while falling to the ground on a different play?
He points to his childhood.
Saunders was the kid that was always active. He remembers moving a basketball hoop, one in which you put water in the base or stack bricks on top of to keep it upright, onto the street and playing basketball for hours with his dad and brothers. As the youngest, he was always playing against older competition, which accelerated his growth and maturity in sports.
Another thing Saunders would do is make his own obstacle courses as a kid and run through them. Then in high school, he was a three-sport athlete, competing in football, wrestling and track and field.
The St. Louis native hit the WIU starting lineup his sophomore year and by the time he was a junior, Saunders said that was when he felt NFL scouts began to take notice of him. Teams started to double-team him. And before games against Missouri Valley Football Conference opponents, Saunders talked to some opposing players that he knew and they told him their coaches talked about Saunders all week and game-planned specifically for him.
After a standout senior season, his NFL Draft stock has done nothing but go up. Saunders describes these last couple months as multiple life-changing moments occurring in quick succession. Because of his support system, he said it hasn't been overwhelming.
Moving forward, Saunders said he's out to prove the buzz around his name is deserved as the Combine begins this week.
“I want to prove this is where I belong. I’ve had people from a long time ago telling me the percentage of guys that make it to the NFL. And I’m not saying that they didn’t believe in me. But I want to prove that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I knew from an early age that I wanted to play in the NFL.”