Isaiah Sanders will finish out his football eligibility at Stanford as a rare graduate-transfer from Air Force.
The Rhodes Scholar candidate and local product from Palmer Ridge was accepted into the Pac-12 school’s management science and engineering master’s program and will join the Cardinal's football team.
Stanford football coach David Shaw announced the addition of Sanders on Wednesday.
“We are excited about the addition of Isaiah Sanders because of his experience, his abilities and his character,” Shaw said in a statement. “Isaiah will add depth and competition behind Davis Mills and will be a great addition to our locker room.”
Sanders graduated from the academy in April with a degree in systems engineering (with a human factors focus) and a minor in Spanish.
There is no known precedent for a move like this in a revenue sport for an Air Force graduate, in part because the NCAA’s play-immediately graduate transfer rule was implemented just nine years ago. For this to work from an academy, a player must have eligibility remaining (Sanders didn’t see time as a freshman, so he still has a fifth year to play a fourth season). That player must also qualify for one of the few graduate spots from his Air Force class (Sanders has long been an academic standout, earning a 3.83 GPA this year). Finally, they must find a landing spot with another team.
Even if Sanders didn't bring value as a football player, his off-field accolades would have certainly earned him a spot on most teams. He was named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and a finalist for the Wuerffel Trophy for his work in the community. He also served as his squadron’s flight officer.
But he also brings intrigue as a player.
Sanders proved his value immediately for Air Force, setting a program record with 43 carries in his first start in an upset victory over Utah State in the season finale in 2017. He ran for 196 yards and three touchdowns in that game.
He spent much of the next two years as Air Force’s top backup, but took advantage of his few starting opportunities. In a win at UNLV in 2018 he completed 9 of 11 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 173 yards and three scores. The next week he went 10 of 15 for 210 yards and two touchdowns against Boise State, adding 97 rushing yards and a score.
The son of a former Air Force officer and professor, Sanders started at least one game in three straight seasons for Air Force.
As a senior he made the difficult choice to miss Air Force’s game at New Mexico to attend his Rhodes Scholar interview. The scheduling conflict arose when the Lobos rescheduled the game following a player’s death. The decision underscored where Sanders placed academics among his priorities.
“Stanford has been a dream of mine since I was a kid and I'm blessed and honored to join the elite scholars, athletes and world-changers that attend this amazing institution,” Sanders said on Stanford’s official website. “I believe Stanford is one of the best places to cultivate and guide my passions for serving my communities and giving back to the people around me.”
Sanders will face long odds to earn playing time at Stanford, as it returns quarterback David Mills. Sanders will compete with Jack West, Tanner McKee and walk-on Dylan Plautz to back up Mills.
The uniqueness of this move goes both ways, as Sanders will be just Stanford’s second graduate transfer in program history, following linebacker Brennan Scarlett in 2015.
Sanders wasn’t the only Air Force senior to enter the transfer portal, as linebacker Kyle Johnson also kept open the possibility of playing an extra season elsewhere while in grad school. However, Johnson will attend Harvard, and the Ivy League does not accept graduate transfers.
Unlike a transfer from virtually any other program, it should be noted that neither Sanders nor Johnson could have returned to the Falcons even had they desired to do so. Barring a special circumstance like a medical turnback that provides for an extra semester, cadet-athletes finish their time at the academy in four years and eight semesters regardless of their NCAA eligibility status.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun has long lobbied for a ninth semester at the academy, which would allow players to redshirt and avoid a scenario like this where they can graduate from the Air Force with eligibility remaining. Asked in February what it might mean for the program to send players on as graduate transfers and if it might be a positive for the program from an exposure standpoint; Calhoun did not see it as an advantage.
“You’ve just got to see what unfolds,” Calhoun said. “Part of it is new horizons, so we’ll see what that truly means.
“You’re not happy. That means they have another year.”