INDIANAPOLIS — As he puts it, Dominick Sanders has a “Why?” that has little to do with that second-and-26 play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Both he and Georgia fans are sick of hearing about the play that ended the Bulldogs’ season, but the game-winning touchdown pass from Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith is not Sanders’ primary motivator as he begins his professional career.
It’s the memory of stepping off the school bus as a 6-year-old and hearing his mother tell him his father was dead in the bathroom.
Johnny Morris died of a drug overdose, and Sanders has kept that moment with him all these years. It’s a story he shares very selectively. When he told it to Georgia media in 2015, coach Mark Richt had not even heard it.
As Sanders continued his pursuit of a professional football career at the NFL combine last weekend, he brought up Morris’ death, unprompted.
“I lost my dad in 2002,” he said. “So before any game, before workouts, I have visions, man. Visions that flash through my head of what I’ve been through. What I’ve seen, and the adversity I’ve faced. And what that does is that gets me going. That makes me more hungry. Makes me want to eat. You know. I take that chip every day, wherever I’m at; I could be playing Uno. That chip on my shoulder to win.”
That “chip” — alternately referred to as his “Why?” — is what helped him develop from a 3-star recruit from Tucker, Ga., into an All-SEC defensive back who started 53 career games at Georgia.
“The ‘Why?’ hurts deep down in inside because of the stuff I went through and the people I lost,” Sanders told reporters Sunday. “But that’s my ‘Why?’ on why I play the game. And why I go so hard. And why my work ethic is so high.”
Under Richt and former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Sanders quickly developed into a standout free safety, an extension of the coaching staff on the field.
When Kirby Smart arrived in Athens, he brought a wealth of new ideas that helped Sanders improve his film résumé. A prominent example: In preparation for playing Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, Smart emphasized “disguises” in pass coverage.
It was something the Bulldogs had worked on all season, but it came to its fullest fruition on the first play of the fourth quarter. The score was tied at 31 on a third-and-10 from Oklahoma’s own 18-yard line. Sanders lined up as if he were playing a Cover 2 defense, which is, effectively, two safeties splitting the deep area of the field. So, after the snap, when the quarterback saw the opposite Georgia safety move toward the line of scrimmage, Mayfield assumed there would be no one covering his tight end over the top.
His throw was too long, and Sanders — who had dropped into center-field coverage to fulfill the disguised Cover 1 call — easily tracked down the ball for an interception. His return to the 1-yard line helped Georgia grab a 38-31 lead in a game it eventually would win in double overtime.
Plays such as that are why Sanders is considered a draft-worthy prospect in late April.
“Undersized but athletic, Sanders has a four-year résumé of putting himself into position to play the ball and taking it away once he gets there,” NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote. “Sanders’ dearth of size and speed could hurt his draft stock, but he could hear his name called on Day 3 as a future sub-package safety with the ability to flip the field on occasion.”
Here were a few other topics of conversation in Indianapolis:
Dominick Sanders at the NFL combine
On Richt, who recruited him and served as Georgia’s coach during Sanders’ first two seasons: “Spiritual. He just knew the ins and outs of the ballgame, and off the field as well. He cared about all his players, and he made sure all his players interacted in different events. Make sure everybody on the team had a brotherhood bond. Like I said, he’s a great coach. And when you’ve got coaches like that, the players feel good and they want to do whatever it takes to win … That bond [from team events] stuck together, and as he left, it was still there. But we had to move on with a new coach.”
On Smart, the man who succeeded Richt: “He’s a high-demand coach. Very intense. He’s a coach that cares about you on and off the field. When you’ve got a coach like that, you know it’s nothing but success … Not only does he speak football, he speaks the language of, ‘How are you doing academically?’ or, what do you put your mind to when football is over.”
On his pair of interceptions in the 2014 Belk Bowl, which he named as the most memorable plays of his Georgia career: “I didn’t go into the game thinking I would catch the interceptions. I’m a freshman out there playing. I’m running around with vets like Damian Swann and Todd Gurley. All those guys. Corey Moore. Amarlo Herrera. Playing with those guys, you’ve gotta have a chip on your shoulder. But I also came in with a chip on my shoulder, just showing the doubters what I’m capable of.”
On the National Championship Game loss, which we covered extensively this week: “The final play hurt. It was tough. I couldn’t get no sleep for about a week. But I had to put that in the past because I had to get my mind on something bigger, which is this combine.
“When I go back and look at it, I wish I could do it all over again. I wish I could get that last play. And I know everybody that was on that defense and our team wishes we could get that last play.
“… I wish we could have pulled it out, man. Georgia hasn’t won a national championship in so long. Just having everybody there. The fans. The atmosphere. The fans were very supportive. Just not being able to accomplish that, it really hurt.”
On his favorite game (a surprising choice): “I’m gonna go with the national championship. Even though we didn’t get the victory, I’m gonna go with the national championship. That’s about the biggest stage you can get, man. Other than the Super Bowl. But as a college player, [you dream] about the national championship. It’s just working hard. The players I had around me — the other leaders on the team — that I had. They all had a mindset: We’ve gotta go into this year being a dominant team. Not just in the SEC but all over the country. And we proved that up until the national championship.
“It didn’t go our way, but nobody is perfect. Everybody will not win the game. But just being at that big stage, I was honored. I was blessed. The team was blessed. And I just thank the Lord for getting the opportunity to play on that stage.”