ATHENS – There was that one time that Dominick Sanders and Kirby Smart joked around about Georgia’s record books, specifically interceptions, and the fact Sanders was a few away from passing Smart.
“Yeah, you’ll beat it,” Smart said, according to Sanders. “But if you do beat it I’ve got something for you.”
It felt like a big brother playing around with a little brother.
But big brothers can also be hard on their little brothers. Smart can be hard on Sanders, and Georgia’s secondary in general — both privately and publicly.
There might be a simple reason for that: Sanders, the senior safety, is playing the same spot that Smart manned at Georgia in the late 1990s.
“He played the position, and he was good at it,” Sanders said. “So everything he tells us we have no choice but to listen.”
Sanders, in a way, symbolizes the ups and downs of Georgia’s secondary the past couple of years. He was first-team All-SEC in 2015, when the Bulldogs had statistically the best pass defense in the country. When the unit slipped to the teens nationally last year, Sanders received little postseason recognition. His tackle numbers and interceptions went down.
So Sanders, after thinking about leaving for the NFL draft, came back for his senior year. That means there’s a chance that Sanders will leave as Georgia’s career leader in interceptions: He has 12, four behind first-place Jake Scott and Bacarri Rambo – and one behind his coach.
Two decades apart, Smart and Sanders came to Georgia with similar hype: very little. When Sanders got to Georgia, he was an unheralded 3-star recruit who was only offered by Georgia a few weeks before signing day. Smart, not exactly a huge guy in his playing days, has also joked aboutthe days when he joined the team.
“Everybody thought I was the walk-on kicker,” Smart said.
Smart ended up lettering for four years, was a captain in his senior year and used his college career as a springboard into coaching. When he got his first head coaching job, at his alma mater, he inherited a secondary that was coming off statistically a great year, and a first-team All-SEC pick in Sanders, but Smart proceeded to pick apart its flaws. He’s continued to do so this year, and not just the big group of rookies. The veterans too.
“He sees a lot in us,” Sanders said of Smart. “We’re not going to be perfect. But each and every day we’ve got to compete and get better.”
Sanders remembers being the rookie in the secondary, looking up to and getting pointers from seniors such as Damian Swann.
Now Sanders is in the front row, the grizzled veteran looking back at a half-dozen freshman defensive backs and coaching them up. And he watches Smart get on them too.
“When a coach isn’t talking to you, that’s when you should be worried,” Sanders said. “But right now all those guys feel good because coach really sees a lot in those guys and they’re going to help us out this year.”
But what about Sanders? Will this be the year he returns to All-SEC form — and pleases his head coach?
The key is being consistent on every play and in every game, and not just be known as a ball hawk. Sanders knows that. Interceptions make for notoriety and are very valuable. But bad angles and missed tackles can also cost you games.
Sanders, speaking after preseason practice on Wednesday, said he wants to be known as more than a ball hawk. He wants to be a leader and someone who is “flying around making plays on the back end. Showing the young guys how to be a big brother.”
But six or seven interceptions probably wouldn’t hurt his NFL stock, it was pointed out. Sanders laughed. And then he didn’t deny it.
“A lot of people would say they’d like me to have this and that,” Sanders said. “I say, ‘Look, if it comes my way I’m going to get it because I’m playing receiver back there this year.’”