Georgia’s football season had just ended one afternoon last December, and Dominick Sanders was standing in walkway at the Liberty Bowl when he was asked if he was coming back for one more year.
“I’m going to stay one more year with my guys,” Sanders said.
It was a surprising response, at least to this reporter, who did not expect a yes or no answer yet. But Sanders said yes … and then it was completely overshadowed 30 seconds later when Isaiah McKenzie, standing a few feet from Sanders, answered the same question with a “no.”
That was fair, as McKenzie ended up being vitally important to Georgia last year – as much as its offense struggled where would it have been without him? But let’s now take a step back and appreciate how important it was for the Bulldogs to also get back their starting safety.
Oh yes, Sanders didn’t have a great year. By his own admission. (A few sentences after announcing his return, Sanders alluded to the “errors” he had his junior season and the need to improve. More later on what those were.)
Georgia also has a plethora of talent in the secondary now, with guys like Richard LeCounte ready to step in if needed. Actually, with all this incoming talent – Deangelo Gibbs, William Poole, Tray Bishop – some fans think that it would have been better long-term for the program had Sanders left.
Let’s not go crazy here. Sanders is still an important piece for this team, as we will convincingly (perhaps) explain. And it will be big for the team if he has a bounce-back year.
Reminder: This is not purely a ranking of Georgia’s best players. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2017 based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at their positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
WHY HE’S IMPORTANT: Experience, leadership, stability and playmaking ability. The interceptions are one thing: Sanders enters his senior season with 12 in his career, needing four to tie Jake Scott and Bacarri Rambo for the school record. (And with one more Sanders will tie his head coach, Kirby Smart.) Sanders can also make other big plays, as evidenced by the five tackles-for-loss and one sack he had as a sophomore, when he was first-team All-SEC. Those numbers slipped last year, down to just 1.5 TFL, as did his overall tackle numbers (48 to 34.) But here’s another measure: The season before Sanders arrived, Georgia ranked 59th in pass defense. In the three seasons Sanders has been playing and starting every game, Georgia has ranked fifth, first and No. 16. Is it just because of Sanders? Of course not. His arrival also coincided with Jeremy Pruitt, who recruited Sanders, and Mel Tucker is also a very good secondary coach. There’s plenty of other talent around him. But Sanders is good too, and his mere presence is stabilizing and thus vital to this defense going forward.
FACTOID: Sanders is also within 20 yards of breaking the UGA career interception return yardage record of 315, held by Jake Scott, who once rode his motorcycle to the top of Stegeman Coliseum much to the annoyance of Vince Dooley.
BEST CASE: Sanders returns to his 2015 form and exceeds it. He breaks the school record for interceptions. (The SEC record of 20 seems too far, but you never know.) More importantly, Sanders cuts down on the missed tackles, poor angles and doesn’t taken unnecessary chances at balls. Georgia’s pass defense, with Sanders leading the way, ranks first in the SEC, as it did two years ago, when it was also first nationally. Sanders’ secondary proves vital in limiting fast-moving offensive opponents Mississippi State, Missouri, and Auburn.
WORST CASE: Sanders’ down junior season proves not to be an anomaly, and Georgia’s pass defense takes a hit. The loss of Maurice Smith, last year’s starter at nickel back, proves to be a bigger loss than expected in the secondary, and Georgia loses several high-scoring games.
FINAL WORD: The only reason Sanders isn’t higher on this list is the return of other veterans, such as fellow seniors Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish, and junior Deandre Baker. And yes, the young talent ready to play, potentially right away. So there’s some margin for error if Sanders doesn’t return to his 2015 form, or gets hurt. But Sanders is the leader of the secondary, and has proven he can be a star, so if he returns to All-SEC form that would be important for Georgia’s defense, and the team overall.