ATHENS – The greatest legacy of the two years Jeremy Pruitt spent at Georgia is probably the indoor facility. Maybe it would’ve been built without him, but Pruitt’s well-timed public comments in 2014 may have sped things along.
Pruitt’s next legacy, though, may be Dominick Sanders. And unlike the indoor facility, Kirby Smart will be able to use him this year.
Sanders was an undersized, under-recruited three-star when Pruitt, playing a sort of recruiting version of Moneyball, took notice. Sanders had racked up 11 interceptions in the final 10 games of his senior year at Tucker High School, which had made the state championship game. While Georgia’s just-departed defensive staff, and many other SEC schools, had essentially said “eh,” Pruitt decided those stats could translate.
He also hadn’t been around a few years earlier when Sanders’ older brother Chris, another safety, had been one of three players tossed from Georgia after a dorm room theft incident. So Pruitt didn’t care about that either.
From the start, Sanders has repaid the trust in him.
Georgia has played 26 games since Sanders arrived on campus. He has started 25 of them, the only one he didn’t last year was the result of a targeting ejection in the previous game, which made him wait until the second half to take the field. Sanders has nine interceptions over the past couple years, but that’s only part of the reason he’s been so important.
The secondary has been pretty young the past couple years, thrusting Sanders into a bigger leadership role, especially last year, when he was basically the captain of the secondary, despite only being a sophomore.
“The main thing is making sure everybody is on the same page in the back end,” Sanders said last year.
He apparently did that well, as Georgia had the top-ranked pass defense in the country. Maybe that had a lot to do with the opponents, and with Georgia’s pass rush. But the secondary was doing something right.
Oh, and Sanders was named first-team All-SEC by the AP. That’s pretty good for anybody, exceptionally good for a sophomore.
Reminder: This is not a ranking of Georgia’s best players, so to speak. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2016 based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at certain positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
That brings us to …
9. DOMINICK SANDERS
WHY HE’S VITAL: While Georgia returns most of the secondary – Jonathan Abram is the only departed player who started games last year – it still falls on Sanders to be the leader of the group. He may not have to be quite the backbone that he has been, especially if Malkom Parrish, Rico McGraw and Juwuan Briscoe keep developing. But this secondary has also been able to count on Sanders the past two years. He can’t suddenly have a junior slump, and thus put more pressure on Quincy Mauger and others to produce. On the other hand, if Sanders actually elevates his game, a distinct possibility, you could easily have a back-to-back first-team All-SEC pick. Georgia’s front seven will be young, and it could be a challenge. The secondary likely needs to be the strength of this year’s defense, and Sanders is front and center to that.
QUOTABLE: “He’s kind of wired 220. You don’t have to get him going, he’s going when you hit the field. Now is he always right, no. Should he playing as a true freshman, probably not, but right now he’s one of our better players.” – Jeremy Pruitt back in 2014, talking about Sanders.
BEST CASE: Sanders is as dependable as ever, and provides the same leadership, and Georgia’s secondary not only has the same production as last year, but there are no more questions on whether it was an illusion. In fact, the secondary takes pressure off the young front seven, and this year it’s the secondary that “protects” the pass rush, not the other way around.
WORST CASE: It turns out to be true that Sanders and the secondary benefitted from Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. That puts the secondary in more on-on-one coverage situations, and puts Sanders on an island more in coverage, rather than freed up to go after the ball. The secondary struggles. The whole defense struggles.
FINAL WORD: It’s a distinct possibility that Georgia’s pass defense stats won’t be as good this year – maybe not even in the top 10 nationally – but it will be better overall. As for Sanders, he was kind of a quiet All-SEC pick last year, his success overshadowed by everything else happening with the program. If he has another productive season this year, it won’t go unnoticed, and it will be time to start thinking of where he ranks among the great Georgia defensive backs.