Before we dive into a look at a key cog for Georgia this season, let’s look back on a key from last year:
Georgia very quietly finished fifth nationally in pass defense. While the numbers are a bit skewed – Georgia Tech and Florida didn’t need to pass the ball to beat the Bulldogs – there’s no arguing the secondary was improved.
Jeremy Pruitt wanted his unit to give up less big plays. It did. Georgia yielded only four plays of 40-plus yards, and just one that was 60-plus yards. The year before it gave up 13 plays of 40-plus yards, and seven off 60-plus yards.
Pruitt also wanted to force turnovers. It did. Georgia had 16 interceptions last year, 15 of them by defensive backs, after only a total of seven interceptions in 2013, six of them by defensive backs.
Third-down defense also improved, albeit microscopically. Georgia stopped opponents 39.3 percent of the time last year, compared to 39.5 the previous year.
There were lots of reasons for the improvement, but a big one was the leadership and play of Damian Swann, who last year I listed as Georgia’s third-most important player. Well he’s gone now, which brings us to this year’s list.
No. 12 was freshman receiver Terry Godwin.
No. 11 was senior kicker Marshall Morgan.
No. 10 was the inside linebacker tandem of Reggie Carter and Tim Kimbrough.
No. 9 was sophomore receiver and return specialist Isaiah McKenzie.
No. 8 was senior left tackle John Theus.
No. 7 was the outside linebacking trio of Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter.
No. 6 was sophomore offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn.
And now …
WHY HE’S VITAL: What will the depth chart in Georgia’s secondary look like at the end of August? Who knows. Jeremy Pruitt will keep experimenting in the preseason, then mix and match throughout the season. But as of now the one player you can probably pencil in the lineup is Sanders, either at free safety or the star position. He started every game last season, and every sign this spring and summer has been that he’s continued to work hard and improve. If Sanders can be the dependable mainstay, the way Swann was last year, the rest of the pieces will fall into place more easily. And Sanders also has the potential to be a difference-maker; Pruitt has cited Sanders’ eight interceptions in his final eight games of high school as a reason he recruited him.
QUOTABLE: “I kind of told myself to just take on coaching, keep listening, and perform. That’s all. And have a good attitude.” – Sanders
BEST CASE: Sanders not only is that mainstay in the secondary, he also improves on his numbers from last year (34 tackles and three interceptions) and becomes an All-SEC candidate. He provides leadership to youngsters like Malkom Parrish, Juwuan Briscoe and Jarvis Wilson. And with Sanders as the anchor, Pruitt’s secondary becomes one of the strengths of the defense.
WORST CASE: It proves tougher sledding for Sanders as the anointed leader of the group, without Swann and Corey Moore to lean on. The secondary becomes an week-to-week adventure, with players once again moving around, and not for strategic reasons. Without a strong season from Sanders, or another safety, Georgia gives up too many big plays, and takes an overall step back in 2015.
FINAL WORD: Pruitt and his teammates seem to have a lot of confidence in Sanders. He may not be the most physically imposing safety (he’s listed at 6-foot and 190 pounds), and he doesn’t run the fastest 40, which is why Georgia’s previous defensive staff didn’t jump on him. But Sanders makes plays and plays smart, which is why Pruitt wanted him. Yes, it doesn’t have to be Sanders to replace Swann as the best defensive back. He’s still only a sophomore. But there aren’t any upperclassmen with cast playing experience, so right now Sanders is the best hope.