› Last season: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)
› Opener: Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina in Atlanta (5:30 p.m. on ESPN)
› Fun fact: Georgia played 22 true freshmen last season, the most of any program nationally, and used 19 in the opener against Louisiana-Monroe. Georgia’s previous high for true freshmen in an opener was 13 in 2012.
› COMING FRIDAY: Kentucky
A lot has gone right for Georgia junior free safety Dominick Sanders, who has started 25 of 26 games and collected nine interceptions through two seasons.
He is motivated by an older brother who had a Bulldogs career go very wrong.
The 6-foot, 189-pounder from the Atlanta suburb of Tucker is the younger brother of Chris Sanders, a defensive back who signed with the Bulldogs in 2011 but was dismissed a few months later for allegedly stealing from a teammate. Another freshman defensive back, Nick Marshall, was involved in that incident and eventually became Auburn's starting quarterback for two seasons and led the Tigers to the 2013 Southeastern Conference championship.
Chris Sanders didn't have such a storybook second chance, transferring to Eastern Arizona College and then Baylor University, where a shoulder injury ended his college career, but he did graduate from Baylor and still has a younger brother looking up to him.
"He's been a big role model to me," the younger Sanders brother said last week at SEC media days. "Every day he will tell me to stay focused in school, and he will tell me the people I need to hang with and who I need to stay away from. I thank God every day that I have a brother like that.
"He made a mistake, but he bounced back pretty well and has been there to help me in my career."
Sanders, who at the age of 6 lost his father to a drug overdose, joined a Georgia secondary coming off a disastrous 2013 season that included giving up a miracle fourth-and-18 score at Auburn and a 99-yard touchdown against Nebraska. He quickly breathed life into that position group, racking up 34 tackles, returning a fumble 54 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas and capping his debut year with two interceptions in the Belk Bowl romp over Louisville.
Georgia coaches voted Sanders the program's "Newcomer of the Year."
Sanders set the tone for a stellar sophomore season with an 88-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second game at Vanderbilt. He amassed 205 yards in interception returns a year ago, setting a single-season program record, and picked off passes in the final two games against Georgia Tech and Penn State.
"I knew Dom through recruiting, and he's a great kid and a great competitor," Georgia first-year head coach Kirby Smart said. "He really is. He's got nine career interceptions, and I have no doubt he'll have a lot more than that by the time his career ends. He works really hard day in and day out."
With those nine interceptions, Sanders is on the radar to potentially set a Georgia career record. Jake Scott had an amazing 16 interceptions in just two seasons (1967-68) at Georgia before eventually becoming MVP of Super Bowl VII with the Miami Dolphins, and Bacarri Rambo wound up with 16 as well during a four-year career that ended in 2012.
Sanders flourished in Jeremy Pruitt's two-year run as defensive coordinator, but now he has a head coach who also played safety at Georgia. Smart had 11 interceptions for the Bulldogs during the 1997 and '98 seasons.
"It's awesome to have a coach who is tied in with the defensive staff and played the same position I play," Sanders said. "He can really coach me up and show me the ways of playing defensive back. He's aggressive and a very fast-paced guy, and he's willing to show you how to be a man on and off the field."
Georgia has six starters back on defense, including all four in the secondary, where Sanders is joined by strong safety Quincy Mauger and cornerbacks Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish. The Bulldogs led the nation in pass defense a year ago, allowing just 144.0 yards a game, but struggling offenses (Kentucky, Auburn and Penn State) and triple-option offenses (Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech) down the stretch helped factor into that figure.
The Bulldogs could feast again this season in a league that is breaking in a lot of new quarterbacks, but they do have to face two SEC veterans — Mississippi's Chad Kelly and Tennessee's Josh Dobbs — in consecutive weeks. Dobbs torched Georgia last season in Knoxville, throwing for 312 yards and rushing for 118.
"I've been pleased with the last two seasons," Sanders said, "but I feel that we have a lot more to accomplish."
Sanders is ready to do that with an older brother offering support.
"I get my ball-hawking from him," he said. "That was a key for him when he was playing ball, and when I moved from the star position to free safety, I kept picturing my brother as a ball hawk and how I wanted to be like that."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.