Saturday, February 18, 2006

Jasper Sanks: Has it Really Been 9 Years?

On May 15 of last year, Matthew Stafford, the #1 rated quarterback in the country, committed to Georgia. When spring practice starts up in a few weeks, Stafford will step on the field as the most celebrated UGA recruit I can remember. Reggie Brown was pretty big, so was Kregg Lumpkin, so was Durrell Robinson, and so was Sterling Boyd. For my money, however, the only recruit in the last 15 years that might have been more hyped than Stafford is none other than Carver-Columbus’s own Jasper Sanks. To truly understand just how hyped Jasper Sanks was, you have to understand the state of Georgia football at that time.

When Sanks gave his pledge to Georgia on January 17, 1997, Georgia football was at its lowest point in over 30 years. Georgia was coming off of 4 consecutive seasons of 6 wins or less, and the talent deficit we had with Florida and Tennessee had become quite obvious. That recruiting season was considered “The Year of the Runningback” in the state of Georgia, and Sanks was the most highly rated of a group that included Jamal Lewis, Travis Zachery, Audrell Grace, and Ed Wilder. Georgia lost a lot of recruiting battles that fall, but apparently had won the most important battle of all when they signed Sanks, the first team Parade and USA Today All-American. Every Georgia fan began immediately predicting a return to glory for the UGA football program with Jasper Sanks leading the way.

Sanks’s UGA career got off to a delayed start as he failed to make a qualifying ACT score and was forced to go the Fork Union for a year to get his academics in order. While Georgia was busy putting together a 10-2 season, Sanks actually had a nice season at Fork Union, running for over 1000 yards and being named the team’s Offensive MVP. Sanks re-signed with Georgia in 1998 as part of a recruiting class that was considered by almost every recruiting analyst to be one of the top 5 in the country. This class also included former high school All-American Quincy Carter. The possibility of a Sanks/Carter backfield had many Georgia fans believing that an SEC Championship was not very far off. Unfortunately, Sanks showed up for fall practice overweight and out of shape and found himself down near the bottom of the depth chart. His ankle injury early in the 1998 season would be the first of many injuries that dogged him throughout his career at Georgia. The 1998 season was a lost year for Sanks, who carried the ball only 10 times for 65 yards on the season, with 9 of those carries coming during a blowout of Vanderbilt. It is difficult to understand Jim Donnan's reasoning for burning the redshirt of a guy that was not yet ready to get meaningful carries.

Sanks got off to a very fast start in 1999, running for over 100 yards in 3 of Georgia’s first 4 games (130 v. South Carolina, 147 v. Central Florida, and 156 v. LSU) and really was starting to look like a guy that could emerge into one of the best backs in the country. Unfortunately, the LSU game would prove to be the high point of his career. Sanks was never quite the same for the rest of the season, and the wheels really began to come off the wagon at the end of the year. Against Florida, with Georgia driving deep in Florida territory in the 4th quarter looking to take the lead, Sanks fumbled the ball and Florida recovered. Momentum completely shifted and Georgia never threatened again. However, the play for which Sanks is unfairly best remembered came in the Georgia Tech game a few weeks later. With the score tied 48-48 in the waning seconds, Georgia was trying to set up a game winning field goal inside the Georgia Tech 5 yard line. On the final play before Georgia was going to set up the field goal, Donnan went to Sanks one last time, but Sanks “fumbled” the ball and Tech recovered and went on to win in overtime. Though replays would show Sanks was clearly down, I don’t think Sanks -- or the fans -- ever quite got over that fumble, and he was never a major contributor to Georgia after that point.

Sanks showed up to fall camp in 2000 trimmed down to 220 and was projected to be the go-to back for a team that many expected to challenge for the SEC title. However, injuries kept Sanks out of 2 games and by the end of the year he had lost his starting job to Musa Smith. Sanks finished the season with only 352 yards rushing and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. Sanks missed spring practice in 2001 because of injuries, and never seriously challenged Musa Smith for the starting job in the fall. By fall practice, Sanks was up to 240 pounds, and his quickness was so diminished that there was talk of moving him to fullback. Sanks stayed at tailback and was Musa Smith’s backup for most of the season. Sanks did a decent job filling in for Smith when necessary and finished the season with 338 yards rushing. However, Sanks’s season and career would end in a way that had pretty much defined his career at Georgia – in disappointment.

I think the lasting image that myself and most Bulldog fans have of Sanks is Auburn stuffing him at the goal line as time ran out in that maddening 24-17 loss. Sanks would go out the next week and quietly run for 50 yards against Ole Miss, but was outshined by Verron Haynes gaining 192 yards on the ground. Then, in the week leading up to the Tech game, Mark Richt announced that Sanks had been dismissed from the team for the always popular “unspecified violation of team rules.” The Jasper Sanks Era was officially over.

Sanks's Legacy:
Whenever Georgia fans begin discussing a highly-touted recruit, someone will invariably say “Let’s hope he is not the next Jasper Sanks.” Sanks is considered the gold standard for what constitutes a recruiting bust. In my opinion, much of the criticism that is thrown Sanks's way isn’t really his fault. First of all, I would not consider Sanks’s career a bust. In my opinion, a complete bust is someone who contributes almost nothing to the team or never even sets foot on campus. Durrell Robinson, Reshard Dudley, Audrell Grace – those guys were busts. Sanks ran for over 1600 yards in his career, which, although I have not checked to be sure, probably puts him among the top 15 or 20 all-time at UGA. So the question that remains is why is it that Sanks’s name invoked such a bitter response among Georgia fans?

Obviously, the hype had a lot to do with it. As mentioned, Sanks was all-everything in high school, had an NFL ready body at 220 pounds, and was coming into a system known for producing great tailbacks. If Sanks had been a 3 star, middle-of-the-road type prospect, then his career would have probably been considered a moderate success. Also, the dire state of Georgia football at the time probably had a lot to do with it. If Sanks had signed this year, no one would be resting the future of Georgia football on his shoulders. Also, the 3 most memorable moments Georgia fans have of Sanks are his fumble against Florida, his fumble against Tech, and him getting stuffed at the goal line by Auburn. Two of those, the phantom fumble and getting stuffed, were not his fault, but he is nonetheless associated with three very bitter moments.

However, the biggest factor is probably the recruits that Georgia missed out on the year that Sanks came out of high school. Donnan was able to land Sanks, but otherwise got his clock cleaned with the in-state recruits that season. In probably the most notorious recruiting coup in Georgia over the last decade, Tennessee came down and grabbed 3 of the state’s top prospects – Deon Grant, Cosey Coleman, and Jamal Lewis. Donnan’s decision making really came under fire the following Fall when a 4-0 Georgia team lost at Tennessee 38-13 as Jamal Lewis ran for over 200 yards. Sanks hadn’t even made it to campus yet. Lewis claimed that Donnan, while recruiting him, had said that Lewis would have to back up Sanks if Sanks and Lewis both came to Georgia. If true, this is a prime example of why betting the farm on a single player is an absolutely terrible recruiting strategy. And this is why for the next 20 years the phrase “I hope this guy isn’t the next Jasper Sanks” will be uttered by uninformed fans when early February rolls around.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Damn Spurrier

My first post will be the article I wrote for back in early August about Steve Spurrier and the Georgia-Florida Rivalry:

I am writing this in response to David Shepherd’s very well-written and insightful piece on the complexities of the Georgia-Florida rivalry during the Spurrier era and how important the ’05 game is to the rivalry. I would like to address this topic from the perspective of a Georgia person.

For those of you Georgia fans under the age of 30, believe it or not, things haven’t always been this way. When Vince Dooley retired following the 1988 season after 25 years of coaching Georgia, he left with 6 SEC championships, 1 national championship, and a 17-7-1 record against Florida. For a quarter century Georgia owned Jacksonville, drubbing the Gators with superior teams and finding ways to win with inferior ones. That trend came to a screeching halt when Steve Spurrier arrived in Gainesville in 1990 to revive a middling Florida program that had yet to win an SEC championship. For the next 12 years, Spurrier unleashed a reign of terror on the SEC and seemed to have a special affinity for making Georgia his own personal whipping boy. I was born in 1982, so unfortunately a culture of Florida domination is pretty much all I am accustomed to.

While Florida probably had the better team for at least 9 or 10 of Spurrier's 12 seasons, it was the way Georgia lost that made the Spurrier tenure so miserable. Spurrier didn't just beat Georgia; he humiliated them and took great pleasure in doing so. Between 1990 and 1995, when Spurrier and Ray Goff were facing off every fall, Georgia fans really began to question if it was ever going to get better. Spurrier had an unbelievable air of confidence standing on the sideline and always looked like he was in complete control of the flow of the game, planning 3 and 4 moves ahead of the coach on the other side of the field. The childlike Goff, on the other hand, frequently looked confused on the sidelines, and would start leaping around like he’d just won the national championship when Georgia would get a first down. Those demeanors carried onto the field, where Florida would destroy visibly rattled Georgia teams in an almost machine-like fashion. Danny Wuerfful, Reidel Anthony, and Ike Hilliard carved up forgettable Georgia defenses to the tune of 50 points per game between 1994 and 1996.

Honestly, would this matchup make you feel confident?

Florida was light years ahead of Georgia talent-wise between 1994 and 1996, so those beatings were inevitable, but even when the talent gap closed somewhat in the late '90s, Spurrier still owned Georgia. Losses by an average of 19 points from 1998-2000 were simply inexcusable, and ultimately led to Donnan being shown the door. Once again, the site of Jimmy Donnan supposedly matching wits with the greatest offensive mind in the game provided Georgia fans with little comfort. Only a 37-17 win in 1997 over a Florida team that rotated three quarterbacks provided Georgia fans with any relief. Any good feelings about the future of the series were summarily vanquished in 1998 when the Gators reeled off 21 unanswered points in the first quarter. The final score was one Georgia fans had grown accustomed to, 38-7 Gators.

Anyone else feel a tunnel screen is on the way?

Twice (1992 and 2000), Georgia marched into Jacksonville with more talented teams and a chance to go to put themselves in the SEC East driver's seat, only to see the Gators walk away victorious and into the SEC championship game on both occasions. Even in years when inferior Georgia teams put themselves in position for an upset, a fourth-quarter miscue or controversial call would end their chances. Who can forget the timeout in 1993 that negated a game tying Georgia touchdown in the final seconds or the Jasper Sanks fumble in 1999 that ended a fourth quarter drive deep in Florida territory?

Spurrier’s humiliation of Georgia extended beyond the playing field. Unlike the overly modest Dooley, who by the end of a press conference would have you believing that Vanderbilt was on the brink of putting together a national championship run, Spurrier was not going to pretend that a 3-4 Georgia team had a chance against his undefeated Gators. Even after he left Florida, Spurrier jumped at any chance to wipe his feet on the Bulldogs. Asked by a reporter if the Dallas Cowboys would become his new Florida State, Spurrier responded, “I hope they become our Georgia.” If Georgia fans viewed Vince Dooley as the southern gentleman you see eating brunch at a Savannah country club, they viewed Spurrier as the guy you see drag racing a Camaro down the strip in Panama City.

When Mark Richt arrived at Georgia in 2001, Georgia fans were confident that Bobby Bowden’s right hand man and offensive genius was exactly what the team needed to compete with Spurrier. No longer would Georgia have to watch an overmatched coach get his clocked cleaned every October. Mark Richt didn’t beat Spurrier in 2001, but the 24-10 loss was understandable given that Georgia was in rebuilding mode and Florida was in the thick of the national title hunt. When Spurrier unexpectedly retired following the 2001 season, Georgia fans began immediately declaring the era of Florida domination over. 2002, they said, would surely be a new chapter in the series. Georgia was a trendy pick to win the SEC championship, whereas Florida had replaced Spurrier with the unknown Ron Zook and had lost a number of key players. Unfortunately for Georgia fans, the next two trips to Jacksonville would be more painful than any during the Spurrier years. Two years in a row following Spurrier’s departure, Georgia walked into Jacksonville in the thick of the national title hunt, but managed only 13 points in both contests and watched their national title dreams go down the toilet.

There was an immense amount of pressure to win in 2002 with the Evil Genius out of the way, and I would say it’s safe to say the 2002 Georgia team completely buckled under that pressure. Florida’s worst team in a decade had lost 3 games going into Jacksonville and was a big underdog against an undefeated Georgia team that seemed to be hitting its stride after a 52-point explosion against Kentucky. What followed would prove to be one of the most painful nights imaginable for a Bulldog fan. What made the loss so unbearable was that Florida was, at best, the 4th best team Georgia faced that season, and they didn’t even play that well, committing numerous turnovers. While I generally have happy memories about the 2002 team, the loss to Florida might is the most bitter and painful Georgia football memory I have. Time and time again, the Georgia offense advanced into Florida territory, but every time they would find some way to give the ball right back to the Gators. The final minutes were befitting of both the game and the previous 12 years. With Georgia down 20-13, Terrence Edwards dropped a sure touchdown pass, letting both the ball and Georgia’s national title hopes slip through his fingers.

When the final horn sounded, the looks on the faces of Georgia fans were not of anger or disappointment, but of sheer disbelief. This couldn’t have happened, not to this Georgia team, not to Mark Richt, not at the hands of the hapless Ron Zook and a rag tag Gator offense that called Kelvin Kight and Carlos Perez “go to” receivers. Georgia had knocked themselves out of the national championship hunt by failing to deliver in a game that was thought to be a sure thing. On the long walk back to my hotel, I was taunted mercilessly by an endless string of orange clad Billy Ray Cyrus clones pounding PBRs and shouting witty phrases like “You guys choked” and “We own Georgia.” The worst part of it was that I had no response, because they were exactly right. The drive back to Athens the next morning seemed to drag on for days. I remember reading a newspaper article on the ride back about Spurrier's legacy that said something to the effect of "Somewhere in the D.C. area you can bet Steve Spurrier was watching the game and smiling, knowing that in some way he still had a hand in what was unfolding on the field."

Very well said.

The 2003 version of the Dawgs was more talented than the young 2003 Gators, but I can't really say they buckled under the pressure, because Florida, unlike in 2002, played a pretty good game. Still, you could just feel Spurrier’s shadow casting down on Alltel Stadium when Matt Leach's last second field goal that looked like it was hooking left suddenly straightened up and went through the uprights. In both 2002 and 2003, an array of errors allowed mediocre Florida teams to continue the trend Spurrier had started – the normally heady David Pollack committing a forward lateral on an interception return, Greg Blue taking a Pop Warner tackling angle on a screen pass to Carlos Perez that went for a touchdown, D.J. Shockley throwing the ball into the waiting arms of Gus Scott, and the one no Georgia fan will forget, George Foster drawing a personal foul for, as one Georgia student accurately described it in an editorial to the Red and Black, attempting to “dry hump” a Florida defensive lineman after the whistle had blown. Spurrier may have physically been hundreds of miles away in D.C. at the time, but the legacy he left clearly got into the heads of the Georgia players.

The 2004 game was a win, but it did nothing to make any Georgia fan (or at least myself) think that the psychological hold Jacksonville and the Gators have on UGA has been broken. Georgia's most talented team since '82 went into Jacksonville against yet another underachieving, though talented, Florida team. Florida had lost two weeks before to Mississippi State, a team that had lost to Maine earlier in the year, and Ron Zook had since been fired. Georgia stormed out of the gates to a 21-7 first half lead and looked to be cruising to an easy win when they drove down to the Florida one yard line. Then, the inevitable happened. Georgia fumbled and Florida recovered. Georgia managed to hold on and win 31-24, but failed to capitalize on numerous opportunities to put the game away (including letting Florida convert a maddening 3rd and long with an option). Georgia had beaten Florida, but for me, the feeling after the game was one of relief that we hadn't blown it, not one of exhilaration.

Heading into year #5 as head coach of Georgia, Mark Richt has 3 top ten finishes and an SEC championship, but he's 1-3 against the Gators and has lost or been taken to the wire by less talented teams each of the last 3 years. 2005 is a huge game for this rivalry and one that I think will be looked upon as a turning point 10 years from now. Even though it hasn’t necessarily manifested itself on the field, the general feeling (from a Georgia standpoint) is that the tide is slowly turning in this rivalry, but that could all come crashing to a halt in 2005. For the first time since 2001, Florida is considered by most publications to be the better football team, and the stage seems set for Florida to get back to the SEC championship and possibly even the national championship. Ron Zook, who many Gator fans wanted to show the door before he coached a single game, has been replaced by Urban Meyer, the wildly successful Utah coach and offensive guru who seems to be cut from the same cloth as Spurrier, even in demeanor. His jokes about Miami’s lack of fan support this summer hearken back to the days of Spurrier referring to Ray Goff as “Coach Goof.” Florida fans think Meyer is the man who can return them to mid-‘90s form, but I can assure you if the Gators fall to a rebuilding Georgia team, the love fest will immediately come to a halt and will be the new internet site of choice in Gainesville.

On the other hand, if Mark Richt can orchestrate a victory over the ultra-talented Gators, he will have proven that the days of wetting the bed in Jacksonville are likely over, and that 2004 was not just an aberration (like ’97 was for Donnan). If Georgia goes down there and gets pasted, any confidence carried over from 2004 will be shattered, and Georgia fans will start wondering if the Cocktail Party under the Meyer regime will be much like it was under Spurrier. The win in 2004 will not break the hold Jacksonville and Spurrier have on Georgia, but a win in 2005 just might.