MEMPHIS, Tenn. | Georgia will get back one of its top defensive players next season, but is losing one of the SEC’s most electrifying playmakers.
Junior safety Dominick Sanders said he will return for his senior season instead of pursuing the NFL draft, but wide receiver and punt returner Isaiah McKenzie said Friday after the Bulldogs’ Liberty Bowl victory that he is declaring his intention to turn pro.
“I won’t be coming back next season,” said McKenzie, third all-time in the SEC with five punt return touchdowns and the school record holder for total return touchdowns with six including one kickoff return. “I’m planning on declaring. Just working in offseason workouts and declaring for the draft.”
Not far away outside the Georgia locker room following a 31-23 win over TCU, Sanders said a couple of minutes earlier: “I’m going to stay one more year with my guys. It’s best for me. As a young man, I look at the errors I had this year. I’m going to improve on them in the offseason and get better. The biggest thing is have another year with my guys and be a leader. …I’m just ready to be a big impact to the team next year.”
Asked what led him to the decision, McKenzie said it was “just personal issues back home, things like that,” mentioning a grandmother.
At 5-foot-8 and 175-pounds, McKenzie’s size will be considered by NFL talent evaluators.
“I don’t know what the outcome is going to be but I’m going to do it,” said McKenzie, from Miami.
There had been speculation since the end of the regular season about whether McKenzie would be eligible to play in the bowl or could return next season, but McKenzie said he expected to be eligible to play as a senior if he had chosen to come back.
As for the NFL, McKenzie said he’s watched returners and slot receivers on the next level.
“I feel like I can be an asset to someone,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie led Georgia with four catches for 103 yards in the bowl and led the Bulldogs this season with 44 catches for 633 yards and seven touchdowns. He had 18 catches his first two seasons.
Sanders, a Tucker product, admitted his junior season didn’t match up to his big sophomore season when he had six interceptions and 48 tackles. Sanders had three interceptions this season, giving him 12 in his career. He had three tackles in the bowl and finished this season with 34.
Sanders said he made up his mind about a week ago, “but just didn’t want to let it be known.”
He told reporters Wednesday he preferred not to talk about it until after the bowl.
“Too many people were on me about it,” said Sanders, who has 38 career starts. “Hold it in and keep the focus on TCU. We got the job done. I told Coach (Kirby) Smart I love him and this is the best decision for me. In the long run, I’ll get a degree. The main thing is just enjoying this college life and enjoying the game of football. There’s a lot more stuff I’m trying to learn as a young man. Coming back is going to help me become a better young man.”
Excitment for the future
Nick Chubb watched Friday as his backfield mate Sony Michel stepped off a podium at a postgame press conference to pose for a photo with a trophy after being named outstanding Georgia offensive player in the Liberty Bowl.
It arguably could have gone to Chubb, but maybe all the votes were already in before Chubb finished off his 142-yard rushing day, averaging 8.4 yards a pop on 17 carries including 57 yards in the fourth quarter.
Michel certainly was deserving for his showing in the 31-23 Georgia win over TCU. Michel rushed for 87 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries and had two catches for 39 yards and a spectacular 33-yard catch-and-run score.
“It was eye opening,” said outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter , who had seven tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack. “It made me appreciate the fact that I get another year to play with those guys.”
Chubb and Michel offered another example of why Georgia fans are thrilled to have them back for one more season.
Chubb returns as Georgia’s No. 2 all-time leading rusher, needing 1,835 to tie legend Herschel Walker for the top spot.
“It’s definitely a blessing,” Chubb said. “I never thought I would be right here where I am now in this position. …Hopefully I can keep it going and keep rolling and see what happens next.”
Chubb now has 3,424 rushing yards after finishing his junior season with 1,130 yards.
Chubb, Walker and Knowshon Moreno are the only Georgia players to have multiple 1,000-yard seasons.
Coach Kirby Smart lavished praise on the two players that announced earlier this month that they are returning for their senior seasons.
“In a day and age when everything in football is about me, me, me, these two have never been like that,” Smart said. “Not once. They’re not me guys. They never point the finger at the O-line, they never point the finger at the quarterback, they never point the finger at receivers and they’re committed to the University of Georgia.”
On a third-and-13, Michel came out of backfield and caught a pass from Jacob Eason at the 30 and broke four tackles on the way to the end zone.
“I think that was a great momentum shift,” Michel said. “Eason did a great job by reading the play out and he threw me the ball. After that, it was all fight of who wanted it more, us or them.”
Lorenzo Carter answers the challenge
Georgia got a huge game from defensive tackle Trenton Thompson who had three sacks and eight tackles, but outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter may have made as big a difference with game-changing plays.
Carter forced two fumbles, had a sack and had seven tackles as he played the role of spy on quarterback Kenny Hill.
Smart said Carter was one of three or four players he “called out” and challenged to step up their games against TCU.
“We knew in this game, Lorenzo Carter’s specialties come out,” Smart said. “Spread, he can run, he never gets tired, he’s fast, he’s a good rusher. He ran plays down and chopped balls up. …You know what he had a hell of game and he deserved it because he practiced really hard.”
Thompson set a Liberty Bowl record and tied a Georgia bowl record with three sacks.
He got the game MVP trophy.
“I’m going to give it to my mom,” Thompson said. “She’s got an area where she puts all my trophies and plaques. She can do what she wants to do with it.”
Offense ‘kept pounding’ after early struggles
When Georgia was going three-and-out after three-and-out in the first half Friday, the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator’s critics included a member of a famed Athens band.
“Fire Jim Chaney. Now. During the game,” R.E.M. ‘s Mike Mills posted on his personal Twitter account.
Georgia’s offense in between a pair of first-half scoring drives went basically nowhere.
The Bulldogs had only one first down in their first seven drives until a 12-yard run from Michel with under five minutes left in the second quarter. Georgia went 76 yards on nine plays in the drive that ended with the Michel 33-yard touchdown catch
“As an offense, we struggled, we kept going three-and-out,” Chubb said. “It was tough but we never stopped. Nobody on the offense stopped. Nobody on the team stopped. We kept pounding. We kept trusting and believing in what we do.”
Left tackle Tyler Catalina, the graduate transfer from Rhode Island who will play in the NFLPA Collegiate All-Star game next month in California, was replaced in the starting lineup by Isaiah Wynn with Dyshon Sims starting at left guard.
That lasted for just one series before Catalina going back to left tackle and Wynn moving back to guard.
Wynn started the final five games last season at left tackle after shifting over from left guard.
It was first start of the season for Sims and second in college for the junior from Valdosta.
Catalina gave up a sack, but he was a part of a Georgia offense that finished with 412 yards of offense, including 248 rushing.