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Inside The Chart: Paying Off

Paying Off: Adonicas Sanders’ recent run of production may look impressive, but ask around and you’ll learn quickly:  it’s the product of unpretentious, unrelenting hard work

By Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets) | Inside The Chart

Adonicas Sanders coined the rallying cry in the preseason.

After each practice, Georgia Tech’s players splinter off for breakout sessions with their individual position coaches. The huddles usually end with the players raising their hands together for a position group-specific breakdown.  They range from the straightforward (the offensive linemen simply say “O-Line”) to the musical (the tight ends thump their chests and re-enact Matthew McConaughey’s humming scene from “The Wolf of Wall Street”).

Sanders, a redshirt junior from North Charleston, S.C., created the one for the wide receivers this year.

“1, 2, 3…”

“Make plays!” they shout in unison.

“4, 5, 6…”

“Get paid!” they finish.

That cry may carry new meaning in light of the recently passed NIL rules, and it’s an oddly flamboyant line from someone who’s normally so understated. But for wide receivers, the coin of the realm is catching passes. And lately, few Yellow Jackets have added to their account more than the 6-1, 194-pound Sanders.

After only catching five passes through the first four games of the season, Sanders has hauled in 15 catches for 264 yards and three touchdowns over his last four. He also had a 53-yard catch against Virginia Tech wiped out by a penalty. Only running back Jahmyr Gibbs (18) has caught more passes for the Yellow Jackets in that span.

Adonicas Sanders
First 4 games: 5 receptions, 29 yards, 0 TD
Last 4 games:15 receptions, 264 yards, 3 TD

“Good things come to people who play the way he does [and] prepare the way he does,” said head coach Geoff Collins.

“It feels really great. My hard work is paying off. When the ball comes my way, I’m just going to make the best play,” Sanders said.

That includes arguably the biggest play of the season, when Sanders made a diving, game-winning 36-yard touchdown catch with 51 seconds remaining against Duke. Sanders, who had zero catches through the first 58 minutes of game time, caught two passes for 73 yards on the final drive. He hadn’t had a game-winning touchdown catch since his junior year at Fort Dorchester High School in North Charleston, S.C.

VIDEO: Georgia Tech's Adonicas Sanders Sensational In The Clutch | ACC Must See Moment

Duke defenders may not have seen it coming, but Collins did – all the way back at the Yellow Jackets’ first preseason practice.

“He and I talked about this after the game,” Collins recalled. “Our first kick script that we practiced during preseason camp, for whatever reason, Jeff [Sims] threw it to Adonicas four out of the five times in that drive. I think Dono had to go in and get an IV after that practice because he got all of those plays. He and I were laughing after the game. I’m like, ‘Dono, that was the kick script from preseason camp.’”

Sanders’ stats have also started to reflect the work ethic that he’s long been known for inside the program. Coaches and teammates describe him as a workout fiend (they’re hidden under his pads, but his shoulders look like softballs). Collins receives a daily Catapult report from director of applied sports science Ryan Horton, filled with GPS data about his players’ speed and explosive efforts.

“The top three might change a little bit, but Adonicas is in there every day,” Collins noted.

“He is jacked up. He’s one of the hardest working people in the weight room and offseason conditioning,” added wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon II.

Sanders demonstrated that strength on his latest touchdown catch, a 23-yard grab against Virginia Tech late in the third quarter last weekend. After breaking back and hauling in a pass along the sideline at the 10, Sanders stutter-stepped, cut inside, and muscled through two Hokie defenders over the final five yards.

“That dude, when he gets his hands on the ball, he has an uncanny ability to break tackles,” said offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude. “He’s scrappy. He throws guys off.”

Sanders is quick to salute strength and conditioning coach Lewis Caralla for that.

“I thank Coach Lew for helping me get my lower-body strong. That’s helped me break a lot of tackles. I don’t like getting tackled in one-on-one coverage. Every time I make a catch and break a tackle, I say, ‘Thank you, Coach Lew,’” he said in his trademark lilt. If you listen closely, Sanders talks in what’s often mistaken as a Caribbean accent. It’s actually Geechee, from the Gullah Geechee, an ethnic identity group that traces its lineage to slaves who inhabited the coastal plains regions of North and South Carolina. For centuries, they’ve maintained a rich cultural presence in the Charleston area.

VIDEO: Student-athletes media availability - Nov. 3 (Ryan Johnson, Djimon Brooks, Quez Jackson and Adonicas Sanders)

Sanders finished last year on an upswing, highlighted by a seven-catch, 105-yard performance in the Yellow Jackets’ final road game against NC State. Over the summer, he poured himself into improving his hands and getting better separation at the top of his routes. While back home in Charleston, he worked out twice a day with his cousin Dakereon Joyner, his former high school quarterback who’s now a wide receiver at South Carolina.

Yet as the 2021 season started, Sanders struggled to gain separation from his fellow wideouts. He began the year splitting snaps with sophomore Kalani Norris, who announced himself with a touchdown catch against Kennesaw State. Sanders cheered Norris’ success, but it also forced him to look in the mirror.

“I don’t think he liked splitting time,” recalled Patenaude. “So the conversation that we had was, ‘Then ball out.’ If you’re better than the next guy, you’re going to play. If you’re not, then you won’t. That’s how you have to practice. That’s how you have to get the confidence of the staff to put you in those situations.”

Sanders acknowledged the season started off rough for him. He said he doubled back to the mindset that first allowed him to have success at Tech.

“I just say to myself I’m going to keep working, keep working, and when the time comes, I’ve just got to make the best of my opportunities,” he recalled.

Sanders could have more opportunities to make plays Saturday: Georgia Tech’s next opponent, the Miami Hurricanes (12:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports), allowed a program-record 519 passing yards to Pittsburgh last weekend. Whether or not he continues his recent run of touchdowns, Collins knows he’ll have someone against the Hurricanes who will set an example for his teammates.

“He doesn’t mind doing the dirty work – fighting for extra yards, digging safeties out in the run game. He’s very unselfish,” he said.

That attitude may partly explain Sanders’ aspirations after football. The redshirt junior says he wants to get involved in real estate, either in Charleston or Charlotte. He’s the rare college football player who enjoys watching HGTV. He’s particularly fond of shows about flipping houses.

“Me and my Mom always watch them.  We’re like, ‘We’re going to get a house like that one day and sell it,’” Sanders said.

But that payoff is a ways away. Adonicas Sanders still has plays to make for the Yellow Jackets first.

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