"I know what my coach expects out of me every time that I'm on the field," Sanders said. "I basically can read my keys faster. I can play faster than I did last year."
After bouncing from position to position for three years, and playing primarily on special teams, Sanders came to a rest as a weakside "will" linebacker during the Badgers' 2004 spring practices. He earned the starting job at the will spot during fall camp and went on to lead UW in tackles with 76.
Now, he is reaping the benefits of that experience. Sanders has played well during UW's training camp, re-asserting himself in his starting position after missing all of spring practices this year with a shoulder injury. He is adjusting to the action on the field much better than he did a year ago, when his athleticism and instincts enabled him to cover up for some limitations in recognition and physicality.
In the offseason, Sanders added 18 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame, checking in now at a more linebacker-like 226 pounds.
"I've seen him improve greatly and the fact that he's gotten bigger and stronger, he carries a little more wallop now," UW head coach Barry Alvarez said.
Sanders, though, said he has not really noticed a difference derived from his added weight and strength.
"That's a bunch of weight but I really can't really tell yet," Sanders said, "but I'm hoping that the opposing team can."
In what area does Sanders feel he still needs to improve?
"I still have to get more physical," he said. "I have to play better when the ball is coming down hill at me."
"He has some limitations," Alvarez said. "You wouldn't want to put him in a game with people lined up in two tight ends and full-house T and slammed isolations at you all day. But not many people do that anymore."
Sanders has become a more complete linebacker, but like last year his strength is playing in space — pursuing the ball and coverage.
Said Alvarez: ""I think Dontez understands the position now. He's excellent in pass coverage. He's a guy, with as many teams as we play that spread you out, and try to isolate linebackers and isolate everyone, get 1-on-1 situations, he's a guy that you want on the field. And one thing always about Dontez that has impressed me is the fact that he's always around the ball."
Sanders is very fast for a linebacker. He was actually recruited to UW as a 185-pound wide receiver, where he played on the scout team while redshirting in 2001. The following year, though, he was converted to defensive back under the tutelage of then-secondary coach Ron Cooper and spent time at both free safety and strong safety. In bowl practices that December, he spent a couple of days as a strong-side ‘drop' linebacker under former linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove. He moved back to strong safety in 2003 under then-first-year defensive backs coach Ron Lee and shined on special teams with his speed and aggressive hitting style.
In spring 2004, with Bret Bielema in Madison as the new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, Sanders found his home at the weakside ‘will' linebacker spot.
"It's refreshing that I have the same coach for back-to-back years," Sanders said. "So I know what kind of coach he is and I know what he wants from his players basically."
Now, experience has given Sanders better command of his duties on the field than he ever had before.
"In the past, you really don't know the keys. You don't know what to look for. You don't know what's coming at you. You don't know the technique, the stance…
"Once you start to learn things you (are) still going to be a little bit left behind because then you have to plan for other teams and stuff. So it's like I was always a step slow… But now me playing the same spot I feel like more comfortable."
Sanders' speed would not be as helpful in coverage if he could not recognize what opposing offenses are trying to do. That process is clicking faster for him.
"Now I can read the tackle, like if their stance is light or if their stance is heavy, just small things like that," he said.
Sanders is confident in his coverage skills when locked up with a receiver, tight end or running back. He derives some of that assurance from going up against UW tailback Brian Calhoun.
"I love that because I've been going against Calhoun too," Sanders said, in reference to an offense trying to isolate linebackers in coverage. "Calhoun's got some of the best moves I'd have seen ever. So I think if I can cover him I'll be all right, I'll be in business."
Sanders said that during scrimmage sessions in camp, he and Calhoun have been keeping score. Calhoun gets a point if he shakes free and gets open. Sanders gets a point if he hangs with Calhoun.
"Yeah, we keep score," Sanders said. "I'm up. 5-3."