MANKATO, Minn. — Watch enough of the Minnesota Vikings practicing and often you’ll hear safety Jamarca Sanford before you see him.
Sanford likes to talk. Just ask him and he’ll tell you.
He’s loud and doesn’t apologize for being boisterous. Sanford doesn’t want to be known as just a big talker though. He knows he has to be able to back up his talk with his play.
“I’m a big smack talker, but you’ve got to lead by example also,” Sanford said. “Talking smack, you’ve got to be able to back it up. So in the offseason that’s why I work as hard as I do and put the work I put into it because I know the type of player that I am and I like to talk smack. You can’t be talking smack when you’re out there and you’re the weakest link on defense. So, you’ve got to be able to back it up. That’s what I work as hard as I do.”
Sanford has reason to be a little louder this training camp. Sanford comes into his fifth season with Minnesota solidified as a starter and suddenly the oldest and most experienced player in a young secondary. Last year at this time, Sanford was competing with Mistral Raymond for a starting spot at safety alongside rookie Harrison Smith, a job Raymond eventually won to open the season.
Sanford, 27, kept working. When given another shot at starting when Raymond was injured, Sanford didn’t let it go. He started the season’s final 13 games and finished sixth on the team with 80 tackles, had a team-high four forced fumbles and came away with two fumble recoveries.
Pairing with Smith, who Sanford said he “hit it off” with right away, was the perfect tandem for Sanford and the Vikings. The two are similar players in their affinity for playing the run and being physical.
“I’m a pretty quiet guy and he’s a loud guy, but we’re both really emotional people and that’s something I think really comes out on Sundays,” Smith said. “That’s why we play off each other so well. Because we’re kind of feeling the same type of things throughout the plays and kind of know if one guy’s down, whichever one it is, we’ll try to pick the other one up and vice versa. We play well together.”
Sanford’s talking, to Smith, has helped too. Communication has been a key for the two and has helped each improve as a result. Sanford said the cohesiveness started off the field when the team’s defensive backs got together routinely at cornerback Antoine Winfield’s house to watch Monday Night Football.
With Winfield leaving, Sanford said it’s up to him to continue the tradition. For Sanford, it’s a natural part of his growing role as a leader.
“Things like that, that’s when you build the chemistry with your team,” Sanford said. “It’s not always just playing football. You see it’s really what you do off the field and that’s what brings us closer.”
Thanks to his work last season, Sanford has more means to provide for his fellow defensive backs. The business of the game robbed him of two good friends on the team with Winfield and receiver Percy Harvin going to Seattle, a situation that Sanford said “hurt.” But it also saw Sanford land a two-year, $5 million contract.
Sanford said the new contract meant a lot after he worked himself from a seventh-round pick in 2009 to being a starter. Sanford worked harder to live up to his side of his new deal – and to back up his talking.
“I had a taste of success last year and I just want more,” Sanford said. “So, I attacked this offseason and worked even harder. Never get comfortable. There’s always room to get better. This offseason I approached it just like any other offseason and even more serious because I know my team’s counting on me even more and I’m playing a bigger role than just coming in and playing special teams the last couple years, my first couple years I played in.”
Sanford has started for most of the past two seasons now and has grown more confident because of the experience.
“I think that Jamarca feels comfortable in his skin,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “Now, he likes to talk. The one thing about Jamarca though is that he backs it up on the football field. I think that’s an important part of what guys do. Guys can talk, but Jamarca’s one where when he gets on the field he goes 100 miles an hour. He plays hard and he plays smart.”
Sanford was always known as a strong run defender, but his improvement in pass defense has been the most important aspect in his development.
“The one thing is that he has probably some better judgments in the passing game than he had in the past,” Williams said. “He’s always been a fire plug in stopping the run, but he’s elevated his game in the passing game. It’s good to see. He’s becoming a complete football player, and one of the better safeties in the league.”
Which would just give Sanford more reasons to talk.