EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Jamarca Sanford is back in the Minnesota Vikings’ starting lineup at safety following Mistral Raymond’s ankle injury, but he can easily recall the depths to which he sunk after being told at the end of the preseason than Raymond had won the starting spot.
Sanford, who started all 15 games he played last season, had worked on his conditioning during the offseason, trying to make himself better suited in pass coverage. But by the time the preseason wrapped up, Minnesota decided to stick with Raymond, a sixth-round pick in 2011, in a young, inexperienced safety duo with rookie Harrison Smith.
When Sanford got the news, it took some time for him to recover.
“It took me down,” Sanford said. “I’m not going to lie; it took me a minute. The first three days, I was just dead. I was just wondering, looking for an answer like, ‘What I didn’t do right, or what did I do wrong?’ “
Sanford was hurt, believing he had done everything in his power to retain the starting spot he had taken so long to earn. A seventh-round draft choice in 2009, Sanford was relegated to mainly special teams work his first two seasons. In a competition with former second-rounder Tyrell Johnson, Sanford won the starting spot last year and came through with 118 tackles and two of the team’s league-low eight interceptions.
After Raymond hurt his ankle last week, Sanford sees another chance to prove himself as a starter. He’ll start alongside Smith, giving Minnesota a pair of hard-hitting safeties when the Vikings travel to play Detroit this weekend.
Sanford’s ability to defend the run has never been a problem. But when he left for the offseason last year, coaches made sure the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Sanford knew he needed to improve his pass coverage and tackling in the open field. A noted weight-room addict, Sanford turned his focus to conditioning and worked on strengthening his core to improve his quickness and flexibility.
“I’d been told you work on your abs and it helps your speed and being more explosive,” Sanford said. “I never bought into it. And this offseason I worked on my abs, and it feels like I’ve come back more explosive. I can see where I can bend more and I can open my hips more fluidly. So, I think just the work I did this offseason, not just being in the weight room all the time, it helped me loosen my body up a little bit more.”
Sanford believes the work paid off. Coming on for an injured Raymond in the first quarter last week, Sanford finished with six tackles and one big forced fumble.
While waiting for another chance on defense, Sanford embraced his role as a key player on the special teams coverage units. He had four tackles and a forced fumble in the first three weeks. His willingness to do anything asked and keep himself ready to play impressed the coaches.
“He did a good job of putting himself in a position where, if he got called up, he was going to be able to make some plays, and he did,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “His attitude has remained good throughout. I told him the other day, I think he’s a great example of (what) a veteran player, any player, has to do if you’re not starting; just stay prepared because you just never know, any given play your number could be called.”
Sanford is one of the team’s more energetic and emotional players, constantly talking during practice and games. Those emotions overcame him when he heard he wouldn’t be starting. He said he talked to a few of his closer friends on the team, Percy Harvin, Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson, and credited them for pulling him up in his tough time after the announcement.
“They just kept pumping me and telling me, ‘You know, just keep working,’ ” Sanford said. “I just kept working and preparing every week like I was going to play. I already knew I was one play away. A safety got hurt, I knew I was going to be in there. So, (I) just kept preparing. My opportunity will open up and it came; just trying to take advantage of it.”