Sanford edges ahead in strong safety battle

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 5, 2011 - 12:00 AM

The Vikings have yet to declare him the starter over Tyrell Johnson, but his preseason play has been sure and decisive.

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Vikings strong safety Jamarca Sanford, shown wrapping up the Bengals’ Cedric Benson in a 2009 game, never forgets he was a seventh-round draft choice. “You always have that on your shoulder,” he said.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune file

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Following the final audition for a starting safety spot with the 2011 Vikings, Jamarca Sanford oozed confidence and Tyrell Johnson conveyed frustration.

The duo stood side by side in the Vikings locker room and fielded questions about their competition following a 28-0 shutout against the Houston Texans at the Metrodome on Thursday.

Sanford seemed to do everything right in his limited action that night. He helped the Vikings punt team pin the Texans on their own 1-yard line in the first quarter.

And he stepped into a gap to prevent Dorin Dickerson from turning a 14-yard gallop into an encounter with the end zone in the second.

"I'm really looking forward to see what decision they make. Of course, I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't," said Sanford, a seventh-round pick in 2009. "But I can't control that. All I can control is continue to go out and make plays and do what they ask me to do."

Johnson's forehead wrinkled up while he discussed his botched interception in the first quarter. All indications suggested the 2008 second-round pick entered last week as the No. 2 strong safety on the depth chart, so a standout performance could have boosted his chances of winning a starting slot.

Although he admitted the dropped ball was a play "that you're getting paid to make," he never expressed any concerns about the missed opportunity's impact on his status with the team.

"In my first year, second year, I would have been beating myself up," he said. "You've got to understand, that's football. You're going to make mistakes, you're going to miss opportunities sometimes. But you just have to come back and keep fighting and get them next time."

Leslie Frazier offered a diplomatic reply when asked if he had identified a starter at strong safety for the team's season opener at San Diego on Sunday.

"We're going to sit down and talk at length tomorrow and this weekend about the strong safety position, make a determination on what's best going forward and who should be the starter in that San Diego game," Frazier said.

Sanford, like most seventh-round selections, was picked to fill out a training camp roster, not to compete for a starting position two years later.

In 2008, the Vikings made a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles to move from No. 47 to No. 43 in the second round, where the franchise secured Johnson.

The next year they grabbed Sanford in the seventh round, a pool reserved for guys who often fail to make 53-man rosters.

Sanford said the chip he has always carried as one of the draft's many afterthoughts still drives him.

"You always have that on your shoulder, what you go out and take the field with. I had a lot of doubters coming into this league that said I couldn't play in this league. Now, look at me now," Sanford said. "So you're going to approach it and always keep that on your mind, where you come from. It's always a grind every day. That's how I approach it."

He hails from Batesville, Miss., a blue-collar town of 7,000 in the northern part of the state. His Southern drawl is as much a part of his makeup as the work ethic that's fueled his NFL journey from 231st pick to potential starter.

The league's prognosticators didn't think Sanford possessed high-round ability during his career at Ole Miss. But he's strong: He set an NFL combine record for the most 225-pound bench presses by a defensive back (29). He has good speed (4.53 40-yard dash) and he's physical.

And now, unlike two seasons ago, he's secure.

"It's a big difference, because you approach every year the same with the same attitude. You're just trying to make a spot on this roster, just make the team," Sanford said. "But it's a big difference when you feel you're going to be here, regardless. You still want to go out and make plays and compete, but it's still a big difference."

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