Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Phalen Sanford Wanted to Test Himself, Now He’s Playing Beyond his 8-man Roots

October 26, 2022

Phalen Sanford considers football a 7-7 job. He clocks in at 7 a.m. and goes home at 7 p.m. He shows up every day, never late, and works hard at whatever he should be doing that day. There are nights where he stays at Memorial Stadium to watch film. When teammates went home during the bye weekend he stayed in Lincoln and came to the stadium every day to rehab little knocks.

That dedication to football started when he joined his first contact football league in fourth grade. When he realized NAIA football wasn’t for him, he wanted to push his limits in FBS and at Nebraska. Then came the first snap at his first Nebraska 7-on-7 camp in the summer. He lined up opposite former Husker JD Spielman and got cooked. Three years later, his dedication and work ethic has helped make him an everyday guy for the Huskers.

“I came here wanting to make an impact,” Sanford said on Tuesday. “It’s been a long journey. I think this is year four for me at this university so it’s been fun. It’s been a grind trying to get to work to get to this point but I always envisioned myself getting to this point, potentially.”

Dundy County-Stratton wasn’t a Class D1 perennial power at the time and is tucked in the southwest corner of the state, sans panhandle. That’s where Sanford was a multi-sport secret. His Hudl page garnered 24 followers as a senior. That year he won state titles in the 100 and 300 hurdles, 400 and as part of the 4×400 relay. Those were all 40 of Dundy County-Stratton’s points at the Class C State Track Meet — good enough for a third-place team finish.

Nebraska showed interest at the time but he chose Hastings College instead. He ran track and played football as a Bronco. But the NAIA program was closer to his 8-man roots than his ambitions. He decided to transfer after one year.

“I thought if I stayed there I wouldn’t be the player that I could be,” Sanford said. “That’s what I wanted to do. Really wanted to just see how good of a football player I could become and not look back and regret anything.”

He chose Nebraska and immediately reckoned with the challenge he faced. He faced Spielman for his first 7-on-7 camp snap. Sanford’s athleticism helped him prosper at Dundy County-Stratton. He was a defensive back against teams that rarely passed. His high school coaches told him to line up 8 yards off the ball and follow it. Back then, he could be 5 yards away from the receiver and still make the play. That didn’t work against Spielman.

“I think from there I always knew that I kind of needed to improve a lot so I think it was just doing it every day. Doing it every day,” Sanford said. “So when I came here I really had to learn OK this is how you cover somebody, this is your footwork, there’s a lot of technique that I didn’t know that I had to figure out once I got here.”

He’s excelled in special teams if given the opportunity. Last season he earned the team’s Special Teams Player of the Year award and this season he blocked a punt against Purdue. He’s also growing into a larger defensive role, sitting second on the depth chart behind starting safety Marques Buford.

His seven total tackles on defense and special teams this year may be at least partially attributed to his 8-man roots. He’ll likely have to channel those roots again this Saturday against Illinois.

“Open-field tackling is the biggest thing I learned in 8-man that could help me here,” Sanford said. “Teams that just like to run the ball, I have a lot of experience in 1-on-1 tackling. In 8-man it’s not as much leverage, it’s 1-on-1 every time you make a tackle. I think that’s a benefit for me coming into this game.”

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