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CEDAR FALLS — Roughly two years went by before Northern Iowa senior safety Korby Sander got back on a football field after suffering a knee injury.
The Belmond-Klemme grad’s knee surgery came two weeks after the injury during 2019 spring practices, and while he knew it would be a long road back, he had no idea a pandemic would put two years between himself and the game he loves.
“The road was tough,” Sander said. “COVID was kind of a blessing in disguise for me. If COVID wasn’t here, I might’ve been back in a year and I don’t know if the knee would’ve been as strong as it is now.”
Sander’s return to the field this spring for the postponed FCS season was a successful one. He was third on the team in tackles, forced a fumble and broke up two passes.
Defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson, who is also Sander’s position coach, told The Gazette that at the end of the spring season, he saw the same player as before the injury.
“It took him a little bit of time, I think, initially in the spring to get himself back and recovered from his injury. But, once he started to get confident in what he was doing it just kind of all started to come back to him,” Johnson said. “He played better at the end of the spring than he did at the beginning. I think that’s important.”
Along with recovering and improving physically, Sander used his time on the sidelines wisely, wearing a headset during the 2019 season and gaining a better understanding of the Panthers defense and what the coaching staff is looking for.
“I was actually the signaler that year, so I felt (really) involved,” Sander said. “Having that headset on, hearing how the coaches talk and just taking that year more as a mental year helped me more than anything. I haven’t been this confident in the back end — I can make a check to the nickel, I can make a check to the corner on the opposite side. If the Mike or Will (linebackers) need that type of help as well, I know all that.”
Headed into this season, Sander’s confidence is also boosted by having had an offseason to build his rapport with free safety Benny Sapp III.
Sapp transferred to UNI from Minnesota shortly before the spring season began and produced at a high level, despite only having a basic understanding of the Panthers’ intricate defense.
“Everyone always says there’s that safety bond. We’ve clicked and we’ve connected on a whole other level,” Sander said. “It’s going to be fun to see how much our connection has grown over the last six months as it’ll grow on the field, as well with checks and that trust with one another.”
Sander, Sapp and the rest of UNI’s defense and offense are looking forward to playing in front of a raucous, sold-out Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday against Iowa State, but at the same time are preparing with the knowledge that communication will be anything but easy.
“There’s going to be 60,000-plus (fans). We’ve got a great, great team in front of us,” Sander said. “Coach (Mark) Farley has this crowd noise that he plays in the Dome as loud as he can and you absolutely can’t hear anything from a guy 2 feet from you. So, we’ve been locking in with our hand (signals).”