Mar 14, 2011, 8:00 AM EDT
Part five of twelve previews analyzing a dozen players essential to the Irish making a BCS run next season. Part one looked at Braxston Cave, part two Sean Cwynar, part three Jonas Gray, and part four Trevor Robinson.
After playing in twelve games during both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Robert Blanton was the odd man out in the three-man battle for a starting cornerback spot with Darrin Walls and Gary Gray. But that didn’t stop the rangy athlete from contributing on defense, where he shifted between cornerback and safety, and played excellent instinctive football as a nickel back, where he finished second on the team in tackles for loss.
At six-foot-one and 192 pounds, Blanton has the prototype size and athleticism head coach Brian Kelly and his coaching staff look for when recruiting cornerbacks for their system. With depth in the secondary all season a problem, Blanton cross-trained at multiple positions as well as special teams, where he made one of the plays of the season when he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to kick-start Notre Dame’s 28-3 thrashing of Utah.
Blanton never scratched his way into the starting lineup last season after starting twelve times in his first two years, but he earned a lot of playing time as a super-sub to Darrin Walls at the field cornerback spot and Gary Gray on the boundary side.
While Blanton might not be what Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco ideally want as their nickel back, his size, speed and coverage skills allowed the Irish to modify their defensive game plan as the season went on, especially when the Irish needed to come up with a different system to combat Army’s option attack.
Blanton also received kudos from his head coach for making some great plays on the football, something Blanton seemed to struggle with at times in 2009.
“He’s a guy that plays the ball well in the air,” Kelly said of Blanton after the Irish beat Boston College. “He’s played very, very well for us at the cornerback position. In particular, he’s coming in now at nickel. He’s a young man that is playing a lot more this year and has made the most of his opportunities.”
With the Irish season at the brink, it was Blanton’s punt block and return touchdown against Utah that essentially turned Notre Dame’s year around.
100 word preview for Robert Blanton in 2011:
With Darrin Walls gone from the secondary, Robert Blanton will be asked to fill the shoes of a cover corner, a job that’s more about consistency than making the occasional big play that Blanton had a knack for making last year as a super-sub. If Blanton can make that transition, the Irish defense will have two starting corners with a knack for making plays in the offense’s backfield, and two versatile athletes that fit Bob Diaco’s Cover 2 scheme perfectly. If Blanton can’t, everything’s up for grabs for a spot that’ll be filled by a guy with almost zero experience.
Importance in 2011:
Very. What do Lo Wood, Bennett Jackson, Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, and Eilar Hardy have in common? They’re all guys with no real experience that’ll be at the front of the line if Blanton doesn’t win the starting cornerback job outright this spring. There’s no reason to think Blanton won’t win it, but the depth behind him at corner is pretty thin.