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Robert Blanton seizes starting opportunity

Chris Masoud | Thursday, November 17, 2011

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Sept. 23 edition of The Observer.

They call it being on an island. No man’s land. Responsibilities range from deflecting a pass to jamming a receiver to shedding a block to making an open-field tackle to intercepting the opposing quarterback. Candidates must possess a sub-4.5 40-yard dash time and a minimum 36-inch vertical.

Still interested in the cornerback position?

“You don’t have any help out there. If you don’t have safety help over the top, there’s no help out there. It’s like an island. If you mess up, it’s going to be a touchdown hands-down.”

Take it from senior cornerback Robert Blanton, Notre Dame’s stalwart cornerback.

Blanton played four quarters of shutdown defense, deflecting passes and recording six tackles in one of the most impressive defensive performances this season, a 31-13 win over Michigan State on Sept. 17 that included Blanton’s key sack of Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins in the third quarter.

“We felt very strongly about Robert Blanton coming into the season, that he would give us great play,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I think he’s exceeded everybody’s expectations at this point. He’s been a consistent performer for us.”

Blanton’s natural comfort at the cornerback position comes from experience as much as athletic ability. A one-time safety, Blanton converted to the cornerback position as a sophomore in high school and never looked back.

But that natural comfort did not translate to success on every down early in Blanton’s career, and the corner found himself shuffling in-and-out of the starting rotation as a sophomore after starting against USC, Syracuse and Hawaii as a freshman.

Following a year of rotations with former Irish cornerback Darrin Walls and senior Gary Gray in 2010, Blanton secured his position on the perimeter in his final year in pads for the Irish.

“The difference now is that he comes into this year with a lot of experience, a lot of confidence,” defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said. “He’s got to be one of the guys back there in the secondary that sets the tone. When he goes out there and he makes plays, he’s one of those guys that’s just got a personality that energizes everybody.”

While Blanton brings a renewed enthusiasm to the position, Kelly met with the corner earlier in the year to discuss his verbal approach on the field.

“I don’t allow talk on the field, so we had our conversations in the first couple of practices last spring,” he said. “Since that time, he’s curtailed the talking.

“It’s great that he’s got that kind of personality. He just doesn’t talk on the field. He does it with his actions, which is what I expect of him.”

Those actions included an electrifying 82-yard interception return late in the fourth quarter to dash any chance of a Spartan comeback and seal the Irish victory, a critical win after an 0-2 start. At the conclusion of the return, stadium public address announcer Mike Collins recapped the play with a new call: “Sir Robert Blanton.”

Collins, who describes the North Carolina native as a “southern gentleman,” said he has only used a handful of nicknames in his 30 years as the voice of Notre Dame Stadium, reserving the distinction for only certain occasions.

“So, I met Robert his sophomore year,” Collins said. “No matter what, he answers everything with, ‘Yes, sir,’ — everything. So I went to him after last season and asked if there was something special he did on the field, would he mind if I called him ‘Sir Robert Blanton.’

“Then I said I had to wait until something really special happened, and then it did against MSU, and he is now Sir Robert Blanton.”

Collins may call him “Sir”, and his teammates may call him ‘RJ,’ but opposing offensive coordinators simply calling him frustrating. The corner’s success, which includes another late interception against Michigan in the second game of the season, stems from an intense preparation process that begins in the film room.

“RJ’s up here studying just as much as the coaches are,” Cooks said. “It’s ridiculous. Sometimes I’ll tell him a play, and he’ll already know the play is happening just based on the recognition, the splits. A lot of that comes from studying and understanding what the offense is trying to do to him.”

Blanton, who said the cornerback position is 90 percent mental, said he focuses his time in the film room studying opposing receivers and their tendencies rather than highlights of his past performances.

“100 percent I watch my opponent,” he said. “Our coaches have a great breakdown for us. They gave us clips, cut-ups. I’ll watch those and then watch the receivers and evaluate each receiver on the team. But I don’t study too much. It’s fun to go in there and evaluate your opponent, and it helps you on Saturday to be successful and see what your opponent’s doing. It’s like studying for an exam. Saturday is the exam.”

While Blanton has been impressive this season, he remains focused on the task ahead, taking each game and each snap one at a time.

A constant test in practice, senior wide receiver Michael Floyd, said Blanton possesses a number of qualities that make him difficult to beat both down the field and in short-yardage situations.

“He’s tall and long,” Floyd said. “He gives you a lot of difficulty. He presses you. You have to know how to get off the line. He gives us a lot of pressure and a lot of good technique that we can get help on.”

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said the 6-foot-1 senior utilizes his length to his advantage, allowing Blanton to compete for the football in the air with larger receivers. Still, he credits Blanton’s intangibles, character and leadership qualities for his success on the field.

“He’s the battery,” Diaco said. “He’s fun, he’s exciting. He’s just himself. And he leads by example. He doesn’t mind snatching a guy up and getting him right, no matter who it is. He’s constantly pressing and making sure the guys are locked in to the task at hand.”

In addition to his responsibilities on the field, Blanton has taken on the role of mentor to sophomore cornerbacks Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson.

Cooks said he hopes the young corners will learn from Blanton’s “swagger” and relentless enthusiasm toward football.

“I think his passion for the game and his will not to get beat, you want to pass on,” Cooks said. “You have to be right on the edge. You got to have a short-term memory. When you line-up, nobody is better than you, nobody can beat you, but at the same time you respect every wide receiver. The reality of it is if you’re overconfident, then you are going to get beat.”