Blanton had played two games previously, but Game Four offered his first bit of extended action, and the first-year cornerback broke open a tight contest with a peskier-than-expected Purdue squad, breaking up a pass, intercepting another and returning it for a 47-yard score.
The touchdown return was just the fifth by a freshman defender in team history and a 7-7 second quarter tussle evolved into a convincing 38-21 Irish victory. Blanton continued to improve, earning four season-ending starts – one in which he was arguably the team's best player in a lost cause at USC (another interception, seven tackles including one for loss vs. the Trojans).
Seven months later, I predicted the soon-to-be sophomore would lead the 2009 Irish in interceptions (Kyle McCarthy easily paced the Irish with five as Blanton fell victim to the confusion that reigned throughout most of the defensive backfield in the lost season of '09). Two years hence, look for the team's most versatile defensive back to make good on my previous prediction.
Prediction #4 – Robert Blanton will lead the team in interceptionsThe popular choice is likely 5th-year safety Harrison Smith – he of the seven interceptions over the season's final eight games last fall. The seven picks produced by the Knoxville Catholic product tied the decade's highest total (Shane Walton likewise stole seven balls in 2002) and ranks as the highest number at the program since Todd Lyght took away eight passes in 1989.
Smith's 2010 picks were part unreal athleticism/part opportunity – standard operating procedure for any player who piles up impressive interception totals. Blanton has just one fewer career interception (6) than does Smith, picking off two in each of his first three seasons. Five of Blanton's six picks were of the athletic/anticipative variety, the lone "cheap pick" a half-ending Hail Mary theft vs. Nevada – look for more garden-variety interceptions in the team's zone scheme this fall as the senior returns to full-time action.
Blanton jumps routes, he'll be aligned all over the field (starting field cornerback; rotation boundary cornerback; likely the starting nickel back in passing situations – usually located over a slot receiver), and unlike last season, the Irish corners won't likely employ a strict three-man rotation, that is, unless Lo Wood makes tremendous strides from Year 1 to Year 2 in the program.
Smith has the advantage of tipped balls and poorly thrown deep balls in his vicinity as the field safety – Blanton is simply the team's best ball hawk and it should finally show on the season-end stat sheet.
- Safety Jamoris Slaughter breaks on the ball as impressively as Smith, but he's in a dogfight with junior Zeke Motta for a starting spot. A trio of safeties will play, with Smith earning the vast majority of field time. Opportunity knocks Slaughter out of the running for 2011.
- Cornerback Gary Gray is a potential All-America and was the team's second-best defensive player – at least in terms of consistency – last fall (Gray ranked third on our season-end list of the team's top 10 overall players). The 5th-year senior has four interceptions in 33 career games (20 starts), two of which occurred in 2008 blowouts (over Michigan and at the hands of USC). Gray might match his career total in 2011, but it won't be enough to take the Irish interception crown next fall.
It took three years to come to fruition, but look for the again ultra-confident Blanton to lead the Irish with a career-best five-to-six interceptions this fall.