"If I had my druthers, I'd want a corner like RJ that adds a different dimension with his size and physical presence," Cooks said of senior corner Robert Blanton. "And Walls, I love him to death, he was a heck of a corner for us, but RJ just adds a different dimension with his size, his physical presence, the ability to play the field corner and flip his hips and run but being able to come up and support as well."
Each aspect of those varied skills have been on display through three games as Blanton has played the cornerback position for the Irish program at its highest level since Shane Walton emerged from solid, to superstar, in the 2002 season.
Through three games, Blanton leads the team in tackles-for-loss (4) and interceptions (2), is tied for the lead with team captain Harrison Smith in passes defended (5), tied with three others in sacks (1), and is likewise tied for fourth among all defenders in total tackles (16).
More important, he's allowed few passes of consequence (third down conversions), no long gains, and no touchdowns. In fact, Blanton hasn't yielded a touchdown throw since an October 30 matchup vs. Tulsa last season...the only touchdown pass the junior surrendered in 2010.
The Matthews, N.C. product is off to the best three-game start for an Irish player at the position since Shane Walton's All-America season in 2002.
"We felt very strongly about Robert Blanton coming into the season, that he would give us great play," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly on Tuesday. "I think he's exceeded everybody's expectations at this point…he can play safety, he can play corner, he can play nickel. As you know, last year he was a great special teams player. We've had to pull him back a little bit on special teams. But we believe he's a very important part to what we do defensively."
While it's their innate play-making skills that endear them to Irish fans, Blanton and Walton share another trait: supreme confidence.
"RJ's one of those guys, and I've been around a lot of them in the NFL and at Iowa," Cooks said in August. "When you have a level of confidence and belief in yourself, that when you line up across from a guy, it doesn't matter how fast they run the 40-(yard dash); they have the mentality that "I'm the best." When you line up against whomever but think: "I'm going to be the best and I'm going to win.
"That's what makes RJ so successful; that mentality. You can't break his will. He might get beaten on a play, but on the next one he might get a TFL or an interception, or break up a pass," Cooks continued. "He won't be shaken. He refuses to believe he's not the fastest or not the strongest. In his mind he is."
Blanton's career numbers show eight interceptions, 18 passes defended, 139 tackles including 15 for lost yardage, two sacks, a blocked punt, and two touchdowns – one the result of his blocked punt last year vs. Utah; the other on his first career interception – a 47-yard run vs. Purdue as a true freshman.
Following his standout effort vs. the Spartans, Cooks elaborated on his evaluation of the 2011 squad's biggest impact defender to date.
"If you look at RJ compared to some of the other corners in the country, his measurables – his size and his speed – aren't going to measure up, but he's savvy and just a good football player. I'll take that any day over (top-tier) athleticism."
Walk the LineAs for Blanton's role change – from rotational, under-the-radar star in 2010 to leader and defensive backfield constant in 2011 – Cooks believes the biggest difference is his senior's mental approach
"It's his experience and confidence, and the understanding that he has to set the tone even in practice. When he goes out there and makes plays, he has a personality that energizes everybody and I think he's accepted that role and done a great job this season of handling that."
A three-year NFL veteran and All Big-10 safety at Iowa in the mid-90s, Cooks is well-versed in another "skill" that sets Blanton apart – the gift of gab.
"It's hard for me to say a DB ever talks too much; having played the position, you need part of that," Cooks offered of Blanton's purported chattiness vs. opponents on both Saturdays and the Irish practice field. "RJ was one of those that at times took it over the top. We didn't tell him to tone it down – I don't want to take that out of him – but at times, letting his play, letting his pads do the talking.
"He still talks. Just not as much," Cooks added.
And after a purported muzzling by his former head coach Charlie Weis following an especially gregarious freshman season in front of the camera, Blanton speaks even less off the field... check that, off the field in the presence of the large media contingent following the Irish each day.
"Well, I think he has such great respect for all of you," Kelly deadpanned of the habitually terse public responses offered by his otherwise loquacious senior. "I think it's pretty clear that he's a smart guy,"
Smart enough to know the difference between fearlessness and overconfidence.
"You have to be right on the edge; every play, every snap," said Cooks. "Have a short-term memory, that when you line up, no one is better than you and nobody can beat you, but at the same time understanding and respecting every wide receiver because if you're overconfident you can get beat, but if you're at that edge, that border to where you can play with a swagger, that's where we want to get you to."
Blanton arrived at that point, exactly when the Irish needed him most.
Note: For our review of Blanton's under-the-radar junior season, Click here.