From the day he set foot on campus, most people close to Notre Dame's program knew Robert Blanton had arrived.
"That's a bit of an understatement," head coach Charlie Weis joked of his freshman's confidence in the fall this past year.
It is because of this assertiveness on and off the gridiron that Blanton was able to see the field early and often last season. His first big moment came only four games into his young career when he intercepted a Curtis Painter pass for 47 yards and a score in the 38-21 Irish victory over Purdue. Ever since then, Blanton continued to earn playing time, and Weis saw the competitive nature the freshman possesses even in a deflating defeat like the one the Southern California Trojans handed Notre Dame last November.
"I think probably the best thing that happened to Robert, besides the fact that he was competitive all year, was probably when he went against those guys out there in the Coliseum and he was one of the most competitive players on the field that day," Weis said of Blanton in Notre Dame's 38-3 defeat. "I think for a young guy that shows he can compete against the best guys right there, it gives you a world of confidence as you go into your next season. I have a lot of confidence in R.J."
One of the main aspects Blanton took away from his freshman experience was the ability to adapt to the velocity of the collegiate game, when compared to high-school caliber football. Now that he is up to speed, he can focus on technical parts of his game that he struggled with in his first season.
"I think it helped out a lot with the speed of the game," he said of the benefit of his early playing time. "Getting used to the speed and getting used to cornerbacks and receivers running their routes, and it allows you to work on things that you may have not done great in the season, it allows you to test out new things that you might want to do in the upcoming season as well."
Now, Blanton is slated in as the starter at the left cornerback position in the spring depth chart, opposite Raeshon McNeil. His position coach, Corwin Brown, however, would like to see some more consistency out of the Matthews, N.C. native, mostly because he has seen the flashes of brilliance that Blanton can produce.
"I'm saying that when he does what he's supposed to do, he might be okay," Brown said of the young corner. "When he doesn't do what he's supposed to do, we're all very upset, and nobody's more upset than me."
One factor of Blanton's freshman year that has helped him mature through his rookie season has been this early playing time that he has earned. Throughout the first couple of weeks of spring practice, Brown has seen that the freshman is starting to grasp the ability of learning from his mistakes. Using a typical phrase that coach Brown is known to say, however, the Hall of Fame isn't calling his name just yet.
"I think it's helped," Brown said regarding the benefit of Blanton's experience. "Anytime you get game experience, anytime when you're able to play in a true game situation, it'll help you, provided that you've had a good game experience and you're strong mentally and you learn from every experience. If you don't learn from things then you're going to repeat them. I think he's done a fairly decent job of learning. But you know, he's not ready for Canton yet."
Apparently, all this tough love is starting to make sense to the freshman, too. If you ask Blanton, he'll completely agree with his coach's words about a need for consistency. When asked which aspect of his game he needed to improve most upon, Blanton immediately pointed to his need for stable production at cornerback.
"Making sure that I do what I'm supposed to every play," he said.
So now that Blanton knows where he must develop, he must learn from the defensive backs that have been with the Irish program for more time than him. With the addition of Darrin Walls to the fold at corner, now Blanton has a lot of learning that he must do.
"He's got some techniques that are unique," Blanton said of Walls. "As well as Raeshon and [Jamoris] Slaughter and everybody. They bring something to the table that you can pick up on and learn so that's pretty interesting."
One more thing that Blanton has learned is that the sky is the limit in terms of his potential and that of this now-experienced Irish squad. As a result, Blanton isn't afraid to set lofty aspirations when looking beyond spring practice and into next season.
"Last year, I learned just to do what you're supposed to do," Blanton said. "This season, I'm just ready to get it started. Hopefully we can be playing for a national championship."