Blanton finished his ‘08 freshman season on an individual high: a 4-game starter on the corner who won and kept the job over 5th-year senior Terrail Lambert for the season's final month. The freshman had been the fans' choice for a starting spot since his first dose of extended action vs. Purdue six weeks prior, a game in which he recorded five solo stops, a pass breakup, and a weaving 47-yard interception touchdown that tied the score early in the 2nd Quarter en route to an Irish victory.
But the Blanton of '08 was no one hit wonder – he began to draw the more difficult wide receiver assignments in matchups at North Carolina and Pittsburgh, games in which the Irish needed a more physical, confident presence.
He was one of two Irish players (Ethan Johnson the other) who appeared to belong vs. a powerful Trojans team in the Coliseum in the season finale, with Blanton's highlight an aggressive interception in which he jumped a slant route for a diving interception of future first round pick Mark Sanchez, and later recording a tackle-for-loss on a screen pass to shifty RB Joe McKnight with the game still in doubt (7-0) in the 2nd Quarter.
The wunderkind's efforts earned the praise of fans and a spot on our Indispensable list last summer. I felt Blanton was one of the team's top three defensive players heading into last season. That's an impossible statement to make now because the Blanton we saw in '08 never showed up for the '09 Irish defense.
He was ineffectual vs. deep passes and unreliable as a tackler, especially vs. the myriad "bubble screens" that riddled the Irish defense through the season's first six games. And in a departure from the previous season, Blanton lacked confidence on the outside in man coverage – appearing to be a cover-man that played too tentatively without safety help behind him.
Even Blanton's two interceptions in ‘09 fell short in importance compared to his freshman year pair: the first a half-ending, stat-stuffer on a Hail Mary by Nevada (with the Irish leading 28-0) and a beautiful, but "who-really-cares?" one-handed snag vs. punch-less Washington State with ND again ahead by four scores.
The freshman that showed uncommon self-confidence displayed hesitance and a tentative nature as a sophomore – unacceptable traits for any cornerback. But Blanton's apparent crisis of confidence in coverage could be rectified by a simpler scheme in 2010, or by a new coach and coordinator lighting a fire under the competitive junior, putting him in more comfortable coverage situations next fall.
Blanton's Season OutlookBlanton's tendency to think rather than focus and react (paralysis by analysis) began on the second play of the '09 season when pre-snap communication with FS Harrison Smith resulted in an easy 20-yard out route afforded to Nevada's meek passing game. It wouldn't be the last bout with pre-snap confusion for Blanton, who was also beaten regularly down field in matchups vs. Washington, USC, and Boston College.
The drop-off in performance was confusing to this observer because there are times in one-on-one drills and scrimmages in which Blanton appears to completely dominate his assigned receiver – out-muscling him at the line and breaking on passes with authority.
And if Blanton can turn and run with Spartans WR Mark Dell late in the 4th Quarter; or jump short routes as well as any player on the squad; or muscle Trojans target Damian Williams in a short zone, why then does he lose lesser players that offer a simple shake at the line of scrimmage? Or bounce off receivers after the catch when he's in position to square up and make a tackle? And how can a player with Blanton's football intelligence misplay so many wheel routes?
Most young players experience growing pains and inconsistency. The Irish secondary, for a reason we'll likely never understand, suffered severe communication issues last season. This year, Blanton and his position mates will have a new voice in their collective ears with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and secondary coach Chuck Martin in charge.
Blanton exited the spring as the team's third cornerback – a 12th starter in today's game – and a player of whom Brian Kelly offered can play both the field and boundary cornerback position (Darrin Walls is the FCB with Gary Gray the BCB) in Diaco's scheme.
Last month, I ranked that CB trio at No. 9 (as a whole) on a list of players the Irish can't win without next fall. I'm confident Blanton will improve greatly from last season. If he can likewise outperform his freshman season of '08, the Irish secondary could transform from weak links to a unit on which the team can depend, as well.
Blanton's Best of 2009
- Michigan: Combined with FS Harrison Smith to stop speedy Denard Robinson after a one-yard gain on the edge. Later, with the Irish trailing 24-20, Blanton took down elusive QB Tate Forcier in the open field at the line of scrimmage.
- Michigan State: Teamed with Kyle McCarthy for solid coverage on a post-route by Mark Dell from the Irish 30-yard line on the game's final series. MSU targeted Blanton on a pump-and-go but he didn't bite.
- Purdue:With the Irish leading 17-7, Blanton diagnosed a quick-look pass to wide receiver Aaron Valentin. Though he should have picked off the pass for a touchdown (he expertly jumped the route) Blanton showed great presence of mind to attack the receiver, rendering the pass incomplete after his would-be-interception popped straight up into the air.
- Washington: On the penultimate play of overtime, Washington faced a 3rd and 19 from the Irish 34-yard line. The Huskies stressed the Irish defense with yet another high-low pairing of receivers on the left sideline. Blanton, likely assigned to the short receiver, broke deep to cover up a teammate's mistake behind him (and thus covered the deeper receiver who would have been open for a game-tying score). The resulting pass to the shallow receiver sailed through his hands out of bounds, setting up 4th down. (An impressive, heads-up play by Blanton who had previously played poorly in the contest as indicated in the section below.)
- USC: In man coverage from the left slot, Blanton followed Trojans WR Damian Williams across the field and anticipated a late Matt Barkley pass, jumping in front of the crossing route for diving pass break-up (that he nearly intercepted).
Blanton's Moments to Forget in 2009
- Michigan State: Though Irish coaches and players were mum on the subject, I believe it was Blanton that missed a check to "Cover 4" on what should have been a game-winning touchdown pass to Spartans running back Larry Caper down the left sideline. The pass famously sailed out of bounds and the Irish regrouped to seal the victory two snaps later.
- Purdue: Blanton is run over by Keith Smith in the open-field en route to a 36-yard touchdown and 7-0 Boilers lead. Later in the contest, Blanton had Smith squared up for the stop but Smith shook him in space and gained 12 yards on a key 3rd and 5. Purdue scored on the drive to cut the Irish lead to 17-14.
- Washington: Leading 16-14 in the first half, the Huskies targeted Blanton on a wheel route (including a natural screen/pick by the crossing receivers at the line of scrimmage) for a 30-yard completion to WR D'Andre Goodwin. Two plays later, Blanton was undressed by Jermaine Kearse on a stop-and-go down the sideline but QB Jake Locker's easy touchdown pass fell harmlessly to the turf. With the Irish clinging to a 30-27 lead near the end of regulation, Blanton was beaten on a 37-yard-go route that lead to the Huskies game-tying field goal and overtime. Blanton lost his starting spot the following week vs. USC.
- Washington State: Blanton, despite perfect position, barely influenced a jump-ball touchdown in the corner to Huskies wide receiver Jordan Karstetter.
Blanton's Career Statistics: 24 games (12 starts), 71 tackles, (4 for lost yardage), 4 INT (1 TD), 9 Passes broken up.