Cornerbacks are not known for their "blow-up" tackles that leave opponents with rubbery legs and a few "marbles" rattling around inside their heads, but those defenders are not Robert "R.J." Blanton Jr. Professional scouts compare his style of play to present NFL standouts like Denver's Champ Bailey, Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor and Minnesota's Antoine Winfield for his savvy, yet aggressive, demeanor on the football field.
"Old-timers" also see a lot of Mel Blount (Pittsburgh) and Herb Adderly (Green Bay) in his style of play, especially with the way he hurls himself at ball-carriers and uses his speed and power to play off the slower offensive tackles to wreak havoc in the backfield on stunts and blitzes. Ever since his arrival on campus as a freshman, Blanton (6-1, 208) has provided the Irish with stellar play, no matter where he lines up and whether as a starter or key reserve.
With his draft stock rapidly rising during his senior season, the media was quick to notice that Notre Dame might have its first blue-chip cornerback since the early 1990s, the last time an Irish corner was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft (Todd Lyght was chosen in the first round of the then-Los Angeles Rams in 1991 and Tom Carter was selected by the Washington Redskins in the 1993 draft).
The senior placed himself in serious contention for Jim Thorpe Award honors, which is given to college football's premier defensive back. His impressive numbers throughout his final campaign saw opponents target 110 passes into his area, completing just 30 of those tosses (27.27 percent) for 198 yards and no touchdowns, an average of 6.6 yards per pass completion and 1.8 yards per attempt. In addition to rerouting/jamming receivers on 59 pass attempts, he produced 36 third-down stops and two more on fourth-down plays vs. the aerial game.
The rest of the Irish defense did not fare as well, allowing 79.85 percent of the other passes attempted by the opposition to be completed (214-of-268) for an average of 10.41 yards per pass completion and 8.31 yards per attempt. Those same opponents scored 21 times through the air vs. Notre Dame, but none of those touchdowns were allowed by Blanton. The boundary cornerback had two of the team's eight interceptions, including a sensational 82-yard return. Of the 127 first downs generated by the opposition through the air, just 14 came in Blanton's area.
Blanton recorded three turnovers (one fumble recovery and two interceptions) while the rest of his teammates combined 10 (six pass thefts and four fumble recoveries). He produced 40 third-down stops (six more vs. the ground) and four fourth-down snaps.
Showing little fear for taking on offensive linemen, Blanton recorded nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage (assists and solos), stopping four ball-carriers and one tight end for no gain, to go along with registering 15 of his hits inside the red zone, including five on goal-line plays. In addition, he posted 13 touchdown-saving tackles (six vs. the run, seven vs. the pass) after opposing players managed to break free for long plays vs. the rest of the Irish defenders.
Blanton's senior campaign performance came as no surprise to the Notre Dame coaching staff.
"We felt very strongly about Robert Blanton coming into the season, that he would give us great play. I think he's exceeded everybody's expectations at this point," coach Brian Kelly said. "He can do a lot of things for you: he can play safety, he can play corner, he can play nickel. As you know, last year he was a great special teams player."
"Blanton has speed and good timing and when the ball is in the air, and he's aggressive going after it," the coach noted. "On a high throw, he seems to be able to find the football at the same time or even earlier than the receiver and then can battle him for it - often winning. He's just got a swagger and a confidence about him that he carries with him, not only on the field but off the field as well. I think that's very important when you play back there, that you have that kind of personality. He's a very confident young man in every-thing he does."
In 50 games at Notre Dame, Blanton had a total of 292 passes targeted into his area. The opposition managed to complete only 93 of those tosses (31.85 percent) for 799 yards, an average of 8.59 yards per completion and 2.74 yards per pass attempt. He recorded 106 third-down stops, including 90 vs. the aerial game, along with posting eight fourth-down plays. He rerouted/jammed his pass coverage assignments away from 154 throws (52.74 percent).
In 26 starting assignments, Blanton has had 194 passes targeted into his territory, seeing just 42 of those tosses caught (21.65 percent), good for 300 yards, an average of 7.14 yards per completion and 1.55 yards per pass attempt. He prevented those targets from getting to 105 of those passes (54.12 percent), delivering 66 third-down hits and six fourth-down plays while performing for the first unit. Twenty-one of those plays were inside the red zone, including eight on goal-line snaps, delivering sixteen touchdown-saving tackles vs. the aerial game.
Blanton has shown off his power as a run stuffer. Despite playing in the secondary, he recorded 22 tackles for losses and stopped ball-carriers at the line of scrimmage for no gain nine times. On 84 running plays where he was the lead tackler, those ball-carriers managed just 259 yards, an average of 3.08 yards per carry. He also was credited with 16 more touchdown-saving tackles after the Notre Dame "front seven" had coverage breakdowns, resulting in those running backs breaking for daylight into the Irish secondary.
Prior to his arrival at Notre Dame, Blanton was a standout cornerback and safety at David W. Butler High School in Matthews, N.C., playing for head coach Mike Newsome. He also competed as a receiver, in addition to earning letters in track and basketball.
Blanton received a four-star prospect rating from Rivals.com, as that recruiting service regarded him as the nation's best "cover" safety and the seventh-best overall prospect in the state of North Carolina. Scout.com awarded him four-star accolades and rated him the 15th-best cornerback in the prep ranks, along with calling him the state's third-best prospect.
Blanton was named to The NFL Draft Report's All-American third-team and All-Major Independent first-team, as that scouting information service rates him as the hardest-hitting cornerback and most underrated defensive back eligible for the 2012 draft…The senior game captain started all 13 games, as he ranked third on the squad with a career-high 70 tackles (48 solos) that included an 11-yard sack and a pair of QB pressures…His eight tackles for losses totaling 24 yards rank second on the team and placed him second in the nation among defensive backs (Kentucky safety Winston Guy had 11.0 tfls)…Recovered a fumble that he advanced four yards vs. Air Force, deflected three passes and intercepted two others, including a career-long 82-yard return…The boundary cornerback was involved in 110 passes targeted into his area, as the opposition completed just 30 of those tosses (27.27 percent) for 198 yards and no touchdowns, an average of 6.6 yards per pass completion and 1.8 yards per attempt…In addition to rerouting/jamming receivers on 59 pass attempts, he produced 36 third-down stops and two more on fourth-down plays vs. the aerial game...Of the 127 first downs generated by the opposition through the air, just 14 came in Blanton's area…Killed a total of 44 scoring drives with his 40 third-down stops (six more vs. the ground) and four more on fourth-down snaps vs. the opposition…Recorded nine total tackles behind the line of scrimmage (assists and solos), stopping four ball carriers and one tight end for no gain, in addition to registering fifteen of his hits inside the red zone, including five on goal-line plays…Posted 13 touchdown-saving tackles (six vs. the run, seven vs. the pass) after opposing players managed to break free for long plays vs. the rest of the Irish defenders.
Blanton played in every game, seeing action at boundary and field cornerback, free safety, strong safety, nickel back and earned his only start as an extra defensive back/weak-side outside linebacker hybrid vs. Army…Despite coming off the bench most of the season, he finished sixth on the team with 54 tackles (30 solos) that included 1.5 sacks for minus-9 yards and a crucial third-down quarterback pressure that caused an interception…His 8.5 tackles for losses, totaling 27 yards, ranked third on the team…That total also ranked second among NCAA FBS cornerbacks, topped by only David Garrett of Kansas State (15.0)…The Irish ranked 54th in the nation in pass defense (215.67 ypg), but Blanton was an intimidating presence, as his hard-hitting style of play saw him jam/reroute receivers away from 30-of-62 passes targeted into his area (48.39 percent)…Intercepted two passes and had five other pass deflections, as opposing quarterbacks completed just 21 of those 62 tosses (33.87 percent) for 162 yards, no touchdowns and just seven first downs, an average of 7.71 yards per pass completion and 2.61 yards per pass attempt…Against the rest of the Irish defense, opponents completed 66.93 percent of their pass attempts (253-of-378) for 2,634 yards, an average of 10.41 yards per reception…Registered 23 third-down stops and two more on fourth-down snaps vs. the aerial game, as he delivered 11 tackles inside the red zone, including six on goal-line plays…Produced four touchdown-saving tackles vs. the ground attack, as he made eight plays for losses (assists and solos) along with taking ball carriers down at the line of scrimmage for no gain three times, holding the rushing attack to a miniscule 73 yards on 23 plays vs. the cornerback (3.17 ypc)…44 of those yards came on his TD-saving tackles.
Blanton appeared in all 12 games, starting the first five contests of his sophomore campaign at boundary cornerback…Also started at field cornerback vs. Boston College, Washington State and Navy…Ranked eighth on the team with 38 tackles (21 solos), including one stop behind the line of scrimmage, as the Irish ranked 76th in the nation in pass defense, allowing 227.5 yards per game…Deflected two passes and intercepted two others…Also made 35 appearances for the Notre Dame special team coverage units.
As a true freshman, Blanton was held out of the season opener vs. San Diego State, but appeared in the next 12 contests…Was listed second on the depth chart at left cornerback, but took over right cornerback starting duties for the final four games, going on to record 33 tackles (26 solos) with three stops for losses of 14 yards…Added three pass deflection with two interceptions for 47 yards in returns, as the Irish finished 43rd in the nation in pass defense, yielding 195.69 yards per game…In addition to playing with the defensive unit, Blanton participated in 63 plays for the special team coverage squads.
2011 Season…Missed several days of practice prior to the Boston College game (11/19) due to flu-like symptoms.
4.63 in the 40-yard dash…1.58 10-yard dash…2.59 20-yard dash…3.97 20-yard shuttle…11.28 60-yard shuttle…6.71 three-cone drill…34-inch vertical jump…9'8" broad jump… Bench pressed 225 pounds 17 times…31 ?-inch arm length…9 1/8-inch hands…76 1/8-inch wingspan…17 Wonderlic test.
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Dave-Te Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. At NFL Scouting, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.