The NFL is always looking for impact players, whether it’s on offense or defense. But now, the in-vogue phenomenon is to find the next special teams force that can provide offense when it’s least expected – on kick and punt returns.
"I’ll say I feel more pressure now than I ever did at NC State, because I knew what to expect from all my coaches in college."
NC State’s Darrell Blackman may be the next big name on special teams, but he’ll have to prove he can also play a position at the next level. Blackman has played at running back and wide receiver during his career, but it’s at receiver where he’s going to have to show his potential.
In his first full season primarily at the receiver position, Blackman showed lots of promise and finished his senior season with 41 receptions for 593 yards and a touchdown. Scout.com’s Chris Steuber spoke with Blackman as he prepares for his NFL future.
Chris Steuber: How would you describe your career at NC State?
Darrell Blackman: I really liked the school; everything was good. I had a good time there and learned a lot. I was coached by two good coaches. I think I had a pretty good career there. I was satisfied with my career at NC State.
CS: Do you think you could have been utilized more while you were at NC State, especially at wide receiver?
Blackman: Oh yeah, I think I could have been used in many different ways, because I was a versatile player. I could play running back and wide receiver, as well as be a kick returner. If they used my abilities more to run the ball and catch passes it would have helped our offense a lot more with reverses and misdirection plays. It would have kept defenses honest.
CS: You mentioned yourself as being a versatile player and how you’re multidimensional on the football field. But what is your best attribute?
Blackman: [Pause]… I’d say my explosion and my ability to play multiple positions.
CS: The opportunity for you to show coaches and scouts what kind of player you are is right around the corner. On February 2nd, you will be playing in the Texas vs. Nation Bowl. What do you hope to accomplish?
Blackman: I just want to have a good showing. I want to go out there and play as hard as I can and help my team win. I’m going to do whatever the coaches ask me to do and go out there and have fun. That’s what it’s all about. It’s an extra game for guys to show what they can do. I don’t want to force anything; I just want to have a good showing in front of the coaches and scouts.
CS: How much pressure are you feeling right now as you enter the biggest offseason of your career?
Blackman: Just a little bit; I’m not feeling overwhelming pressure that’s going to make me do something out of the norm. I just want to play my game and make sure I have my technique down and do things to help put me in a better position. I’ll say I feel more pressure now than I ever did at NC State, because I knew what to expect from all my coaches in college. But now I’m going out on the field to play in front of pro coaches and scouts, and there is pressure, but I can handle it.
CS: Looking ahead a little bit, the Scouting Combine is always a big ordeal. Everyone from coaches to media to scouts will be present. Have you talked to any players that went through the Combine or are you going to go into Indianapolis blind?
Blackman: I haven’t heard too much about it, because I didn’t discuss it with former teammates of mine that went through it. But watching the Combine on TV and from some of the Pro Days I’ve been to, it doesn’t look like it’s that demanding. You have to be focused and make sure you bring your “A” game.
CS: Being focused is huge this time of year. What have you or what will you be concentrating on the most this offseason to improve prior to the bowl game and the Combine?
Blackman: Mostly receiving. I want to run tighter routes and learn more about being a receiver. That’s what I’ve been working on so far. I’ve been watching film of some of my old games and pointing out some mistakes I’ve made and how I can improve them.
CS: Do you think your ability as a receiver is the biggest question mark scouts and coaches have about your game?
Blackman: I think so, because I only really played the position for one year. I was pretty successful at it, but there are a lot of things I have to work on — running routes and things like that. At times I didn’t run routes like I was supposed to and some people might question that. I made the transition from running back to receiver, and I still have a lot to learn. I just have to run with it and work on the things I need to work on.
CS: You’ve mentioned improving your route-running a few times. What in particular do you think you have to improve?
Blackman: [Pause]… Being able to read defenses, come out of my breaks better and come back to the ball. Instead of rounding my routes off, I want to make them crisp and be able to cut defenders off. I want to make a play on the ball before the defenders can, because I’ve noticed that sometimes I come out of my breaks and I’d be standing straight up. I have to improve on that, improve on the little things.
CS: What you lack in experience at the receiver position, you make up for in your ability to catch the ball. I’m sure being a return specialist has only improved your hands, and once you learn the nuances of the position you have the ability to be a threat.
Blackman: That’s something I worked on as a little kid. The one thing you have to do is protect the ball and catch it when you get your hands on it. I worked on that a lot just playing catch as a kid.
CS: Talk about your ability as a return specialist and how that will impact your status as a draftee.
Blackman: That’s going to help me out a whole lot. That adds another element to my game that I can help a team with. Just being able to catch the ball in the open field like that, that’s one of my specialties. I think that will bring a little bit more to the table, rather than me just being lined up out there at receiver.
CS: When you’re back ready to field a punt, what is the first thought that comes into your mind? You only have a few seconds to react. What are you thinking?
Blackman: First of all, I have to make sure I catch the ball and protect it. Then, I have to make the first guy miss. If the first guy is ten yards or further away than I have time to catch it and make something happen. When I make the first guy miss, it allows my teammates to set up blocks in front of me and it gives our team an opportunity at better field position. The most important part of being a punt returner is being patient and getting up the field as fast as you can.
CS: Before Devin Hester entered the NFL, a return specialist wasn’t necessarily a make or break position. But with his elusiveness in the open field, he gives a special teams unit a chance to put a quick six on the board. What has Hester done for aspiring return specialists?
Blackman: He’s really made his mark in the league and has defined special teams as being really important in the NFL. He’s done things that no one else has done. I look at what he’s done and it motivates me. He’s opened the door for kick returners and special teams players. I just want to add onto some of the success he’s had and try to make my own to become a great return specialist at the next level.
CS: How much film study do you do, primarily focusing on special teams?
Blackman: I put in countless hours breaking down film. I try to get in the film room three or four times a week and see what teams' strategy is. I want to see how they kick the ball, what angles they take, tendencies of players, things like that.
CS: Do you get excited when you see something on film of a team you’re playing that week that you know you can exploit?
Blackman: Oh yeah, that’s the first thing I look for when I watch film — a team’s weakness on special teams.
CS: You grew up in the Philadelphia area, correct?
Blackman: Yes, sir.
CS: Were you a big Eagles fan growing up?
Blackman: (Laughs)… Yup.
CS: Now, Philadelphia needs a return specialist. How special would it be for you to wear Eagles green?
Blackman: Man, it would be real special. Growing up in the area and being able to play professionally here, that would make my family and myself proud to be home and not have to travel all the time. I’d be right in my own backyard, it would be a dream come true.
CS: Players who come home to play professional sports sometimes feel unwanted pressure and don’t perform up to their abilities. If you were to play in your hometown, do you think the outside pressure would get to you?
Blackman: I don’t get caught up in all of that, I just try to play my game and let it speak for itself. If the Eagles drafted me, I wouldn’t put extra pressure on myself. I wouldn’t be like, “Oh, I have to do well, or I have to do this.” I just try to stay focused and play within my game.
CS: I’m a draft analyst and I conduct mock drafts and analyze prospects. How often do you go online to check things out and see where you’re projected?
Blackman: I don’t really get on there and get into those things, because you can’t always believe what you see. They change week after week and you can’t really trust things like that. I can’t really think about that stuff, I just have to continue to get better.
CS: Do you think it’s fair that four years of college ball is judged during one weekend in Indianapolis?
Blackman: I don’t think it’s really fair for the players going into the draft to cut down four years of work into one weekend. But it’s something that comes along with the territory if you want to be an athlete in the league. You just have to put your hard hat on, work and prove yourself to the scouts.
CS: Moving forward&hellip, you’re so close to the NFL. What are your goals for this offseason and what do you want to prove to the league and to yourself?
Blackman: I want to improve my speed, because scouts had questions and said I’m not that fast. I want to prove that I can be explosive and be that kind of player. I have deceptive speed and that will show this offseason, as well as my change of direction and ability to make defenders miss.
CS: We’re still a few months away, but what have you heard from your agent or others regarding your draft status for this April’s draft?
Blackman: What I’ve heard from my agent and what he’s been told by teams around the league is between the third to fifth round. I’m just going to build on that and go with the flow.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999.