Robert Blanton entered training camp as a fifth-round draft choice looking to make a quick impression at an unsettled safety position.
A strained hamstring changed the game instantaneously for Blanton. He went from having a chance to make a training camp statement to simply hoping that his injury hasn't hamstrung his chances to make the team.
"It's been pretty tough. Hard times, but you've just got to stay focused, stay mentally strong," Blanton said.
He also stayed longer. While the rest of the team headed for the locker room after Wednesday's practice, Blanton spent about 15 minutes putting in additional work with assistant position coach Jeff Imamura.
Time is running out, however. The Vikings' third preseason game is Friday night and the starters are expected to play a series or two in the third quarter. After that, Blanton will be in a mix of reserve safeties that includes Andrew Sendejo and Eric Frampton … if Blanton is even able to play.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said the team is still trying to determine if Blanton will be available for his first preseason action and then decide where he fits.
"We are hoping that he can play in this ballgame on Friday night so we can get some tape on him and evaluate him in game situations. When he was out there he did a good job in the offseason program that we had, then the short time that he was in camp, but we want to get some game tape just to be able to evaluate him a little better," Frazier said.
Adding to the difficulty is that Blanton played cornerback at Notre Dame and the Vikings drafted him as a safety, making practice time all the more valuable for a rookie making a change as big as that.
Blanton tries to grin and bear the reality of his situation. Whether it's the injury that has sidelined him or the transition he is attempting to make in the defensive backfield, he tries to put a positive spin on it.
"It's going great. It's fun. I like the challenge," he said of the move to safety. "It's fun being down in the box and getting to do a little more besides playing man to man. Out there in Cover-2 you're kind of on an island. It's fun to be down there in the box and be playing in the high hole, so I'm enjoying it."
At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and running a 4.7-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, Blanton was asked before the draft by "everybody" about his willingness to play safety.
"We were some pretty heavy hitters at (Notre Dame), so it's not too much of a difference (playing safety)," Blanton said. "Football is going to be and always has been tackling, so you've got to be able to tackle, whether you play corner, safety, linebacker, D-tackle. It's all the same."
The techniques he is being taught are different than he learned in college, much of that because of the position switch. But he downplayed many of the physical challenges of making the change. The mental part is another factor.
Frazier believes it is just a matter of Blanton logging more time in practice to get better, but his hamstring injury has taken away that valuable time.
"When you are making a transition like he is doing, going from corner to safety, you need practice, you need time on task," Frazier said. "He has missed a ton of time, so we need to get him some reps. I hope he will be able to finish this week's practice because the only way he is going to get a feel for the transition, and we will get a feel for how well he is making the transition, is if we see him doing it."
Earlier in the week, Frazier said Blanton was expected back for the San Diego game. On Wednesday, Blanton was listed among the questionable players for the game.
Of course, there is a balancing act. Rushing back and reinjuring the hamstring would put another significant dent his chances of making the 53-man roster, which will be decided on Aug. 31. But, of course, he'd like to get his first preseason action to display his progress.
"That's the hard part. You want to get out there and put in some hard work with your teammates and get better, but at the same time that's not the smart thing to do so they all tell you … not to practice," Blanton said.
The Vikings likely know the transition, like the injury, will take time. They went through a similar position switch with Mistral Raymond, who is the favorite to earn a starting job next to Blanton's fellow Notre Dame alum Harrison Smith.
Raymond made 10 of his 11 starts as a cornerback during his senior season at South Florida, but, like Blanton, most NFL teams were looking at him as a safety.
"Probably the biggest thing about the transition is you go from being at the corner where you do have the sight line that can sometimes help you with certain situations, to now being out in space and having to make the calls on defense as opposed to someone giving you the calls when you are at the corner," Frazier said. "It is a lot more mentally, there is a lot more required physically as well as far as having a better understanding about angles and broadness of the field.
"So it is a little bit different than locking up a receiver and just playing my area when you are playing safety. So there are some things mentally and physically different than playing the corner position and the only way you can get comfortable in doing that is by experiencing it."
The Vikings were patient with Raymond's transition. He was inactive for the first six games of 2011 and ended up starting the final five.
Blanton is trying to take a similarly optimistic approach to his chances of making the team a year after Raymond did it.
"Stay positive. Stay confident," Blanton said. "I think they're great."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Blanton optimistic in trying times
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