Sept. 16, 2011
By Sean Stires
Intensity is not necessarily the most important ingredient of a good football player. However, it is often what separates good players from great ones.
Ask anyone who knows Notre Dame cornerback Robert Blanton to describe him and one of the first words to come out of their mouths is inevitably some form of the word “intensity.” That is, of course, unless you ask Robert Blanton himself.
Blanton entered his senior season with a knack for finding the ball when he is on the field. The 6-1, 200-pound senior is a bundle of energy and intensity on game day, yet he is anything but comfortable talking about himself in those terms most any other time.
“I love to get out there and compete,” Blanton understatedly says of his intense on-field nature. “When you compete you’ve gotta go hard, be physical and be tough.”
While Blanton, or “RJ” as he is known to friends and family (the nickname comes from the high number of men named Robert in his family), may downplay his own intensity his coaches and teammates cherish the trait.
“Football is not some sport that’s not physical,” he continues. “So of course you’ve gotta have that edge to go out there and compete. It’s all about making plays when you’re on the field, so when you have the opportunity you’ve got to go out there and be productive.”
In addition to intense, Irish cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks uses other adjectives like “ultra competitive,” “aggressive” and “physical” to describe his pupil.
“He’s someone who’s going to refuse to get beat and he’s not going to let his will or confidence be shaken by anything,” Cooks observes of Blanton.
Notre Dame defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, sees that same intensity in Blanton. In fact, when asked to describe the Matthews, N.C. native, Diaco had a one-word response – “Intensity.” When asked to expand Diaco obliged.
“RJ is one of the most edgy guys I’ve ever been around. He’s very critical of his play. He expects to win every individual match-up. He’s got ultimate self belief, but in a professional way. He’s not a chirper and a talker. He goes about his business in the right way in a first class championship way. “
Blanton saw his starts drop from eight as a sophomore in 2009 to just one last year in head coach Brian Kelly’s first season, but his overall production still managed to increase. Blanton made 38 total tackles in ’09, but that number jumped to 52 last year while playing in all 13 games. His lone start came against Army at Yankee Stadium.
Though the stat sheet might say Blanton started one game in 2010, Diaco views it quite differently.
“I saw him as a starter,” Diaco says. “I’m not looking at that kind of business; we’re just conducting the game. Who runs on (the field) first is really for our kind of business irrelevant. I saw RJ as a starter last year and I see him as a starter this year.”
Blanton took the new role under the new coaching staff in stride.
“The coaching staff did a great job of communicating with us,” he shares. “I knew my role and knew what I had to do to help the team. I’m willing to do anything to help the team be successful.”
Blanton’s intensity on the field has translated to personal success during his first three years, and he hopes that leads to team success in 2011. He has played in 38 consecutive games in an Irish uniform. In fact, the only game he has missed since stepping foot on campus was the 2008 season opener of his freshman year against San Diego State.
The sum of those games is 129 career tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 10 pass breakups and six interceptions. Blanton’s interceptions are second to only Harrison Smith’s seven career picks among current Irish players. Only two Notre Dame players had more tackles than Blanton entering this season.
Seven of Blanton’s 12 career tackles for loss came in ’10. Those seven tackles for loss were the most by a Notre Dame defensive back since A’Jani Sanders totaled 10 during the 1999 campaign.
Blanton has also scored a pair of touchdowns during his Irish career. The first came in his third game as a collegiate player when he returned Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter’s interception 47 yards for a score in the second quarter of a 38-21 win over the Boilermakers. The Irish were trailing, 7-0, at the time, but Blanton’s play helped springboard the team to a 21-7 lead en route to the victory.
His second career score came last season when he blocked a punt against No. 15 Utah and then scampered six yards for the touchdown. The Irish trailed that game, 3-0, at the time, but Blanton’s touchdown sparked 28 unanswered points and helped his team to a 28-3 win.
The win over the Utes also helped spark the Irish to a 4-0 to the end of the ’10 campaign, culminating in a 33-17 victory over the Miami Hurricanes in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. Blanton led the team with a career-high nine tackles and added an interception.
Not surprisingly, Blanton downplayed his big plays.
“We haven’t got to where we want to be yet,” he says. “We were 6-6 my first two years and then last year we were 8-5, so I don’t really have much to be boastful about or be happy about at this point.”
While Blanton remains soft spoken and understated off the field, his intense play and persona belies that belief on the field. The intensity and emotion is something fans see every time Blanton steps foot inside Notre Dame Stadium, but his teammates also see another side of the senior cornerback.
Fellow senior, wide receiver Michael Floyd, stares across from Blanton on a near daily basis. Floyd describes his tenacious teammates’ on-field persona as a split personality when compared to what he sees of him off the field.
“He’s kind of a crazy guy on the field and then one of the most loveable guys off the field,” Floyd says of Blanton.
While Floyd has been recognized nationally as one of the top receivers in college football during his time with Notre Dame, that has not necessarily been the case for Blanton, but that could change this year if the Irish defense lives up to its early billing.
Floyd and Blanton lock horns often in practice and they push each other to improve.
“R.J. is a great cornerback,” Floyd continues. “He’s one of the best I’ve played against since I’ve been here. His long arms are what help him a lot and he’s very quick off the ball. He gives me a challenge every day. I respect him a lot and I like that I go after him every single day.”
Blanton knows that going up against a top-flight receiver like Floyd helps his game as well.
“It’s really competitive and it’s really fun,” Blanton says. “It’s great during the week and through fall camp you get to go against one of the best players out there. It just gets your game better, gets you right and gets you more focused. He’s a great guy to go against before a game, because he’s a great receiver and he’s so big and physical.”
While teammates and coaches praise Blanton’s skills, it has not always been that way. His intensity and work ethic has been fueled in part by people who told him when he was younger that he was not fast enough or good enough to be a great football player. Blanton has used those words as his own motivation.
“I don’t believe that any man should let another man tell him what he’s good at in life,” Blanton shares. “If you let that happen you’ll be a failure from the start. If you just believe in yourself and have confidence and trust in God everything will work out great.”
RJ Blanton has channeled his energy to turn himself into an intense college football player who has a penchant for the big play. But does he see himself as a “big play” guy?
“I’d like to be a ‘count on me guy’ when I get out there on the field with my coaches and teammates. I’d like to be able to say that I’m an accountable guy and that the play’s gonna be made when it’s time.”