SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame cornerbacks Robert Blanton and Gary Gray are no strangers to overcoming challenges.
The Irish (6-3) have the nation’s 33rd-best pass defense, giving up 199.8 yards per game, and are bowl eligible thanks in part to their ability to persevere.
Blanton had to conform to the defensive scheme brought in by coach Brian Kelly two years ago, and Gray had to put a bad quarter behind him this season.
I had a little rocky start with the Michigan game, but ever since then, I think I’ve been playing a lot better, Gray said. (Blanton) has been playing very well this year.
Blanton was the third man in last year’s two-man rotation of Darren Walls and Gray and often wondered why he wasn’t playing more last season.
The only thing he needed to do was stay within the framework of our defense and not be a Lone Ranger, defensive backs coach Chuck Martin said of Blanton. His personality is such that I want to make every play.’ You love that in his personality, but trying to make every play puts you out of position sometimes, and now you’re giving up plays.
Blanton has stopped freelancing and the production has followed. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior is third on the team in tackles with 60 and has two interceptions and three pass breakups. He also has eight tackles for loss and a sack.
It was pretty difficult, Blanton said of last season. It made me hungry, and I enjoyed and earning things and making sure nothing was given. It made you earn it, which is great.
Martin said Blanton started earning a chance to produce in Kelly’s first fall camp with the team before the 2010 season.
He was still sitting behind Darren and Gary and kept asking, Why am I not starting, why am I not rotating in, why am I not playing?’ Martin said. And we kept telling him, Because we still don’t trust you enough.’ As he sees it, I’m making more plays or as many plays as those guys,’ which he was, but they were way more consistent with what they were doing. But he wanted to play, so more than anything as stubborn as he is, he said, If that’s what they’re telling me, I’ve got to do what they tell me.’
While Blanton worked to earn his coaches’ trust in the privacy of practice, Gray’s obstacle was on full display in a 35-31 loss to Michigan on Sept. 17. The 5-11, 195-pound senior took most of the heat for the poor coverage that allowed the Wolverines to erase a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Gray put the bad quarter behind him, and he is fourth on the team in tackles with 43 and has two interceptions and five pass breakups.
I just had to go back to work, Gray said. We had another test that next weekend which was Michigan State. My teammates helped me out getting through it, and the coaching staff didn’t lose faith in me.
Notre Dame’s corners will be asked to help slow down a Maryland offense that averages 217 passing yards.
Quarterbacks Danny O’Brien and C.J. Brown have thrown for a combined 1,953 yards with 11 scores, and Kevin Dorsey and Quintin McCree each average just more than 54 receiving yards.
It’s going to be a difficult challenge, Kelly said. They’ve got two quarterbacks that play different styles, and they have a talented receiving corps.