AMHERST — One of Rob Blanchflower’s friends e-mailed him with the text of what Mel Kiper, ESPN’s loquacious NFL draft analyst, had to say about him this week.
The University of Massachusetts tight end is not one to dwell on his press clippings (“They can be a distraction”), but he clearly took to heart the perspective of the pundit with the Derek Kellogg hairdo. Not the part where Kiper sang the praises of the redshirt senior’s “pretty good quickness for a guy his size” or “the way he catches the ball, using his hands and not letting it get to his body.”
Blanchflower zeroed in on an observation of a different kind, saying ruefully, “He saw my drops.”
Yes, Blanchflower did drop three passes last Saturday. But he also caught five for a team-leading 98 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown late in the third quarter that stood up as the difference in the Minutemen’s 17-10 victory over Miami of Ohio. It was the first win of the season for UMass (1-5, 1-1 Mid-American Conference) and the program’s first at Gillette Stadium since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision a season ago.
Winning touchdown grab aside, Blanchflower has caught something else in recent days: lots of attention.
On Wednesday, he was named Tight End of the Week by the folks who administer the John Mackey Award. Two days earlier, he had been put on the midseason watch list for the award named after the Hall of Fame tight end.
“Mackey was a great player,” said Blanchflower, “and to be mentioned in the same sentence as him is humbling.”
Well, you can add a few more slices to that humble pie: Past recipients of the trophy include Dallas Clark, Heath Miller, and a couple of former Patriots, Daniel Graham and Aaron Hernandez.
You look at UMass — the lowly record, the low attendance — and you’re tempted to say it’s a stretch to mention one of its players alongside names from the mighty NFL. But in recent years, even predating the upgrade from the Football Championship Subdivision, the Amherst campus has been feeding prospects to the pros in numbers unprecedented in program history.
Currently, there are eight former Minutemen on NFL rosters, most notably the Giants’ salsa-dancing receiver, Victor Cruz.
Blanchflower doesn’t dance, unless you consider what occurs in the mosh pit across the middle of a defense dancing. The 23-year-old from Leominster, who as a two-way player at St. John’s of Shrewsbury was named to the 2008 Super 26 all-state team at defensive end, is a daunting physical presence at 6 feet 4 inches, 260 pounds.
“He’s a big, strong target,” said UMass coach Charley Molnar. “Blanch has got very, very strong hands, so he’s able to battle for the ball and come down with it.”
That naturally makes him a quarterback’s best friend.
“You look at the NFL and you see tight ends making their quarterbacks’ lives better,” said sophomore A.J. Doyle, who took over as the UMass starter behind center in the season’s third game. “There’s [Tom] Brady and [Rob Gronkowski], Tony Romo and Jason Witten. When you have a great tight end, you have a chance to be a great quarterback.”
The Doyle-Blanchflower combination, which is still fine-tuning after the tight end missed the first three games with an undisclosed injury, will be put to the test Saturday when the Minutemen play at Buffalo (4-2, 2-0).
The Bulls lost their first two games to Ohio State and Baylor but have been rolling ever since, most recently in last Saturday’s 33-0 win at Western Michigan. They pressure the quarterback with a ferocious rush led by an even more prominent NFL prospect, sack-machine linebacker Khalil Mack.
That presents a particular challenge to Blanchflower, who’ll be asked to get open quickly when he’s not staying in to help with pass protection.
“If we think we’re going to put one blocker on Khalil, we’ll be sorry at the end of the day,” said Molnar. “So we’ll have to use Blanch in some creative ways to try to neutralize the rush.”
Call it an opportunity to showcase a different aspect of his talent. Call it another day at the office.
“It’s all about the work ethic for me,” said Blanchflower, who has 15 receptions in his shortened season for 156 yards, and whose 1,007 career yards are 146 shy of Milt Morin’s school record for tight ends.
“There’s always room for improvement. I had a couple of plays that stood out last weekend, and the stats looked good, but I didn’t have a great game. A couple of those dropped balls haunted me.”
So much so that on Sunday morning, while many teammates and UMass fans were still in bed dreaming the sweet dreams of victory, Blanchflower was back at work.
“I woke up early and got together with my coach at 8 a.m. to watch film,” he said. “I’m making strides every day, but there’s always another ball you can catch, another play you can make.”
A year from now, he might be making those plays on Sundays.
As Kiper said of Blanchflower in his draft analysis, “Big tight ends who can run and catch the ball like wide receivers? Yeah, the NFL is buying right now.”