Ex-Butler, Independence stars get NFL opportunities

by Andrew Stark

During their senior years of high school, Robert Blanton (Butler Class of 2008) and Jason Barnes (Independence Class of 2007) were among the latest in a long line of players from the Matthews-Mint Hill area to sign with major college football programs.

Last weekend, they became the most recent area players to get called up to the NFL.

On April 28, the Minnesota Vikings selected Blanton, who went on to play defensive back at Notre Dame, with their third pick in the fifth round (139th overall). Later that day, Barnes, who played wide receiver at South Carolina, signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Blanton played in 37 consecutive games for Notre Dame, missing only the first game of his freshman season. According to Minneapolis radio station 1500-AM ESPN.com, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Blanton will be a hybrid cornerback/safety capable of matching up against physical tight ends and speedy wide receivers.

“It was kind of surprising,” Blanton said of his draft status. “I was very excited and am looking forward to playing there.”

Blanton was scheduled to leave for Minnesota on May 3 for his first Vikings minicamp. To prepare, he’s been in Matthews working out with many current Butler players.

“It’s great coming back and seeing everybody,” Blanton said. “They’re very receptive to me and their doors are always open to former players, so I enjoy going back and seeing all of those guys.

“It has been a dream of mine to play in the NFL since I was a little boy,” Blanton added, “so it is very exciting. I have not talked with (the Vikings) about specifics, but I’m going to go in there and work as hard as I can from Day 1. I am going to look to compete right away and certainly am going to do all that I can to help them any way that I can.”

Blanton and Barnes are looking to join 2007 Independence graduate D.J. Smith in the NFL next season. Smith, who played at Appalachian State, was a sixth-round pick by the Green Bay Packers last year and earned several key starts at linebacker. Kenneth Moore, a 2003 Butler graduate who went on to play at Wake Forest, was a fifth-round pick by the Detroit Lions in 2008 and spent part of his NFL career with the hometown Carolina Panthers. He now is a receiver with the Sacramento Mountain Lions in the United Football League.

Barnes, a 6-foot-4, 214 pounder finished his South Carolina career with 64 catches for 778 yards and two touchdowns. He said several teams contacted him about joining them, but his agent, family and others close to him figured the Chargers offered the best chance to compete for a roster spot.

Barnes is preparing for his first minicamp on Thursday, May 10.

“I am going to go down there and work as hard as I can and make sure I am in the best shape of my life because I am not guaranteed anything,” Barnes said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I am excited for my chance.”

Blanton and Barnes should be familiar names to area football fans, as both players helped take their high school programs to remarkable heights.

During his senior year at Butler, Blanton was ranked the top cover safety in the nation by Rivals.com and the 15th-best cornerback prospect by Scout.com. In his final season with the Bulldogs, Blanton recorded 94 tackles, five interceptions and six blocked kicks and also gained 252 yards on 16 catches as a wide receiver.

As an Independence senior, Barnes caught 84 passes for 1,413 yards and scored 14 touchdowns to help the Patriots win their seventh consecutive state championship in 2006. Rivals.com ranked Barnes the 32nd-best wide receiver and 11th overall prospect in North Carolina that season.

Last season with the Gamecocks, Barnes caught four passes for 48 yards. His best South Carolina season came in 2008, after being granted a medical redshirt because of a foot injury, when he made 27 catches for 346 yards and two touchdowns.

He said he’s excited about his opportunity with the Chargers.

“It means a lot to me that all of the hard work I have put in has paid off,” Barnes said.

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