When Kendall Blanton told his father, Jerry, a former Chiefs linebacker, that he wanted to be a tight end, the dad suggested a fellow Chief for his son to model himself after.
Not Tony Gonzalez, one of the greatest to ever play the position, or current Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, considered one of the NFL’s best.
Instead, Jerry Blanton told his son to research Johnathan Hayes, his former teammate in the 1980s and the Cincinnati Bengals’ tight ends coach.
“(Haynes) couldn’t catch a cold, but he could block,” Jerry Blanton told The Star.
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Kendall Blanton listened to his father, and the advice could take him to the NFL.
While Missouri redshirt sophomore Albert Okwuegbunam attracts NFL scouts’ attention with his 4.5 40-yard-dash time and ability to get into the end zone, Blanton has stood out by helping the offensive line open up the run game and protect quarterback Drew Lock.
Jim Nagy, the director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl and a former NFL scout, said he currently projects Blanton as a third-day NFL Draft pick. As college teams continue to adopt the spread offense, Nagy said Blanton’s ability to block is becoming more of a throwback.
But with wideouts Emanuel Hall and Nate Brown out the past few weeks, Missouri is also trying to get the 6-foot-6 Blanton more involved in the pass game.
“His biggest asset is his frame,” Lock said. “A nickel that weighs 185, 195, 200 pounds, I don’t know how willing they are to run into a guy that’s 275 coming across the field full steam. He’s huge in our mid-range game.”
Blanton had three receptions for 27 yards against Memphis, including a 13-yard catch, and has proven to be a reliable pass-catcher. He had three touchdowns during his sophomore year, including a one-handed catch against Middle Tennessee. His lone touchdown last season as a junior came against Florida, where he caught a bullet from Lock in the corner of the end zone and managed to get a foot down.
He already has 127 receiving yards this season. He should break his career-high of 161, which he recorded during his sophomore season.
But the trait that has stood out to NFL scouts is Blanton’s ability to block.
“I like being out there running routes,” Blanton said. “But I love blocking.”
Jerry Blanton said it took time for his son to embrace blocking. He said if Kendall could learn to love it, it could go a long way in his career.
The same approach worked for the elder Blanton when he was an eleventh-round pick by the Buffalo Bills in the 1978 NFL Draft. As the last player cut in training camp, Jerry Blanton learned that he’d have to do the little things if he wanted to make a roster.
He signed with the Chiefs and embraced playing on special teams, which allowed him to carve out a seven-year NFL career as a linebacker.
As a senior at Blue Springs South, the younger Blanton played in a predominantly run-oriented offense and only caught 15 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns. His frame was enough to catch the eyes of college scouts, and he mainly heard from Kentucky, his father’s alma mater, and Missouri.
Jerry Blanton had a standout career at Kentucky and led the Wildcats to the Peach Bowl in 1976. He was rooting for his son to follow his footsteps to Lexington, but Kendall wanted to make his own legacy.
“It’s a switch hit to me,” Jerry Blanton said. “Of course you want your son to follow your own footsteps, but then again you want him to make his own footsteps too.”
A strong junior season could have gotten Blanton some NFL Draft buzz, but the emergence of Okwuegbunam limited his role in the offense.
Blanton remembered his father’s advice and applied it to become one of the team’s premier blockers.
Tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley has helped get a number of Tigers on NFL radars since head coach Barry Odom hired him, including Sean Culkin who is in his second year with the Chargers after going undrafted.
Finley doesn’t think Blanton is going to need much help impressing scouts.
“When he’s at his best he’s as good as I’ve ever seen,” Finley said of Blanton’s blocking. “He’s got to get his hands right, his technique right, all that stuff when he’s got the right mentality there’s nobody I’ve ever seen block as well.”
Senior offensive lineman Kevin Pendleton said he’s taught to treat blocking like a mindset, and Blanton is the epitome of that. He uses Blanton’s buy-in as an example to players, who are struggling to understand their role.
“He’s a tall, freak athlete. You figure we split him out and make him make plays all the time,” Pendleton said. “Well, we’re asking him to put his face on a 300-pound lineman and stop him. You can point to a young guy and be like, ‘look, this is how you help your team win.’”
Blanton’s 40-yard-dash time is 4.7 seconds, which is good for his size, and his ability to play special teams helps his NFL case.
“He’s a pretty good overall athlete,” Nagy said. “He’s not very explosive, but in terms of body control, flexibility and quickness he’s got some athletic ability. When they use him as a blocker he does do a pretty good job when he’s on the wing or on the move.”
Missouri hasn’t beaten Kentucky since 2014, Blanton’s redshirt season. A win against the No. 12 Wildcats would go a long way for Odom’s job security and would help make this a successful season for the Tigers.
It will also mark the final time the Blantons have a friendly father-son rivalry, but Jerry Blanton wants it to be clear where his allegiances are.
At his induction into Kentucky’s Hall of Fame, he told Wildcats coach Mark Stoops that he wants him to win every game except against Missouri because of his son.
“My blood bleeds blue,” he said. “Except on Saturday.”