For the last several years, Middle Tennessee State have been sending talented, yet overlooked defensive backs to the next level. It all started when Titans All-Pro safety Kevin Byard didn’t get a combine invite, but after destroying his pro day workout, made himself the first pick in the third round of the NFL draft. I don’t have to tell you how that pick worked out for the Titans. Byard is one of, if not THE best safety in the NFL.
The 2018 NFL draft had a strikingly similar story in Charvarius Ward, an athletic playmaker who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chiefs. The former Blue Raider has impressed so far and is now a Super Bowl winner. Ward even led the NFL in performance-based pay in 2019.
Don’t look now, but there’s another young, exciting defensive back cutting his teeth down in Murfreesboro. Reed Blankenship is an intriguing single-high safety that’s earning comparisons to Byard.
Listed at 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds, Blankenship has compiled a whopping 233 total tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and eight interceptions throughout his first three years as a Blue Raider. Factoring in that his 2019 campaign was cut short due to injury, the numbers are even more impressive than they first appear.
Blankenship recently spoke exclusively with Broadway Sports about being compared to Kevin Byard, making Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks” list, and what he enjoys most about playing the safety position.
JM: You earned Second Team All-C-USA Honors despite only playing in seven games last season. It was an incredible year that was unfortunately cut short due to injury. Why did you decide to return for your senior season?
RB: I decided to come back because it felt like I had some unfinished business. I suffered that injury, as you said. I only played in seven games. My teammates just mean so much to me, I didn’t wanna go out on that note. I’m one of the leaders on this team and it didn’t feel right for me to go out that way. Part of last year was taken away from me and it kills me. It left an empty feeling in my heart. Coming back with the guys is just one way I could begin to repair that feeling.
JM: That’s great. You mentioned having some unfinished business. You must be super excited to get back on the field this season.
RB: Yeah, I cannot wait. I’m very excited right now (laughs). That’s the probably the best way for me to put it.
JM: What was the recovery process like?
RB: Its been great. You’re obviously going to have some ups and downs when it comes to that. I tried to stay positive throughout the process. I had some good people in my corner that kept me positive. My support system really helped me push through it all.
JM: You recently made Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks” list. That must have been exciting for you. What was your reaction like when you found out you had made the list?
RB: I was shocked (laughs). I didn’t expect to be on that list. I saw it, and I just said, “wow.” It’s such an honor. I have a lot to prove and accomplish this coming season. I’m going to keep my head down and get to work.
JM: It’s a big year for you. You had to spend some time rehabbing, but outside of that, what have you done to ensure this is your best year yet?
RB: I’ve really just been keeping my head down and staying on the grind. I’m remaining humble. I’m a religious guy. God has a plan for me. Hopefully that plan will be put in motion this season. I’m just staying positive right now. God has kept me going through it all. I’ve been blessed to have so many great people in my corner. I can’t thank those people enough for their support.
JM: What’s your favorite part of playing the safety position?
RB: I love playing in center field. That’s how I see it. When I’m in center field, my confidence level is so high. I feel so good about playing the game. I understand how to read quarterbacks and I can cover a lot of ground. It honestly feels like I’m unstoppable when I’m in center field.
JM: I love your confidence. There’s something about Middle Tennessee State. So many guys have been slept on throughout the pre-draft process and have gone on to be really good players. Kevin Byard and Charvarius Ward are two examples. What’s in the water down there?
RB: We’re a bunch of guys that love football and want to play the game at the highest level. We take pride in what we do down here. Our names don’t get a lot of attention. We’re not talked about in the papers and we’re used to flying under the radar. We just keep our heads down and stay to the grind.
JM: Safeties coach Scott Shafer brought such a star-studded resume with him to MTSU. He’s been on the staff for a few years now. What’s it like working with coach Shafer?
RB: He’s a great coach. He’s had a huge impact on me personally. I’ve learned so much from him throughout my time here. Every day that I talk to him or sit down and watch film with him, I learn something new about the game. That’s what I love most about him.
JM: As the NFL draft community continues to familiarize themselves with you, the Kevin Byard comparisons will be made. You both played safety at the Middle Tennessee State. It’s inevitable. How do you handle being compared with such a special player?
RB: I’ve heard the comparison many times already. I’m my own person. I’m going to be the best Reed Blankenship that I can be. I want to leave my own legacy. I don’t try to compare myself to anybody. I’m going to play how I play. If people are going to recognize it, they’re going to recognize it because I put my own spin on it.
JM: What can you tell me about the scheme Middle Tennessee State runs on defense?
RB: Everybody swarms to the football. We put a lot of demands on our safeties and on our defense as a whole. We play a lot of quarters. The idea is to swarm to the football, it doesn’t matter what look we’re in. Everybody has a job to do. That’s what sets the tone for our defense.
JM: Who would you say is the best player you’ve played against up until this point?
RB: Devin Singletary from FAU stands out to me. He’s a great running back. He’s very legit. He’s already done some great things for the Buffalo Bills.
JM: If you could intercept one NFL quarterback, who would you choose and why?
RB: I’d have to go with Tom Brady. He’s still the GOAT. He does a great job taking care of the football. He’s such a smart distributor of the ball. Turnovers are hard to come by with him. That would be a huge accomplishment for me.
JM: The Director of the Senior Bowl, Jim Nagy recently mentioned you as being on the 2021 Senior Bowl watchlist. What would an invite mean to you?
RB: That would be great. I’d be really excited about that. We have a big season in front of us and I have a lot to accomplish before I start thinking about the Senior Bowl. We’re a ways away from that. It’s exciting to know they’re keeping tabs on me though.
JM: I’ve really appreciated your time today, Reed. What are your expectations for the year that Middle Tennessee State is about to have?
RB: It’s going to be a whole new team this year. It’s way different from last year. Everybody is working hard. There’s a lot going on in the world but we’re trying to block that out. We’re preparing as if we’re going to play a full season of college football. We have the same mindset, and everybody is preparing the same. We’re ready to rock and roll.