As the Eagles prepare for their stretch run in the 2023 season, they have a secondary chock-full of veteran experience.
Except for Reed Blankenship.
“I try not to think about that,” the second-year safety said this week. “I try to play at a higher level than just a two-year guy. It’s going to take a long time. I’m a sponge. I want to learn as much as I can. Like you said, there’s so much experience on our team. I am truly blessed to be able to play beside them every chance I get.”
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After the additions of Kevin Byard and Bradley Roby this season, four of the Eagles’ five starters in the secondary are over 30 and have played in 100+ games.
Then there’s Blankenship. The 24-year-old was an undrafted rookie out of Middle Tennessee State last year and had to work his way into the lineup as a rookie and didn’t become a full-time starter until this season.
Darius Slay — Age 32, Year 11, 160 career games
Bradley Roby — Age 31, Year 10, 129 career games
Kevin Byard — Age 30, Year 9, 123 career games
James Bradberry — Age 30, Year 8, 118 career games
Reed Blankenship — Age 24, Year 2, 18 career games
But in a lot of ways, despite missing a couple games, Blankenship has been the glue of an Eagles secondary that dealt with a ton of injuries earlier this season. He might be the youngest of the bunch, but Blankenship hasn’t been a weak link.
The Eagles are probably playing with fire a little bit, having all these defensive backs over the age of 30. And over the next couple of offseasons, the Eagles will need to retool and replenish the youth in their secondary. But as long as Blankenship is around all these experienced players, he’s going to learn everything he can from them.
“He definitely asks a lot of questions in the meeting room and on the field,” Bradberry said. “And then of course having a veteran safety here to help him learn the position and learn what to look for, that’s helped him out. You can tell his experience because in each and every game, he’s around making plays. That you can kind of see he’s paying attention, he’s absorbing all the information we’re giving him. And he’s just learning week-to-week.
“You don’t become an elite safety overnight. It takes time. And he’s definitely putting the time in and it’s a process. I feel like he’s getting to that status one game at a time.”
The Eagles have an all MTSU secondary with Blankenship and Byard, who has the nickname the Mayor of Mufreesboro, as in the city that’s home to Middle Tennessee State.
Blankenship hasn’t been teammates with Byard very long but he’s appreciative of the opportunity he has to learn from him this year.
“It’s everything I imagined it would be,” Blankenship said this week. “Just being able to play with a guy of his caliber and get to learn from him every day.”
But Byard made sure to point out that he’s not simply in a mentor role for Blankenship just yet. It’s a two-way street right now. While Byard definitely has the experience and the accolades as a two-time All-Pro, he is still learning Sean Desai’s defense.
So as much as Byard is able to help Blankenship with his experience, he’s asking Blankenship to help him learn the defense.
“It’s been back and forth,” Byard said. “It’s been really good.”
This season in eight starts, Blankenship has 2 interceptions, 10 pass breakups, 2 TFLs and leads the team with 63 combined tackles. He’s already a good player and has the chance to be a starter with the Eagles for a while.
In the short time they’ve been teammates, Blankenship has already left an impression on Byard.
“I think he’s been coming on very well,” Byard said. “I think the biggest thing, talking about experience, is just being able to see things, seeing a lot of things teams do. I’ve already been telling Reed since I’ve been here, the way I approach calls in the games is ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen to me in this call?’ If I defend the worst thing, then everything else I just play ball.”
Byard has a lot of knowledge to give. And we know Blankenship will listen.