For the better part of four years, Issac Blakeney was frustrated. He knew he was a talented athlete – so why couldn’t that translate into on-field results?
While Blakeney was frustrated, the Duke coaching staff was perplexed. This 6-foot-6, 215-pound wide receiver/cornerback recruit who showed up in 2010 – where did he fit?
The Blue Devils needed defensive help, so the coaches thought maybe he could grow into a pass-rushing defensive end. Actually, maybe a big, athletic safety, they thought the next year. Then, after not playing a single snap in two years, the coaches decided he was a tight end. Last year, he was a slot receiver.
Now, finally, he seems to have found his home as an outside receiver opposite Jamison Crowder. Through two games, Blakeney has been more productive than he has been at any other point in his career: nine catches for 135 yards and a team-high three touchdowns.
He’s already about halfway to matching his production from the entire last year (19 catches, 244 yards and four touchdowns in 2013).
“I didn’t have stability at any position. Switching positions all the time gets to you, like maybe I’m not good enough, what’s the problem?” Blakeney said. “I always knew I was a great athlete, and that I was a good football player.”
Blakeney said his ah-ha moment came during the summer, when coach David Cutcliffe’s most famous protegee, Peyton Manning, visited with some of his Denver Broncos receivers. One day, Blakeney spoke with all-pro Demaryius Thomas.
“I was kind of talking to him about how I wasn’t producing, and he was just talking about some things that he had used that could probably help me,” Blakeney said. “The biggest thing he said is don’t let people define your roles. I had a lot of people telling me what I should do and what I can do and can’t do. He told me to go out there and feel like you’re the best player on the field, and, at the end of the game, you should want every coach to say, ‘That 17 player, he’s a really good player.’ That’s my goal for every game.”
The latest (and already most successful) plan is to have Blakeney use his size and speed advantage against smaller corners in 1-on-1 matchups. He honed the latter gift as a member of the track team this past spring, helping the 4x100 meter relay team run the second-fastest time in school history.
The plan played out to perfection on a 49-yard touchdown reception at Troy last week.
Based on the play call, Blakeney knew there was a good chance the ball was coming his way – a testament to his familiarity with quarterback Anthony Boone’s thinking. Looking at the defense, Blakeney figured the safety closest to him would be reading the other side of the field, leaving him with a 1-on-1 matchup against Troy’s 5-foot-9, 174-pound cornerback.
“I knew he would be on my outside, and I could squeeze, use my body to get a little bump on him and use my speed to take over,” Blakeney said. “I felt all the track and all the stuff from the spring kicking in. I feel like my wheels are moving a lot better than they have in the past. I was able to get behind him and make a play.”
While Blakeney’s move has had the most visible impact, a corresponding move is also paying off: Junior Max McCaffrey, who played outside last year, moved inside to the slot. From that position, his blocking responsibilities have increased, as the 6-foot-2, 200-pound McCaffrey has had to take on bigger linebackers on his routes over the middle.
“It takes a tough individual,” Boone said of McCaffrey playing the slot. “He really helps our perimeter game and zone-read game pop. Without him being able to block on the perimeter, cutting guys down and being real extra-effort and physical ”
Boone didn’t finish, but he doesn’t need to. Without McCaffrey’s effort without the ball, the offense doesn’t put up 52 points against Elon and 34 against Troy. And McCaffrey is still catching passes, too – he has nine receptions for 99 yards.
Prehaps most important, Boone feels confident with the new alignment, and he trusts McCaffrey and Blakeney to do their jobs.
And what quarterback wouldn’t want to throw to a 6-foot-6 target?
“I can throw the ball virtually anywhere, and he is going to have a good chance to come down with it,” Boone said. “He’s a big target, he’s really hard to miss, and he is doing really well.”
Blakeney knows, as a fifth-year senior, this is his last chance to deliver on his potential. That realization has led to a better effort in practices, Cutcliffe said, and he’s hoping for even more. Now that Blakeney has finally found his fit, it’s all starting to fall into place.
Just in time.