I'll say it right off the bat: Rob Blanchflower, #56 on our countdown but #1 in UMass fans' hearts, should be higher on this list. Blanch, as his coaches and teammates call him, may not be the fastest, biggest, strongest, or even most talented member of the UMass Minutemen, but by all indications he is the heart and soul of the offense.
To prepare for this post, I held an extremely informal poll amongst a few followers of the team, asking them to give me short descriptors of the fan favorite. The responses I received included "imposing physical tight end," "who?" and "baby Gronk," the last of which has inspired another nickname spoken at Gillette: Gronkflower. The similarities to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski go beyond the name, size, position, jersey number, and home stadium. Blanch is an integral part of the UMass offensive attack, simultaneously being one of their best run blockers and one of their best receivers.
The Leominster, Massachusetts native came into the 2012 season as a redshirt junior with only 39 career receptions. Despite this, it was understood that if UMass was going to have any success, Blanchflower would have to play a large role in the offense. He was one of the few players on the team who was universally seen as "FBS-ready" due to his size and skill, and he worked hard to prove that both he and the team belonged on the next level of college football.
In what was his best season by far, Blanchflower hauled in 43 catches (second on the team) for 464 yards and two touchdowns, including a 10 catch, 100-yard performance against Central Michigan. Two touchdowns may not seem like a lot, but it's a pretty solid percentage of the nine total that were thrown by UMass quarterbacks. Add onto that his blocking consistency in the run game, and it makes sense when frequent Hustle Belt commenter HomelessJerry calls him a "refreshing breath of offensive competence."
But it was in the locker room that Blanchflower made the biggest impact. He was often cited as one of the most hard-working and determined players in the weight room and on the practice field, and is by all accounts a great leader. This has led to Blanchflower being named a team captain for 2013 by coach Charley Molnar, who in the past has forgone handing out season-long captaincy in favor of honoring players on a weekly basis.
Nothing but good things seem to be on the horizon for Blanchflower, as he now leads a UMass team into their second season in the bigs. His attitude, demeanor, and dedication to the team should help as UMass looks to make big improvements over last year. Look for him to yet again be an integral part of the aerial attack, and to show up on an All-MAC team by season's end. Yeah, I said it. Go get em, Blanch.