At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Matt Blanchard certainly looks the part of an NFL quarterback.
In his senior college season, he completed almost 69 percent of his passes for 2,852 yards and 23 touchdowns, with just four interceptions. Never mind that he played for Division-III Wisconsin-Whitewater; those are huge numbers anywhere.
At his NFL Pro Day, he showed enough athleticism (4.69 seconds in the 40-yard dash) to earn an invitation to mini-camp. Now he’s on the 90-man roster at Bears training camp, battling to become…the backup’s backup.
And how sweet that would be.
Blanchard didn’t start playing football until his freshman year at Lake Zurich High School. Despite leading those Bears to an Illinois Class 7A state champion in 2007, he wasn’t a highly-coveted prospect by colleges. He ended up accepting a partial scholarship to Northern Michigan University, before eventually transferring to Wisconsin-Whitewater. As a D-III athlete, Blanchard wasn’t exactly keeping an eye on his draft stock, but he learned how to win. As a junior and senior at Whitewater, Blanchard led the Warhawks to national championships over rival Mount Union College, and coming into the NFL as a winner is something that he feels gives him a leg up.
“I had a lot of success in college, and we, as a team, had a lot of success at Wisconsin-Whitewater. Being part of a winning program, you pick up a lot of stuff on how to carry yourself,” he said.
UW-Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold has seen Matt Blanchard play more football than anyone over the past few seasons, and he admits that he may be a little biased in his evaluation. After all, Blanchard did lead the coach to back-to-back national championships.
“I’m not gonna try to tell (the Bears) how to go about their business, but when I look at Matt I see a guy whose best football is still ahead of him,” Leipold said. “He’s self-motivated and he is just as hard on himself as any coach would be, and those are the type of intangibles you want in a quarterback. If you look at his touchdown-interception ratio with us (44:5 during his two years as a starter at UW-Whitewater), you know he is capable of managing a game.”
It would have been a substantial accomplishment for any D-IIIer, but it was especially big for Blanchard, a lifelong Bears fan. “This whole process ever since the Bears picked me up has been incredible,” he said. “Being my hometown team, and having my friends and family so close has been a real blessing,”
And he’s not the only one enjoying it.
“It’s been extremely exciting for all (of Matt’s family) to see him out there in a Bears uniform,” said his mother Peggy, who is the director of economic and community development for the Village of Barrington. “We were able to get out there and see him at practice (in Bourbonnais) and that’s when it became really real. That was the first time we got to see him because all the mini-camps were closed to the public, so it was special. The Bears have always been a family-oriented organization and Matt has always been a family-oriented guy.”
However, Blanchard has no plans of settling for a cup of coffee. On the past few Sundays, Blanchard has been giving the opportunity to show off his ability in full-contact team scrimmages for third and fourth-string guys at the end of practice, and he knows that those valued practice reps will be his best time to stand out.
“(Those reps) are really big,” Blanchard said. “I gotta make the most of ‘em. I know that. That creates a lot of pressure, but it’s something that I enjoy.”
So far, Blanchard has made the most of those reps, showing impressive accuracy.
“This couldn’t be a better quarterback group for me to absorb and learn from,” he said. “I feel comfortable with my physical abilities, but now it’s about speeding it up mentally. But I think I’m a cerebral quarterback. I love the whole X’s and O’s aspect of the game—trying to manipulate defenses and trying to figure out the best way to attack.”
For Coach Leipold and several NFL scouts, Matt’s physical skills certainly aren’t screaming D-III, and he’s got the talent to match his mental acuity.
“When scouts came through, one of the things they noticed was that Matt’s arm strength was on par with where he is at right now (an NFL camp.) Obviously time will tell as he progresses through camp if he belongs, but he’s shown thus far that he is up to par physically,” he said.
With Cutler at the helm and recently signed backup Jason Campbell, a 70-time starter in the NFL, the clear cut No. 2 on the depth chart, Blanchard’s hopes of making the roster may be contingent on the performance of former starter Josh McCown. It’s a long shot, probably.
McCown, a ten-year veteran and graduate of Sam Houston State, is familiar with the transition from lower-level college ball to the NFL.
“It is a little different,” McCown said. “I mean everyone knows about the speed, but at the same time, the guys you are throwing to and the guys you’re throwing against are all the same speed now. It’s not like, as a quarterback, you’ve got D-III receivers and you’re going up against D-I defensive backs. When you put that in perspective, once you get caught up to the general speed and get adjusted, it’s not that bad.”
Some people are counting Blanchard out once again. And, quite frankly, he is counting on that.
“No question,” the 23-year-old says when asked about that shoulder chip. “You feel like you’re constantly trying to prove yourself. Yeah, that chip is big. It’s that fighter mentality inside you that makes you want to be great.”
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RYAN WOODEN is a freelance sportswriter. His work has been featured on several national websites, and he currently works as a correspondent for the Morris Daily Herald. You can follow him on Twitter @ryan_wooden.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo courtesy Ryan Wooden; in-game Bears photo courtesy Bill Smith/Chicago Bears.