Rookie cornerback Blackmon bet on himself, and the Vikings did, too

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Vikings rookie cornerback Mekhi Blackmon can count on one hand the reasons he didn't quit on his dreams.

"Other than Davante Adams, Nahshon Wright and KeeSean Johnson," Blackmon said Friday after his first Vikings practice, "not really too many people made it out. Slowly but surely, more and more are coming."

Before arriving in Minnesota, Blackmon took one of the longest roads possible in football, one that began in south Bay Area communities in California that hang tightly to hope amid poverty and crime. He left home after high school without a scholarship and played on three college teams for five head coaches over six seasons. He turned heads along the way, though, and became the Vikings' third-round selection (102nd overall) in last month's NFL draft.

He was an unranked recruit back in East Palo Alto, Calif., the same hometown as Adams, the former Packers star receiver now with the Raiders. Now as a rookie in purple, Blackmon wants to continue his ascension and become the latest example for young athletes back home by living up to his ball-hawking potential.

"That was always the plan between everyone that grew up where we come from," said Johnson, the Bills receiver and Blackmon's cousin. "There's a lot of people that had a plan but got distracted along the way.

"We're trying to make our city proud. We're trying to make everyone proud and continue to lead the way and show the kids that it's possible."

The possibilities for Blackmon could become clear immediately in Minnesota. The Vikings need mature rookies ready to help immediately, especially at cornerback, where only two contributors — Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans — returned from last year.

Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah praised Blackmon's "natural" feel for tracking, deflecting and catching — ball skills coveted by the Vikings when searching for versatile defensive backs for new coordinator Brian Flores.

One of Blackmon's three interceptions for Southern California last fall stood out: on a fourth-and-goal situation against Stanford, the 5-11 Blackmon tipped and corralled a jump ball lobbed to 6-3 receiver.

"There's a skill to knowing when to look at the ball," Adofo-Mensah said. "Not everybody has it. He does."

Donte Williams, Blackmon's position coach last fall, said the Vikings are getting a "grown man off the field" who forms tight relationships with people and sticky coverage with receivers.

During his lone USC season, Blackmon established a routine for breaking down the defensive huddle. Without being told to this spring, younger Trojans continued Blackmon's same huddle breakdown even though he wasn't there.

"For them to still be doing that when I'm gone," Blackmon said. "I feel like they trusted me a lot. I still talk to those guys, still in group chat with them today. They told me once I got drafted, I was going to get kicked out, but I'm still in it."

'One of a few'

Adhir Ravipati, Blackmon's former head coach at Menlo-Atherton High School, remembered a skinny and "squirrely" teenager arriving in his junior year. Blackmon had to sit out that high school season because he transferred, softening any interest from college coaches.

"Everything happens for a reason," Blackmon said. "Who knows, maybe if I would've stayed there I wouldn't be in these shoes today. Maybe sitting is what helped me, made me a little hungrier, probably. I wouldn't change anything I did."

Blackmon's lone season for Menlo-Atherton ended in the school's first state title game appearance in December 2016. But college recruiters told Ravipati that his top receiver and cornerback wasn't big or fast enough. His only offer: a preferred walk-on to an FCS school.

"He carries that chip on his shoulder every time he plays," Ravipati said. "That kid doesn't back down from anybody. He has the right type of confidence and swagger. He pours that confidence into his teammates."

Blackmon chose to prove himself in junior college, enrolling at the College of San Mateo. He helped lead the Bulldogs to a program-record 11 wins.

Two other players from Blackmon's city are finding success in football. Running back Jordan Mims, his close friend and Menlo-Atherton teammate, starred at Fresno State and signed as an undrafted free agent with the Bills. Oregon receiver Troy Franklin, whom Blackmon mentored at a nearby Boys & Girls Club, had 891 receiving yards and nine touchdowns for the Ducks last fall.

These young men want to inspire.

"It's a rough area with poverty and gang violence," Ravipati said. "A lot of things there for a young man that can be negative influences, and sports can be a way out."

Blackmon, 24, knows he's fortunate.

"Man, it's real big," Blackmon said. "I always tell people it's rare to come out of situations like I did, especially in our area. Now we're starting to get more respect in a football sense, but I'd say I'm one of a few to really come out here and do this."

Betting on Blackmon

The Tennessee Volunteers sniffed around, but Blackmon said he took his first offer when the Colorado Buffaloes jumped to sign the junior college transfer in 2018. Blackmon was one of the program's only mainstays while Colorado sifted through three head coaches.

By his last year in Boulder in 2021, Blackmon was a building block as one of four team captains and a versatile defender aligning as an outside and slot cornerback. He physically grew, too, as the thin defender added 10 pounds (he's listed at 178 now).

Upon completing his undergraduate degree, Blackmon said he saw a natural time to find a springboard — the USC Trojans — for the NFL.

Williams, the Trojans defensive backs coach, pursued Blackmon in the transfer portal, landing his top cornerback for the 2022 season. Williams began to trust Blackmon's outspoken confidence and often bet on his ability to handle receivers alone in man-to-man coverage.

Seeing the one-on-one matchup, teams kept throwing at Blackmon. Only six Pac-12 corners were targeted more last season, and only three other cornerbacks allowed a stingier catch rate than Blackmon (49.2%), per Pro Football Focus. Few were penalized as often as Blackmon, too; he drew seven flags while deflecting a career-high 12 passes as an All-Pac-12 selection.

"We put him in honestly maybe not the best situations," Williams said. "We rolled the coverage away from him. ... Sometimes when they went to his guy three plays in a row, we still rolled the coverage away on play four."

"Our money," Williams added, "was always on him."