Cantu’s Oregon career a cautionary tale in the recruiting hype

FishDuck Staff FishWrap, FishWrap Archive

He tore the labrum in the third week of summer workouts in 2008, getting tangled up with a safety. It was never completely right after that. He greyshirted that year, enrolled Winter Term of 2009. He shined in Spring Practice, nabbing three balls for 111 yards in the 2009 Spring Game. One of Oregon’s first recruits from Texas along with LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, the future looked bright. The recruiting websites listed him with 4.48 speed in the 40, good size at 6-0, 190, getting picked for the UnderArmour All-American Game his senior year.

His high school team won a state title his junior year, in Texas where high school football is a big deal. The message boards went crazy over a catch he made as a sophomore, one-handed in the back of the end zone from Joe Mauro, the quarterback at Bell. “Greatest catch since Dez Bryant,” one of the posters raved. He was 6-5A sophomore of the year.  The boards went crazy again, when they got wind of his transfer to South Lake Carroll.  As a junior, the favorite target of the coaches’ son, Riley Dodge, he caught 80 balls for 1283 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was disciplined and smooth, a guy who would go over the middle.

Don’t call Blake Cantu a bust. Bust is a term best saved for multi-million dollar projects and grown men. Call 3-D movies a bust, or the Presidency of the other party’s candidate, but don’t put the term on a 21-year-old. For him, a dream destroyed is a dream redefined. Maybe he’ll play baseball or become an accomplished economist. Maybe he’ll marry a pretty girl from his neighborhood, make a good living in real estate, and be the proud father of two handsome little boys. There are a thousand routes to success for a 21-year-old man. Football is only one of them.

Before the collision on the grass practice fields that summer, running a route over the middle like he’d always done, Blake Cantu’s football career had all the promise in the world. He was a high school star on one of the most storied programs in Texas, a place that’s part of the legend of the Friday Night Lights, where Chase Daniel went to school, and Greg McElroy, where they churn out D-1 recruits by the carload.  A wall at the 50,000-seat stadium is covered with league, district and state titles, and some of the playoff games were played at Texas Stadium.

As a senior Cantu caught another 70 balls for 877 yards and 6 touchdowns. In one game, operating out of spread offense like Oregon, he had 223 yards receiving and 3 scores. The scouting services gave him three or four stars, but that didn’t matter, because Chip Kelly liked him, recruiting in Texas as Oregon’s offensive coordinator. said, “Cantu is the ultimate do-it-all, catch-it-all possession receiver with great hands and sharp route-running skills. He reminds us of the great BYU receivers in the early 1990s. Not the fastest or quickest, but he is a productive son of a gun. He is a hard worker with great competitiveness.”

The competitiveness was honed in a Southlake Carroll program surrounded by million-dollar homes, where the football team has won seven state championships, and the motto is “Protect the Tradition.”

In 2008, the year Blake signed his letter of intent, Forbes magazine named Southlake, a suburb of Dallas-Ft. Worth, the most affluent neighborhood in the United States.  It’s the headquarters of Travelocity and Gateway Church, a place where people expect success, and talented kids are groomed for it.  His senior year, Cantu told Christopher Lyke of Texas High School Football:

“Since my freshman year I have learned the importance of hard work and dedication. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” notes Cantu. “My workouts consist of four days a week of getting up at six in the morning and heading to the school to workout with my teammates. I put a lot of emphasis into agility and conditioning so I can be in top shape for our high tempo offense. Sometimes I will go to 24 hour fitness later in the day and hit the weights.”

“I think I am a very physical receiver, my route running skills and quickness allow me to get separation from the defense to make the play,” says Cantu. “I think my greatest strength is that I always want the ball in clutch situations and that I will catch the ball over the middle with no fear. A few things I am working on are blocking and becoming more of a deep threat.”

“I am looking forward to my senior year because it is a chance for me to step up and really be a leader and to help “Protect the Tradition”, notes Cantu. “We expect our offense to put up some big number since we have eight returning starters. Our defense matured a lot during the spring and I have a lot of confidence that they can fill the big shoes of last years defense. Our overall team goal is to have another perfect season.”

The Dragons went 11-2 Blake’s senior year, losing to Abilene 22-21 in the regional semi-finals. They led 14-7 when Dodge got knocked out of the game in the second quarter. Their senior leader was crisp that day, a perfect 8-8 for 126 yards when he came out. Kyle Padro, a freshman, had to take over. He’d never thrown a pass in a varsity game. Football is a game of breaks, good and bad. The same thing could happen to Marcus Mariota this season, like it once happened to Darron Thomas. Go in, kid. You’re all we’ve got. Padron did his best, throwing twelve short completions for 79 yards on nineteen attempts, but Abilene scored thirteen unanswered points in the third quarter to advance.

It was the first football disappointment of Blake Cantu’s career. Against Rockwall earlier in the season he’d had the 200-yard game and three touchdowns to pace a 49-42 win. He was Dodge’s favorite target, but against Abilene South Lake’s quarterbacks only got him the ball five times, for 33 yards. The loss was bitter. Losses usually are, especially in Texas.

In January Cantu went to the All-America game and in February he signed his letter of intent, in a class that included Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James, Darron Thomas and John Boyett. Riley Dodge, who’d been offered a scholarship by the Texas Longhorns, signed instead to play for his father Todd at North Texas, thinking at 5-11 he’d have a better chance to play at the smaller school, playing for his dad, who was also the father of the Air Raid offense. That didn’t work out either.  Riley hurt his arm and got moved to receiver. Todd Dodge, despite all his success as a Texas high school coach, was fired halfway through the 2010 season with a 6-37 record. Every football dream dies. It’s just a question of when.

Blake reported for summer school with the rest of the freshman, and in June he hurt the shoulder. He had the surgery and the coaches sold him on grayshirting. The arm was in a sling for six weeks, and Cantu, always diligent in the training room, started a light rehab schedule. By last winter he could bench 295 lbs., second among the receivers.

But the shoulder never stayed right. He would bang it up again and have to sit out, missing opportunities to make an impression. He got healthiest in the spring of 2009, working his way up the depth chart, and grabbed three passes for 111 yards, tops among all receivers. His name lighted up the message boards again. He’s got good size and speed, people said. Look out for Cantu, he could be the deep threat opposite Maehl.

But that fall and again the next fall he was back in a red jersey. He seemed to making progress in August of 2010, when Rob Moseley wrote,

“The Ducks were on their grass practice fields this afternoon for a practice in full pads, their second of the day and ninth of fall camp. The quarterbacks: My impression was that Nate Costa got more time than Darron Thomas with the ones this afternoon, but that both played a part in an outstanding practice for the passing game. Lavasier Tuinei and Blake Cantu also played a big role as the offense seemed to have a lot of success through the air.”

Just a few days later, though, on August 23rd, John Hunt of the Oregonian had to relay a different story:

Receiver Blake Cantu spent Monday afternoon’s practice on the sideline, his right arm in a sling.

Cantu suffered the injury in the morning practice on Monday’s two-a-day, and this is a recurring problem. The redshirt freshman, who arrived in 2008 but delayed enrollment until

2009 because of a pre-existing shoulder injury, also was hampered this spring by a shoulder injury.

Cantu, a sturdy 6-foot, 193-pounder from Southlake Carroll (Texas) had been fairly impressive this fall and was in the mix at backup receiver behind starters Jeff Maehl, D.J. Davis and Lavasier Tuinei.

He got in three games that fall but didn’t catch a pass.  The pattern continued through his redshirt freshmen season and again this spring and fall. Blake would look good, make some plays, and then take another shot to the shoulder. It’s a collision sport, unforgiving. The closest he got to college football glory was running out of the tunnel in uniform.

Blake Cantu was a promising prospect with good measurables, a terrific work ethic and a strong, positive family structure. He was rated the 92nd receiver out of a quarter million high school football players. Don’t call him a bust. College football hasn’t worked out for him, but the rest of his future isn’t written.

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