This time last summer, former University of Wisconsin-Whitewater quarterback Matt Blanchard fought to make the Chicago Bears' roster. His time in the Windy City was shortened, however, as a fractured knuckle on his left hand in a preseason game against the San Diego Chargers ultimately led to the team waiving him in an injury settlement later that month.
Two months later, he found a home on the Carolina Panthers' practice squad for the last nine regular-season games and the Panthers' home playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. Signed by Carolina again in early January, Blanchard looks to take advantage of increased reps during spring and summer minicamps to solidify a roster spot for the 2014 season.
Though not at the frequency of many Division I athletes, it's not uncommon for Division III football players to find homes in the NFL. Standout wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts III, playing for the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, and Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers spent their collegiate careers at Mount Union -- Whitewater's main rival.
Former Warhawks have made it to the next level, as well. Longtime punter Matt Turk played for 16 seasons in the NFL, most recently for the Houston Texans in 2011. Wide receiver Derek Stanley played three seasons for the St. Louis Rams from 2007-09, while Jeff Jagodzinski has coached for almost 30 seasons, including stops with the Green Bay Packers and Boston College.
Blanchard actually started his collegiate career at Division II program Northern Michigan. After a year with the Wildcats, he realized the football program wasn't heading in a direction he wanted to be a part of. He contacted both Mount Union and Whitewater about transferring.
It was a tough decision for Blanchard to pick between the two Division III powerhouses. His brother, Derek, played previously for Mount Union and the family knew the program and its coaches well. Yet after visiting the Whitewater campus and Perkins Stadium, watching the practices head coach Lance Leipold conducted and knowing he'd have the chance to start for two seasons, he contacted the coaches at Mount Union and told them he would attend Whitewater.
"I just felt like [with] Whitewater, the trend was gonna continue to go up and I wanted to be a part of it," Blanchard said in a phone interview.
On the field, Blanchard acclimated to a new attitude. While playing for the Wildcats, animosity was apparent in the Northern Michigan locker room but not within the Warhawks. Under Leipold and his staff, which had won the program's first-ever Division III national championship in 2007 after taking over for legendary head coach Bob Berezowitz, there were healthy competitions for playing time with players supporting each other.
This sense of camaraderie and healthy competition, according to Blanchard, was forged by the players playing for one of the larger D-III schools -- with around 11,000 students enrolled -- but entrenched within a small town of only about 14,000, according to the 2010 U.S. census.
"The one thing I noticed right away when I got there was everybody was competitive," Blanchard said.
"Everybody made the competition enjoyable. It was an environment where competition was very prevalent but everybody was there for the right reasons and was competing on the right terms, if that makes sense."
Blanchard was a two-year starter at Whitewater and led the Warhawks to two of their three consecutive national championships as the starting quarterback. During his three seasons there, the program never lost a game in 45 contests.
He was a two-time first-team All-Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference selection in 2010-11. He started 25 games during his Warhawks career, throwing for 2,132 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2010, and 2,852 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2011.
Blanchard noted the tradition of winning and the caliber of talent that came into the program during his time there, but also how the players bought into Leipold and his staff's message.
"You get a lot of players -- everyone who comes in -- who just buy into everything that's going on there, and it's easy to," Blanchard said.
"It's not a hard sell by any means, but coach Leipold brings that discipline day in and day out."
As the 6'3, 225-pound quarterback prepares to fight for a backup spot on the Panthers' roster with Derek Anderson and former Minnesota Viking Joe Webb, he knows the work ethic instilled in him at Whitewater has helped drive him to become a better player. The Division III football schedule, with its playoff format, allowed him to play nearly as many games as a standard NFL season, which helped him adapt to the rigors of the professional game.
"There's a lot that goes into a season," Blanchard said. "There's a lot that goes into training camp practice, and everything that goes on, you've got to be ready for it mentally and physically. We had long seasons at Whitewater because we played 15 games a year, so it just kind of carried over into the NFL, so you just put your head down and grind everyday."
The grind continues now in Carolina's first full week of practice in training camp. Even before summer training camp, Blanchard has put in extra work. He and star quarterback Cam Newton threw with wide receivers a week before training camp started in Greensboro, North Carolina, to help build better chemistry between the position groups.
Even before that, Blanchard had opportunities to hone his game during team minicamp and organized team activities as Newton recovered from March surgery on his left ankle. Receiving reps in place of Newton allowed him to show his skill set and grow from his mistakes.
Among some of the adjustments Blanchard has made since those camps are working to play faster and play in rhythm. Blanchard knows doing that consistently and being accurate in order to move the football will win games -- and a roster spot.
He's used those previous practices as building blocks heading into the long training camp and upcoming preseason games. The work ethic he acquired as a Warhawk has allowed him to develop further, which he hopes will keep him in Carolina and the NFL.
"I think when I left Whitewater, I still had some potential left to be tapped," Blanchard said. "I think I'm just reaching into that now, which is the exciting part, but I wouldn't have gotten there without that authentic work ethic that was established at Whitewater."