Like most in the Virginia Beach area, Jon White knew the kind of talent he would have at his disposal when Quin Blanding went out for the Bayside (Va.) High team five years ago. Blanding’s father, Kevin, had been a star running back there in the 1980s, so there was plenty of buzz surrounding Quin when he showed up. So White tested the touted newcomer the way he did so many others: by seeing how physical he could be as a freshman.
White was pleasantly surprised.
"The most impressive thing that he did his freshman year was his blocking at tight end," the Bayside head coach said. "Now at no point in time did we say: 'OK, this guy is going to be a top-notch tight end.' But it was just how effective he did it. You want to know who he was blocking like crazy his freshman year? [Former Virginia end] Eli Harold. He was blocking the hell out of him."
"There are certain things he's supposed to do as a safety," White later added. "Coming downhill in the alley, the ball's tossed up there, you're supposed to make that play; it looks like a great play for a highlight, but that's what you're supposed to do. But when you see a guy that is primarily a safety line up at tight end, get in the three-point stance and is effectively getting his hips to the side and really turning that D-end out and also tipping him every time? That was the most impressive thing."
Those tight end days are a distant memory at Virginia now that Blanding has delivered on the high school hype the way so few do as college freshmen: The former five-star prospect finished second in the ACC in tackles (123), picked off a team-high three passes, earned ACC defensive rookie of the year honors and was named to several freshman All-America teams.
To ensure an encore, and to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, Blanding was proactive this offseason. He studied film more closely, analyzing not just his responsibilities, but those of others on the defense. He looked around this spring, saw a unit that lost four former all-league performers, and recognized that his responsibilities would grow. He became more vocal. He was named to the Cavaliers' leadership council for the 2015 season.
"I played my role last year, and it was learning the defense as I went on with Ant [safety Anthony Harris] back there, [linebacker] Henry Coley," Blanding said, "and during this offseason, in the spring, I really sat down and I started learning everything back all over, and just kept adding from what I learned already and just kept moving forward and forward and knowing the defense, knowing where everybody's supposed to go and what kind of role I'm going to have to take on this year with the rest of my teammates."
Added Hoos senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, a former prep teammate of Blanding's: "He's understanding even more of the game than he did last year. It's funny, last year he was only a freshman making plays that he made and understanding the game in the way he did. This year he's going to have a year of experience under his belt, he's going to know what it's like playing college football, and it's going to be even better than last year."
As difficult as it might be to believe based on his rookie numbers, Blanding insists he went through a big adjustment period when making the move from high school to college. Yes, he was ESPN's top-ranked safety, and its No. 10 overall player from the 2014 recruiting class, but the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder struggled to stick to the playbook after becoming accustomed to making plays on the fly as a high school player who was bigger and faster than his opponents.
To speed up the learning curve, Blanding leaned on Harris, the fellow Virginia safety who was coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him lead the nation in interceptions (eight), and who had said getting to work with Blanding was part of the reason he returned for his senior year last fall. (Harris signed with the Minnesota Vikings this spring as an undrafted free agent.)
"To have somebody like him here, to come in as a freshman and learn the basics off a veteran guy that played it, that did it, that was an All-American, that did all that stuff as well, just to learn off of him and just take it to my game and put it to my game, it was a good thing," Blanding said. "I learned from him and we learned from each other, and we just keep building that relationship with each other."
Blanding enters his sophomore season on the brink of stardom, and with that comes a chance to validate Virginia football and, more specifically, the head coach he committed to. Blanding was Mike London's first pledge for the 2014 class, and he stuck with the Hoos despite their 2-10 record in 2013. A 5-7 mark last season extended the London era at least another year, but plenty of departures and a daunting schedule -- UCLA, Notre Dame and Boise State are highlights of the nonconference slate -- seemingly sets up a make-or-break season this fall.
An aspiring social worker or guidance counselor, Blanding feels a sense of loyalty to London, a former police officer who fosters a program that Blanding said allows him to "surround myself with good people," something he and his teammates will happily stand for in the face of uncertainty.
"I mean, we always talk about: Who do we play for here?" Blanding said. "We know at the end of the day, we've got to go out there and play. Whatever the people got to say, that's what they've got to say. We're going to stick to what's here and what we know. Only we know the truth here, and that's what we're going to play for. We just go out and play as one unit and play who we play for."