NCF Nation: Quin Blanding

Quin Blanding heard the talk nearly every day.

He was a five-star recruit. He could have played anywhere. But he wanted to play for a team that didn’t win a game in the ACC a year ago, for coaches whose job security was the source of constant rumors.

"I had people every day asking why I was going to Virginia," Blanding said. "But I knew I couldn’t let them distract me from what I wanted to do."

The pitch against Virginia was easy, but Blanding had gotten the behind-the-scenes tutorial on what the Cavaliers were building on defense, and he was intrigued.

[+] EnlargeQuin Blanding
AP Photo/Steve HelberLed by safety Quin Blanding, Virginia's defense has been stellar during the team's surprising start.
The 6-foot-4 safety from Virginia Beach would make the trip to Charlottesville regularly to talk with the players. He grew close with star safety Anthony Harris, and he learned the ropes. He heard the sales pitch for Mike London’s program -- not from the coaches, but from the players who saw a team on the brink of something special.

The knocks against Virginia were easy to ignore, Blanding said. Being a part of a team -- and in particular, a defense -- that was about to take a big step forward was an opportunity too good to pass up.

"That was exactly the message," Blanding said. "Time would tell, and it was our time now."

Last season, Virginia won just two games and was 0-8 in the ACC. That’s a fact, but it’s not something that gets talked about much.

This season, the Hoos (4-2, 2-0) are the only Coastal Division team without an ACC loss. That’s the only fact Virginia is focused on now.

"We know we didn’t perform well last year as a team, but we believed each year is a new year," Harris said. "We worked hard in the offseason to get better as a team so we could go out on Saturdays and show our record last year doesn’t reflect our level of talent."

That level of talent is impressive. Henry Coley and Eli Harold both rank in the top four in the ACC in sacks. David Dean, Max Valles and Daquan Romero have developed into versatile, disruptive forces. And in the back end, Harris has led a veteran group that has tormented opposing quarterbacks, while Blanding has quickly developed into a star. The true freshman currently leads the ACC in tackles, including racking up 28 in his past two games.

"Right away I could tell [Blanding] was a really bright guy and has a lot of knowledge about the game," Harris said of his fellow safety. "Physically, if you look at him, he’s a guy who could come in and contribute. So the big thing was just how fast he could pick up on the defense. With his football IQ, he’s done a very good job on that, and it’s shown in how he gets to the football and makes a lot of plays for us."

The early success in 2014 has been encouraging, but not a surprise.

Whether it was during Blanding’s recruitment or the long offseason following a frustrating season, Virginia’s players understood that the pieces were in place to create a winner, and they talked often about overcoming those small obstacles that had kept the unit from coalescing.

"Each year we bring in a lot of talented guys," Harris said. "Fitting it all together and making it work, for the last few years we hadn’t been able to do it, but we knew it was there."

In a way, that brutal 2013 was exactly what sold Blanding on the program, and it’s exactly what the veterans of the group needed to turn the corner.

"Sometimes it takes a team to really go through something before you can really find out how everybody fits into the puzzle, how to work through certain things," Harris said. "Trying to get over the hump, it’s just one or two plays that’s the difference. Some of the adversity we’ve faced the last few years, we really learned from and we’ve really been able to grow."

On Saturday, Virginia travels to Duke in a game that could put the Cavaliers squarely in the driver’s seat in the Coastal. That is a possibility that sounded absurd to so many outside the program two months ago, but for those who had seen blueprint being drawn, it’s exactly where they expected to be.

"We feel like there are a lot of guys who have matured and grown a lot, and we’re speaking up and setting high expectations for the team," Harris said. "We feel like if we’re all bought in and have the same goal, we’ll be able to get it done."

ACC midseason overview

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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It's the midpoint for the ACC, and in a lot of ways, things aren't too much different from a year ago.

Florida State is the league's lone hope for the playoff, and while the Seminoles are riding high at 6-0, plenty of questions remain both on and off the field, starting with this week's showdown against No. 5 Notre Dame.

In the Coastal, things are as wild as ever. Virginia leads the way, but each time a new favorite has emerged, it has faltered a week later.

There have been some big wins -- Virginia Tech over Ohio State, Boston College over USC -- and some major disappointments (we're looking at you, Pitt and North Carolina). Established stars like Duke Johnson and Jameis Winston have looked good, if not Heisman quality, while new arrivals like Jacoby Brissett and Deshaun Watson have turned in some of the season's finest performances.

But if there's much to be said about the ACC's first half in 2014, it's that it will serve as a worthy prologue for most teams only if the latter half of the season develops as planned. So much of what we thought we knew went out the window quickly, and so much of the story of the season is yet to be written. Florida State's playoff hopes remain, but so, too, do some significant hurdles. Clemson's season unraveled with September losses to two top-10 teams, but perhaps Watson can lead the Tigers to a long-awaited win over South Carolina at year's end. Virginia Tech has been up and down, but Frank Beamer has so much young talent developing that the Hokies can be excited about the future. Mike London has gone from the hot seat to potential division favorite if his team can hang on to its early momentum.

In other words, the silver linings haven't always been easy to find this season in the ACC, but, as so often seems to be the case in this league, there's hope that the rest of this year's storylines will be better.

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
Rob Kinnan/USA Today SportsRashad Greene has amassed almost 700 receiving yards halfway through the season.
Offensive MVP: Florida State receiver Rashad Greene. It's been a rockier start to the season than the defending champions might've hoped, but the one consistent piece throughout the first six games of the year has been Greene. He has 130 more receiving yards than anyone else in the conference. He set the school record for receptions against Syracuse, bringing his career total to 215. He's topped 100 yards in four of his five games against FBS foes despite being the only consistent threat in the Seminoles' passing game. And most importantly, his performances against Oklahoma State, Clemson and NC State were the biggest difference between an FSU team that's scuffling at 3-3 or headed toward the playoff at 6-0.

Defensive MVP: Louisville safety Gerod Holliman. There are plenty of quality candidates for the honor, many of them on Holliman's own defense, but he gets the nod based on the sheer ridiculousness of his seven picks through seven games. A year ago, only one player in the nation had more than seven interceptions for the entire season, but Holliman has continued to rack up the takeaways as his defensive front punishes opposing quarterbacks. Overall, Louisville's defense has been on the field for 93 drives against FBS foes. Fifteen resulted in points. Sixteen resulted in turnovers, including seven that ended up in the hands of Louisville's sophomore safety.

Biggest surprise: Virginia's strong start. When the preseason prognosticators got together, the only Coastal Division team that didn't earn a first-place vote was Virginia. Midway through the season, however, it's the Cavaliers atop the Coastal. Chalk it up to a terrific defense, led by Henry Coley (6 sacks), Eli Harold (5.5 sacks) and freshman Quin Blanding (ACC-leading 61 tackles). Meanwhile, London's crew has navigated a quarterback carousel to find an offense that's developing each week. A team that was once the consensus cellar dweller is the lone Coastal player without a loss in conference play.

Biggest disappointment: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are 2-4, but they've trailed in every game they've played this season. They were torched by ECU in one of the most atrocious defensive performances in recent memory, then were lit up for six touchdown passes by a true freshman making his first career start a week later. A game performance against Notre Dame last week at least offers some optimism that a turnaround similar to 2013 is possible, but it's been another rough start for UNC.

Newcomer of the year: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. The freshman opened the season as Cole Stoudt's backup but won the starting job after a stellar performance against Florida State. He looked poised and precise and ran Chad Morris' offense with ease through the next few games, leading the nation in QBR in the process. But a broken finger suffered against Louisville has doomed Watson to the sidelines for at least the next three to four weeks, meaning a few other newcomers -- Blanding, Miami's Brad Kaaya, Virginia Tech's Isaiah Ford and NC State's Jacoby Brissett (a transfer) -- still have a chance to take this award by year's end.

Best coach: FSU's Jimbo Fisher. He probably doesn't get the credit he deserves because he clearly has the league's most talented team, but through all the trials and tribulations of the past year, Fisher has directed the Seminoles to 22 straight wins. He's kept an even keel for a team replacing a host of departed NFL talent, he's overseen a win against Clemson with his backup quarterback, and he's kept the wolves at bay despite nearly constant controversy.

Best game: Florida State 23, Clemson 17. Winston was suspended, and that would've been enough drama on its own to make this the game of the year so far. But there was so much more. Watson's emergence in a hostile environment was exciting. The resilience of Sean Maguire, Winston's backup, in spite of early struggles was impressive. His touchdown pass to Greene to tie the game late was dramatic. Eddie Goldman's forced fumble to keep Clemson out of the end zone in the final minutes was miraculous. And, of course, Florida State's win in overtime kept the ACC alive for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Best games of the second half: Notre Dame at Florida State this week will be the pinnacle of the ACC's remaining slate, and it likely defines the season for both top-five teams. But beyond that matchup, a few more intriguing battles remain, including the Seminoles' trip to Louisville (Oct. 30), Duke and Virginia Tech in a potential division-defining battle on Nov. 15, and, of course, the annual state championship between Clemson and South Carolina to close out the regular season.

Virginia Cavaliers season preview

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Virginia Cavaliers:

Key returners: RB Kevin Parks, RB Taquan Mizzell, S Anthony Harris, DE Eli Harold, LB Henry Coley

Key losses: TE Jake McGee, OT Morgan Moses, DE Jake Snyder, DT Brent Urban

Most important 2014 games: UCLA, Aug. 30; Miami, Nov. 22; at Virginia Tech, Nov. 28

Projected win percentage: 37 percent

Over/under Vegas odds: 3

[+] EnlargeKevin Parks
AP Photo/Andrew ShurtleffRunning back Kevin Parks is among the few proven performers Virginia returns on offense.
Instant impact newcomers: Defensive tackle Andrew Brown and safety Quin Blanding. There is little doubt that the two highest-rated players in the 2014 signing class will play for the Cavs this season. Brown has had a little setback in dealing with a turf toe injury that has bothered him since the spring. But when he is healthy, he will be a contributor on a defensive line that needs depth at tackle. Blanding has been working with the first-team defense since spring practice opened. By all accounts, he is as good as advertised.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Greyson Lambert brings consistency to the quarterback position, allowing the offense to flourish. The defense improves on the gains it made from a season ago, and the Hoos cut down on penalties and turnovers. Parks turns in another 1,000-yard season, and playmaker receivers emerge to help Virginia pull several upsets, end a long losing streak to rival Virginia Tech, make a bowl and become the surprise team in the ACC.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: Quarterback remains an issue behind Lambert, and the offensive line fails to gain any cohesion. Without any stability up front or behind Lambert, Virginia continues to struggle to move the ball and score points. Defensively, Virginia continues to give up too many big plays. One of the toughest schedules in the ACC does the Cavaliers no favors, and they sink to their third straight losing season.

They said it: "The identity is one of unity. You can talk about, well, how does that happen? Last year, we had four seniors. This year, we have 22. There's a maturation process that takes place when you have teams that are looking for leaders, that are looking for an identity. … The expectations of performing are paramount for us." -- coach Mike London.

Biggest question mark: How much time do we have? Outside of Parks, the entire offense remains a question mark. The offensive line has not been solidified yet; Lambert remains a wild card; and there is no go-to player among the receivers with McGee gone. Virginia is in desperate need of a big-play threat in the receiver group and a quarterback who can limit the mistakes. We still don’t know whether both will come to fruition for this team in 2014.

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