Virginia is for elite prospects
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Before the students at Bayside High School settled into their first classes of the week on a recent, cold Monday morning four miles from waters of Chesapeake Bay, football coach Jonathan White watched for the arrival of Quin Blanding.
He was set to soon enter White's gymnasium. But White, certain Blanding would not escape notice, left a visitor alone to wait.
"He'll stick out like a sore thumb," the coach said, walking away to attend to business.
Blanding, the nation's top-rated safety prospect, in fact, opened the doors a moment later and strode unceremoniously toward his seat in the fourth row of wooden bleachers.
He sat by himself and spoke only a few brief greetings. Fellow students hardly noticed him on this morning. They've grown accustomed, of course, to Blanding, statuesque at 6-foot-2 and 196 pounds, and a force in the secondary at the prep level.
White was right; Blanding is almost impossible to miss – much like the defensive talent in Virginia this year. Blanding, No. 11 overall in the ESPN 150, sits among three Virginia prospects rated No. 1 nationally at their positions in the Class of 2014.
Defensive tackle Andrew Brown of Chesapeake (Va.) Oscar Frommel Smith and defensive end Da'Shawn Hand of Woodbridge, Va., along with the Virginia-committed Blanding, have turned this state into a recruiting epicenter, drawing visits from the likes of Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.
Virginia has long produced successful athletes, from Lawrence Taylor, Bruce Smith and Michael Vick to David Robinson, Justin Verlander and Allen Iverson.
Last year, the state landed eight players in the ESPN 150 including top-rated quarterback and Penn State signee Christian Hackenberg.
"The guys are always here," said veteran Oscar Smith coach Richard Morgan. "This area has always been loaded with talent. The difference this year is that not only do we see some really good players, they're also prototypical in the speed and size that everyone wants.
"These guys fit the mold."
Yes, there's something special about this crop of Virginia prospects. One look at Brown, Hand and Blanding confirms it.
"We're just as good as Florida, Alabama and Texas," said Jalyn Holmes of Norfolk (Va.) Lake Taylor, another coveted prospect as a tight end and defensive end. "I think we're even better. And I think we're going to show that."
South about 15 miles from Blanding at Bayside, through Portsmouth, Va., and a maze of freeways complicated by endless road construction, Andrew Brown transferred in from nearby Indian River High School last summer.
Brown needed a change, and he got it right away at Oscar Smith, a perennial power in Virginia's largest classification.
"First day on the scene," Brown said, "it definitely changed me."
"Strength, speed, condition," he said. "Just knowledge of the game."
Brown's recruiting profile soared as a junior. At 6-4 and 285 pounds, he debuted in the ESPN 150 as the top-ranked lineman.
"We played against him for two years," Morgan said. "We had film. We knew who he was, but like anybody, when you come into a program, the level of expectation is raised."
Brown remains far from his ceiling, Morgan said.
For another year on the prep scene, it's a scary thought in Virginia. Brown displayed his penchant to dominate two weeks ago at the Nike Football Training Camp inside the Washington Redskins practice facility in Ashburn, Va.
He toyed with offensive linemen in pass-rush drills.
Even without pads, Brown showed the unique set of skills that earned him scholarship offers from numerous elite programs.
He controls the action with his hands and feet – rare for a defender of his age.
"A lot of big guys were taught from a young age to run as fast as they can and crash into somebody," Morgan said. "But then when you get older, and there's another big guy across from you, you have no tools to go with that big body."
Not Brown. He's got tools, all right.
Saban stopped by Oscar Smith to glance at Brown before signing day last winter. Rules prohibit college coaches, at that stage, from more than simply greeting a junior prospect, but Brown made sure to visit his coach's office to eye the Alabama coach.
It dazed Brown.
"I opened the door," he said, "and I was like, 'OK, that's really Nick Saban. Wow.' I was a little starstruck."
Such meetings are more regular now, what with the spring evaluation period underway. Brown said he won't let the recruiting process overwhelm him. In addition to Alabama, he'd like to visit Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Ohio State and Michigan. All have offered scholarships.
"I don't see it getting out of control," he said. "Because at the end of the day, I control it."
Da'Shawn Hand is not Jadeveon Clowney. He's not Robert Nkemdiche.
He's Da'Shawn Hand, and that's it. Got it?
"They're their own guys," said Hand, a hint of agitation in his voice at even a mention of top-rated defensive ends who preceded him on the recruiting scene. "They're great players. I just want to be Da'Shawn. I don't ever want to compare myself."
The comparisons persist, though. And it's fair, said Karibi Dede, Hand's first-year coach at Woodbridge.
"If he maximizes what he's capable of," Dede said, "the comparisons will stop. His accomplishments will stand on their own."
Hand, from the Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, ranks behind only Brown, cornerback Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic) and running back Leonard Fournette of New Orleans Saint Augustine. Others rate Hand as the No. 1 overall prospect.
Don't misinterpret Hand; he appreciates Clowney, the rising junior at South Carolina and possible top pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Same with Nkemdiche, who signed with Ole Miss in February after going wire-to-wire as the top recruit in the 2013 class.
Hand met Clowney this spring on a visit to see Steve Spurrier's program.
"Of course," Hand said. "As a younger athlete, you look at the best and try to be like the best."
The spotlight found Hand early. He was among three 2014 prospects – Blanding was another – invited last summer to The Opening, an elite gathering of high school talent, for a week of competition and work on the Nike campus in Oregon.
Hand savored the experience, but he's tackling a lighter schedule of events this offseason.
"It's really time to get down and focus," he said. "I've got to worry about getting prepared for college."
He has visited Michigan and Alabama in addition to South Carolina. Those three made his top five alongside Florida and Virginia Tech.
"It's all on my time," he said. "Whenever I'm ready. I don't have any timetable."
Hand quickly impressed the Virginia-raised Dede, a former linebacker and graduate assistant coach at Auburn.
"He's very intriguing," Dede said. "And the more that you talk to him, one of the things he emphasizes is that football isn't his whole life. He has ambitions and dreams beyond the game of football.
"I think that's as impressive as anything else."
White, the Bayside coach, shakes his head vigorously when asked if he recommended that Blanding settle on his college choice early. Blanding committed to the homestate Cavaliers in February over offers from the same familiar list – Florida, Florida State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and so on.
"No," the coach said. "Not at all. That was his decision, even if it was Alabama, Oregon or Texas."
Blanding follows Bayside senior Taquan "Smoke" Mizzell, an ESPN 150 running back last season, to Charlottesville. Three others from Bayside, including standout cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, selected the same path.
Saban and Meyer saw Blanding in person. It didn't faze him.
"It was an honor," he said, "but that's all a big business. Yeah, they're great coaches, but I had to find the program that best fit me. They didn't fit me, so I shook their hands and went about my business.
"For me, there's nothing like representing your home state."
Few doubts existed about Blanding's skills. A natural athlete, he played baseball as a kid but settled on football before he began high school.
The goal from the start: Accomplish what his father, Kevin Blanding, and brothers Devon and Kevin Simmons, could not.
"Their mindset wasn't focused to get to that next level," Quin Blanding said. "They had talent but just didn't get there."
Great athletes, all of them, White said. But their tale is a common one, especially in this southeast corner of Virginia – the 757 – that Blanding and Brown call home.
Many with Blanding's skill found trouble before stardom, and some who made it big, such as Iverson, Vick and Plaxico Burress, ran afoul later.
So Blanding is all business. He immerses himself in football. The concepts came easily to him.
"That ranking is not just because of his physical skills," White said. "He can break down very quickly where the ball has to go on the offensive side."
When Meyer visited White, they turned on the tape. White told the Ohio State coach to watch a Bayside clip against Tallwood High School.
"Quin baits the quarterback twice into throwing the same seam route," White said. "He knew what was going to happen before the ball came out. Combine that with his size and the way he covers ground, and he's the total package."
Blanding would like to recruit Brown and Hand to Virginia. Likely, it won't happen. The safety continues to work on Holmes, from nearby Norfolk, and receiver Jamil Kamara (Virginia Beach, Va./Bishop Sullivan Catholic), both of whom attended Blanding's commitment news conference.
Top programs from the outside feed on Virginia talent. Last year, of the ESPN 150 signees from the state, Virginia snagged Mizzell, and Virginia Tech signed safety Holland Fisher of Midlothian Manchester.
Others signed with Alabama, Michigan, Florida and Stanford.
Still, a sense of brotherhood binds the trio of five-star Virginia prospects. They're competitors, Hand said, and friends at the same time. Together, they carry the flag for their state.
"It feels good to be a part of that," Brown said. "You know you're part of a special group, an elite class that's very rare."