The Virginia football team still has a lot of work to do, particularly with roster management. That’s one thing that coach Bronco Mendenhall made clear in a long interview with reporters Wednesday. One thing that’s less clear, however, is whether free safety will be on that list soon.
UVA standout Quin Blanding, a first-team All-ACC and second-team All-American (Sporting News) pick, has locked down that spot for three years. He now must decide between a fourth year in college and early entry into the NFL Draft.
”He’s going through the NFL evaluation process,” Mendenhall said. ”You submit the evaluation and the intent to be evaluated and you basically get a response back that says one of two things. You’re a first or second round pick or to stay in school.”
Blanding certainly owns some strong credentials. During his time in Charlottesville, Blanding has started all 36 games of his career and averaged nearly 10 tackles per game. He became the first true freshman to start at safety since Tony Blount in 1976. He broke Ahmad Brooks’ record for tackles by a freshman with 123 stops that season.
He finished this season with 358 career tackles, which ranks him No. 1 all-time among defensive backs at Virginia. He’s ninth on the overall list. Blanding has 6 career interceptions with 15 total passes defended as well. He’s also recovered a pair of fumbles.
Mendenhall said that Blanding is weighing his options during the break from school.
”Quin will meet with his mom over the holidays,” Mendenhall said. ”There isn’t a definitive deadline and he’s thinking really hard about it. I want whatever Quin and his mom think is best for their family. I would love to coach him. I’d love to have him here. I couldn’t have asked more of him. I’m here as an advocate and sounding board. We have met and talked about it. Ultimately that decision will lie with him and he’s earned my support for whichever his choice is.”
While Blanding goes through the evaluation process, middle linebacker Micah Kiser told Wes McElroy in a Richmond radio interview that he is “100 percent” coming back to Virginia. As one would guess, Mendenhall greeted that news with open arms.
Kiser led the ACC in tackles with 134 stops this season, which ranked No. 1 among Power 5 conference players as well for tackles per game. That reliability proved invaluable for the team.
”Micah’s a good football player,” Mendenhall said. ”He’s becoming a very strong leader and he’s a steadying force on this team, and certainly on the defense because I at least knew were Micah and Quin were going to be on a play by play basis. … Micah – every play, every game, every practice, he’s where he’s supposed to be.”
But Mendenhall’s thoughts on Kiser’s return expand well beyond what would be his senior season in 2017. Likening him to former NFL star Brian Urlacher while he worked at New Mexico, Mendenhall believes that Kiser’s impact could carry years beyond that. Urlacher’s teams at UNM didn’t win a lot of games, but the principles and work ethic he helped establish paid dividends after his departure as the Lobos started to click off winning seasons.
After one year on the job, Virginia’s coach knows he needs players to establish a similar culture in Charlottesville.
”I need his help,” Mendenhall said. ”I say that because this team and this program needs experienced players that are deeply committed to doing everything in their power to help our program. That behavior needs to be demonstrated and shown so it’s tangible and the next generation can see it.”
”When your best players are also your hardest workers and your best leaders and the longer they’re with your program, the better chance you have to influence the culture,” Mendenhall also said. ”Micah is having that influence on our team and the longer he stays, the better we’re going to be. And I’m not talking short term, I’m talking long term.”
More Personnel Notes From Mendenhall
Cornerbacks Tim Harris and Myles are “probable” on Virginia’s scale (near certainty they will be available) to be back in action at spring practice. Darious Latimore’s status is less clear and Mendenhall is “not sure” where he is currently as far as a timetable for his return.
Outside linebacker Malcolm Cook passed part of a physical recently and is expected to possibly return for spring practice. He missed this season for “medical” reasons on the injury report.
Long snapper Tyler Shirley will not return to the team after missing this season due to academics.
Punter Lester Coleman, a rising senior from Martinsville, is likely the leader to become the starter next season after senior Nicholas Conte finished his career.