Virginia Football Focused On Small Steps In Rebuilding Process

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Quin Blanding ranks No. 9 all-time in tackles for Virginia football.
Quin Blanding already ranks as the top tackler among defensive backs in school history before the start of his senior year. ~ Kris Wright

Quin Blanding draws regular consideration and praise as one the Virginia football team’s best players, earning preseason recognition on a regular basis and postseason honors throughout his career. With good reason.

To date in his three-year Cavalier career, he’s never posted a season with fewer than 115 tackles. He currently ranks No. 9 all-time and No. 1 among defensive backs in career tackles with 358. He has six career interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries too. Beyond that, coaches new and old have given him credit for understanding the defense and executing calls correctly. Plus, they say he’s still getting better.

That blend of production and potential could have sent Blanding to the NFL after his junior season. He chose to stay in Charlottesville with the Cavaliers, however, despite a 2-10 record in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season and no bowl appearances to date in his career. An easy question for those gathered at the ACC Football Kickoff then: why?

“To come back is just – I believe in the system. I trust the system. I trust the process,” Blanding said Thursday. “You know, why not go one more year and go out with a bang and increase the status of Virginia, and just like I said, go out with a bang.”

For the Hoos to create a bang season, a lot of progress remains on the road ahead. They tied for last in the Coastal Division a year ago with Duke after going 1-7 in league play. The lone win came against the Blue Devils. They finished 12th in the ACC in total defense, passing defense, running defense, and scoring defense. They finished 12th in total offense and scoring offense as well, while settling for 10th in passing offense and last (14th) in rushing offense.

Penalties (7th), red zone offense (6th), kickoff returns (4th), and punt returns (6th) all give some reason for hope with decent showings. However, turnover margin (14th), sacks (11th), third down offense (13th), third down defense (13th), and red zone defense (14th) all lagged behind in the conference too.

Still, the Cavaliers remain focused on the day to day details that they think will lead to more success. As those small things improve, big things should follow according to Mendenhall.

“I believe in simple successes, and I think by small and simple things, great things are brought to pass,” Mendenhall said. “And so as simple as seeing our team warm up correctly, I would relish that and cherish it. When I see a player finish through a line as hard as he can go, when I see a player – we actually film our sideline, what I call our fourth side of the ball – if I saw our fourth side of the ball in a game react in a manner that looked authentic and genuine and supportive of what was happening for our team, those are all things that I pass on to our team. I think great things are built very simply, very methodically and really detail-oriented. And so as it has been yet to show in terms of wins and losses, and I don’t know when that’ll happen, I’m certainly not going to let the small improvements that I see that are leading to that go without acknowledging those. I crave those simple successes, as do our players. There is no time frame that I’m imposing, as you heard the players talk about. We’re maximizing every single day in the program.”

Blanding echoed those thoughts. One step at a time.

“Take every week one day at a time. Take each practice, take each game, and that’s our bottom line, and that’s our bottom goal,” Blanding said of turning around the 2-10 record from 2016. “Go in each week taking one week at a time, and you’ll see the end results.”

Mendenhall said he thinks UVA is better positioned for more success in year two. He compared it to the school’s preference for first year, second year, and so on in the lexicon – students are always learning per Thomas Jefferson. He thinks the shift from foundation and system building to more focus on situational details and competition specific details is underway. He believes that will lead to a results that are sustainable and consistent over time.

“What is shifting – not shifted yet but shifting,” Mendenhall said, “is the ability to know what each player on our team can do, make sure they’re on the field at the right time doing the right thing to deliver the results, and so we’re much more personnel-specific than we were a year ago, which was more general in expectations and demand, where now it’s becoming to the point where each player, even if it’s at the expense of slowing our tempo or taking a little more time or being a little bit more deliberate, is with our current roster and where we are, using the right players at the right times, doing the things they can do at a higher level. I think you’ll see a shift in that direction.”

Preseason Honors Continue To Come In For Blanding, Kiser

Blanding and fellow senior Micah Kiser continue to pick up preseason recognition for the Cavaliers. On Thursday, both players landed on the preseason Bronko Nagurski Trophy Watch List. That award is given annually to the nation’s best defensive player by the Football Writers Association of America. Both also have earned spots on the watch lists for the Bednarik Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy as well.

On Friday, Blanding also received recognition on the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List, the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame announced. That award is given to the nation’s best defensive back.

Kiser and Blanding finished first and second in the ACC for tackles the past two seasons. They each earned first-team All-ACC honors in both seasons as well as some All-American recognition. Kiser compiled 251 over those two league-leading seasons, while Blanding added 235 stops.

The senior safety sees his leadership role remaining the same for his final year at UVA.

“Nothing will change. I’m the leader of the defense,” Blanding said. “I make the calls, and I see everything before anyone sees anything anyway, so I’ve got to know what the offense is going to give me. I’ve got to be in their huddle before they even come out of the huddle. So that’s been my job since my second year and that’s job I`m going to keep continuing. I`m just going to keep growing at it.”

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