When new Virginia special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield arrived in Charlottesville, one of his first tasks focused on evaluations. He sifted through UVA’s special teams video clips to get a feel for the personnel as he took on a new job.
Before long, he approached Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall with a simple question. Simple, but telling in Mendenhall’s view.
“Coach Brumfield came in and watched all of our special teams, that’s every clip on every team through the entire year, and he came to my office and said ‘Who’s 29?’” Mendenhall said. “He didn’t know his name, but he said that was your best special teams player. He said he makes every tackle, he’s hard to block, he’s trust-worthy, and consistent. He has an opportunity now to compete for that same role defensively.”
No. 29 last season belonged to true freshman Joey Blount, who found his way on the field quickly at Virginia. He appeared in all 13 games last season with his first collegiate start at Pittsburgh. His chance to compete this spring has been cut short by an injury – he posted on Twitter about making a comeback and has been spotted in a sling for his left arm.
Still, Blount’s quick progression as a true freshman last season stood out. He finished with 34 tackles and a pass breakup as a four-phase special teams player and a defensive backup. He mainly served as a safety reserve behind Quin Blanding, who he said mentored him during the season, and Brenton Nelson, the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. Blount also got tossed into the fire for that start at Pitt as he filled in for an injured Juan Thornhill at cornerback. Against Boston College the week prior, he had piled up 10 tackles while playing most of the second half on defense for the first time.
Ultimately, his work on special teams offered his biggest opportunity. Blount, who entered UVA rated as a two-star recruit by Rivals and a three-star recruit by 247 Sports, became key contributor on the coverage teams for kickoffs and punts. He made 15 tackles on special teams, including 10 on kickoff coverage. To put that last number in context, Virginia logged 58 total kickoffs last season and 22 of those were not returned (20 touchbacks, two out of bounds). So Blount made those 10 tackles on the remaining 36 kickoffs. That’s a tackle on 27.7% of the returns or once every 3.6 kickoffs.
Blount said that it was an honor to be noticed by Brumfield for his work on special teams.
“Special teams are a big thing for first years,” Blount said. “All my life, I’ve never really sat on the bench and coming in as a first year, you have big hopes and ‘I want to play and I want to do this’ and you really get put in your place with the high school to college transition. I wanted to find a way on the field, I wanted to earn my number, and luckily I got to. When the opportunity came with the four special teams I got to play on, I did the best I could.”
Blount’s mindset now shifts from getting on the field to trying to carve out a role at safety, one of Virginia’s strongest legacy positions. Most recently, that spot was held by Blanding as he became the program’s all-time leading tackler with 495 stops in his career. Names at that position previously include current NFL safeties Anthony Harris and Rodney McLeod, who just became a Super Bowl Champion with the Philadelphia Eagles. There, of course, is all-time great Anthony Poindexter too.
For Blount, however, the lineage goes much further back. His father Tony Blount played for the Cavaliers from 1976-1979 and earned first-team All-ACC honors as a senior in 1979. He still owns the 11th longest interception return in program history, a 63-yarder against North Carolina in 1976.
Growing up, Joey Blount said Virginia games were on all the time so he knows about the program history. He’s not trying to become the next Quin Blanding or Anthony Poindexter or even Tony Blount, though. He’s in the film room improving his football IQ and working hard to make his own name stick.
“Playing safety at UVA is in my blood,” Blount said. “My dad played here in ’79, All-ACC. It’s been a dream looking up to a father figure like that, having the bond of a sport. At the end of the day, I came here and he didn’t push me, but I’m here. I feel like I should make own legacy and my own name. It’s all nice to be referred to as little Quin, but at the end of the day I’m going to be Joey Blount. I’m going to be my own thing. I’m thankful for everything Quin did for me, but hopefully when it is all said and done, I have my own name and my own legacy to prove my stature with what I did here at the University.”
Entering his third year at Virginia, Coach Mendenhall has given a clear challenge to the defense. Play more physically.
UVA ended the season on the wrong end of a 49-7 thumping against Navy, who rolled up 452 yards of offense with its strong running game. The Hoos also gave up 31 points or more in five of the last six regular season games. UVA allowed an average of 414 yards in those games as well and came out with just one win, the 40-36 victory against Georgia Tech that secured bowl eligibility.
With the leading tacklers from the past four years, linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding, now finished with their Cavalier careers, the Hoos obviously have a lot of production to replace too.
Mendenhall believes the defense, and the linebackers in particular, need to start with a renewed mindset.
“Athleticism is great in terms of covering the field in coverage and especially blitzing,” Mendenhall said. “My focus with our linebackers right now is to go through, not around. We’re pretty good at going around – we need to be much better at going through and our Navy game exposed that at a level that we’re addressing with every minute.”
Linebacker Jordan Mack, the team’s leading returning tackler after making 114 stops last fall, said that the defense didn’t fully lack physicality a season ago, but there wasn’t enough of it. The reboot, he said, is a change in mentality as much as physicality.
“It’s the mindset of the defense so not go around blocks, go through them and get to the ball faster,” Mack said. “That’s the physicality of the defense and that starts with the linebackers.”
More Virginia Honors
Per a Virginia Athletics news release, quarterback Kurt Benkert and linebacker Micah Kiser added more honors to their resume. The duo earned National Football Foundation Hampshire Honor Society membership.
A football student-athlete must maintain a cumulative 3.2 GPA or better throughout his college career, be a starter or a significant contributor in the last year of eligibility, and meet all NCAA/NAIA-mandated progress toward degree requirements to receive the recognition.
Benkert became the first player in Cavalier history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season with 3,207 passing yards this past season. He is the first UVA player to throw for more than 20 touchdowns in multiple seasons. Benkert finished his career No. 3 all-time at UVA with 5,759 passing yards and 46 passing touchdowns.
Kiser received the 2017 Campbell Trophy (academic Heisman) this season among plenty of other honors. A three-time first-team All-ACC honoree and a Sporting News first-team All-American in 2017, Kiser posted 145 tackles this season, which ranked fourth most in the nation. Kiser led the Atlantic Coast Conference in tackles in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
A Cavalier has made the Hampshire Honor Society list three years in a row. Nicholas Conte, Ryan Santoro, and Conner Wingo-Reeves earned the honor in 2017, while Ian Frye was recognized in 2016.