By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The job will not be handed to rising sophomore Joey Blount. He’ll have to earn it. This is head coach Bronco Mendenhall‘s program, after all. But after spending the 2017 season as free safety Quin Blanding‘s understudy, Blount is the leading candidate to take over in the secondary for the University of Virginia’s all-time leading tackler.
“I think he’s going to be great back there,” said Blanding, a four-year starter who left UVA with 495 career tackles.
“From talking to his dad all the time and watching his film, I knew he was going to definitely be a baller for us. I didn’t know when it would happen, but he came in and he stepped up to the plate when we really needed him.”
The 6-foot-2 Blount, a graduate of Landmark Christian School outside Atlanta, is the son of former Virginia safety Tony Blount, who made the All-ACC first team in 1979 and later played in the NFL.
“I think the advantage Joey has over what I had when I was young,” his father said recently, “is that he’s had some very good coaching, and I think his fundamentals [are outstanding] … He’s a much better athlete, in my opinion, than I was.”
Tony Blount wore jersey No. 31 for the Cavaliers. His son wears No. 29. He would have happily taken No. 31, but running back Chris Sharp had already selected it.
“I tried, but at the end of the day, I’ll make my own number,” Joey Blount said, “and my own legacy.”
The Wahoos start spring practice Tuesday morning, and experienced players abound on defense, including defensive backs Blount, Brenton Nelson, Bryce Hall, Juan Thornhill, Chris Moore and Tim Harris; linebackers Jordan Mack, Chris Peace, Malcolm Cook, C.J. Stalker and Charles Snowden; and linemen Eli Hanback, Mandy Alonso and Richard Burney, a converted tight end.
Mendenhall, also UVA’s defensive coordinator, has several holes to fill on that side of the ball, most notably those created by the departures of Blanding, All-America linebacker Micah Kiser and end Andrew Brown.
“It’s too early to say [where Blount fits in],” Mendenhall said, but “he’ll earn whatever role that he gets, and that’ll be based on what his beliefs are and what his work ethic is.”
To accelerate Blount’s development last season, the Cavaliers’ coaching staff had him room with Blanding before games. Blanding calls Blount “my little brother,” and they talked about their families and life, as well as football.
“Quin took me under his wing last year,” Blount said. “He really mentored me, kind of taught me about transitioning from a high school player to a college player. If I am blessed to play in his shoes, I’m going to do the best I can.”
When the topic was football, Blanding said, the “biggest thing I told [Blount] is just to get ready for your shot, because it’ll come soon, and it’ll come fast, and when you get that opportunity, you’ve just got to know how to take it, and you’ve just got to know how to execute.”
One of 17 true freshmen to play last season for UVA, which advanced to a bowl game for the first time since 2011, Blount finished with 34 tackles. Most of his action came on special teams, where he played a pivotal role.
After being hired in January as the Cavaliers’ special teams coordinator, Ricky Brumfield began reviewing videotape of their 2017 games.
“One of his first questions was, `Who’s 29?’ ” Mendenhall recalled. “And as a special teams coach, he said in his opinion that [Blount] was our best special teams player last year.”
Blount, who was born in California, moved to the Atlanta area when he was in the fourth grade. His parents enrolled him at Landmark Christian, a small private school.
As his stature as an athlete grew, Blount had opportunities to switch to larger schools that played a more-competitive brand of football, including Pace Academy, where former UVA great Chris Slade is head coach. He was tempted to leave, Blount acknowledges, but his parents loved the education afforded him at Landmark Christian.
A mortgage broker in Atlanta, Tony Blount graduated from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. Knee injuries cut short his NFL career, but he had a strong education to fall back on.
“I’ve always said, only a very small percentage of people make it to the next level [in sports],” Tony Blount said. “Education is the most important thing. You’re only going to be able to play for a few number of years.
“Very few make it past that four-year period, and after that, what do you do? You’ve got to have some kind of education, and that was what my wife and myself instilled upon him.”
His parents backed up their words with actions, Joey Blount recalled. “If my grades were not right, I was not going to play on game day,” he said. “I’d practice the whole week and not play. I was really serious in school and always had a 3.8, 3.9, 4.0 GPA. If I had anything under that, it was not acceptable in the house.”
At Landmark Christian, where his father was an assistant coach, Blount starred at safety and quarterback. Still, he received little serious interest from FBS programs other than UVA, in part because he didn’t face elite competition.
His other college options for football included Tulane, Georgia State, Coastal Carolina, Mercer and “a couple Ivy League schools,” Blount said. “That’s about it.”
Growing up, he’d visited UVA a few times with his father, whose closest friends include former teammates Andre Grier and Joe Roseborough, and toured Grounds. He later attended a football camp at Virginia and impressed the coaching staff, then led by Mike London.
When London stepped down as head coach after the 2015 season, Blount thought the door for him to attend UVA might have closed. But the new staff, including secondary coach Nick Howell, liked what they saw of Blount on videotape and offered him a scholarship.
Blount committed to the Cavaliers in April 2016, and not because of pressure from his father.
“It really caught me by surprise,” Tony Blount recalled.
His father “had no impact on my decision,” Joey Blount said. “That was the thing we sat down and talked about during the recruiting process. He said, `UVA’s on the table, and right now it’s looking like the best school possible, academically and athletically, but you know you don’t have to do this. This is your life, your journey. I made my journey, made my legacy, and you don’t in any way have to follow me.’
“And I really respected that. That really helped me as a young man making my own decision. But at the same time, you want to be like your dad, your role model, and him just sitting me down and saying, `I love you, but you don’t have to do this for me,’ that was a big part of our connection, our bond right now.”
When Blount joined the Cavaliers’ program, he knew there would opportunities for playing time on special teams.
“Everyone I talked to — my dad, my high school coaches, my trainers — said that’s one way to get on the field,” Blount recalled.
“I did not want to redshirt. I didn’t want to practice all those days and not play. I was like, `My number will be called one day [at safety], but let me get on the field now. I was one of the first defensive players as a freshman to get my number. I played on all four special teams. I made some plays.”
Blanding said: “He’s very competitive. He’s going to come up and he’s going to be physical.”
Blount, who stands 6-2, weighed about 175 pounds when he arrived at UVA last summer. He’s closer to 190 now and hopes to hit 200 by the start of the season.
“He’s picking up a little weight,” Tony Blount said. “Picking up weight was one of the problems I had [in college]. I think when I left there I was all of 190 pounds. I came in at 178.”
Blount, who might major in foreign affairs, lives with his classmate Alonso, and their families have become exceptionally close. Alonso, who’s from Miami, earned a starting job on the D-line late last season.
“I remember Coach Howell telling me that there was a reason we roomed together, because they had big standards, big hopes for us,” Blount said. “We both did our thing [in 2017] and there’s more room to grow. I’m excited for him and me.”
Tony Blount is excited too. He may not have steered his son to UVA, but he couldn’t be prouder now that Joey is there.
“I can’t even tell you the feeling,” the elder Blount said. “The only way I can explain it is throughout my college career, I can remember a family, [UVA running back] Tommy Vigorito’s family, and after every game walking out of the locker room and seeing the Vigorito family.
“I never forgot that. That was one thing that my wife and I committed to, to make sure we were there after every game when Joey walks out of the locker room.”