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By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– He’s an extrovert straight out of central casting, as gregarious as his roommate is reserved. University of Virginia safety Joey Blount loves to talk, loves to smile, loves to engage with others. And that’s benefited defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, with whom Blount is living for the third straight year.
“He’s introduced me to a lot more people than I would have introduced myself to around Grounds,” Alonso said this week. “He’s gotten me out of my shell, I guess.”
Blount, like Alonso, is among the standouts on the defense that’s been the unbeaten Cavaliers’ backbone this season. A 6-1, 195-pound junior, Blount is fourth on the team in tackles, with 28, and he’s demonstrated a flair for making big plays.
In Virginia’s season opener, a victory over ACC foe Pitt at Heinz Field, Blount recorded seven tackles, including his first two career sacks, and had a fourth-quarter interception.
Against Old Dominion last weekend, No. 29 sliced through the line and stopped quarterback Stone Smartt for no gain on a fourth-and-1 run from the Monarchs’ 29-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Two plays later, the Wahoos scored a touchdown to take their first lead, and they went on to win 28-17.
“I knew it was a huge play late in the game,” Blount said this week. “I was happy to make the play, and I also cleaned my slate from early in the game when I missed a tackle on a touchdown.”
On that play, ODU running back Matt Geiger slipped out of the backfield uncovered and caught a short pass from Smartt. Blount came up to make the tackle around the UVA 40, missed, and Geiger ran down the sideline to complete a 47-yard TD play.
Blount was eager to redeem himself.
“As a player, you’re always trying to move on to the next play, but in the back of your mind, it’s a lingering effect,” he said. “You know you’re going to hear you messed up. You know you could do better. I usually don’t miss those type tackles, so for me to miss a tackle in that situation was hurtful.”
Blount is “a playmaker,” co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said. “We’ve got to reel him in a little bit to make sure he’s more assignment-sound and not getting outside of the scheme, because he likes to kind of use his instincts a little too much. But he’s a very instinctive player, and really he can play three positions for us [in the secondary]. In the past it was just free safety.”
Blount, whose father, Tony, was an All-ACC safety at UVA, was born in Southern California. He lived there until he was in the fourth grade, when his family moved to the Atlanta area. His ties to the Golden State add special significance to the Cavaliers’ next game for Blount.
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, in a game NBC will televise, No. 18 UVA (4-0) plays at No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1).
“Growing up, living in California, I was a huge USC Trojan fan,” Blount said, “and their rivals would always be UCLA and then Notre Dame. The Irish versus the Trojans was always a rivalry. So I remember watching [the Fighting Irish] when I was growing up and seeing USC get the best of them.”
🔥 threads ready for the trip to ND!@UVAFootball will be rocking the 🔵⚪️🔵#GoHoos | #TheStandard 🔶🔷 pic.twitter.com/tX8ljN2w2Q
— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) September 26, 2019
This will be the Cavaliers’ first visit to Notre Dame Stadium, where a sellout crowd of 77,622 is expected. When Virginia’s 2019 schedule was released, this game “caught my eye,” Blount said. “Not only for the fact that they’re Notre Dame, but seeing that it’s an opportunity for us to showcase our program.
“That’s a nice stadium, the atmosphere is going to be crazy, it’s on NBC. Everything you could ask for in college football is going to be there. It’s definitely the biggest game I’ve played in.”
Blount was one of the 17 true freshmen who played for the Wahoos in 2017, when he backed up All-America safety Quin Blanding. He started five games and played extensively in 2018, but it was a challenging season for Blount, who missed two games with an ankle injury that required surgery in January.
Blount, who weighed only 175 pounds when he enrolled at Virginia, missed spring practice this year, but he was able to focus in the weight room on adding strength and upper-body muscle.
“I feel like the offseason was really important for my growth and development,” he said. “I had an offseason surgery, so I had to get my leg back under me first. But it allowed me just to grow mentally and physically too. I feel like my upper body is much stronger than it was last year.”
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall said the added bulk gives Blount “his best chance to be durable. In our program we emphasize three things: how durable, consistent, and how productive [players are]. It’s hard to be consistent and productive if you’re not durable.”
His father graduated from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. Blount is majoring in American studies, with a concentration in popular and visual culture. He’s taken a variety of classes, from sociology to psychology to environmental science, and he’s considering a minor in women, gender & sexuality.
“I had no idea what that was until I got here and found myself really, really liking it and wanting to learn more,” Blount said. “I fell in love with the fact that it gives you the opportunity to advocate for something more than yourself. We have a lot of gender bias and gender problems and gender roles, and learning about that really touched my heart.”
He’s taken two classes taught by Lisa Speidel, an assistant professor in UVA’s Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality. Most of the students in the classes have been women, Blount said, but “the men in there are really strong speakers and really give their side of the story, and she’s really open to hearing it. It’s not the traditional way of learning. She lets you learn interactively and creatively.”
Blount takes his schoolwork seriously. “I don’t want to be seen as a stereotypical jock or athlete who plays football and is bad in class. When I’m in class, I’m engaged, I’m on my laptop taking notes. I try as hard as I can to not be that guy.
“I like speaking in class. I’ll raise my hands to answer questions, right or wrong, just because in my head I want to prove I’m more than what people label me as.”
His roommate is equally serious about academics. Alonso is a government major, and he’s also interested in economics.
Not only did Blount and Alonso connected immediately when they were assigned to the same Lile-Maupin dorm room, their parents have become close friends, too. They’ll be at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.
Alonso, like Blount, had a trying 2018 season. He suffered a knee injury against Pitt on Nov. 2 and missed UVA’s final four games, including its 28-0 win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
“Seeing the struggle he had to go through with his knee, and seeing him come back stronger than ever and being better than he was before, I have a sense of what he went through, because I went through the same type deal,” Blount said. “Seeing him line up and doing his thing in the game, I’m super happy. I get fired up when I see him make a play in the backfield, and he does the same thing for me. It just adds to the friendship and the cohesiveness we have between each other.”
Alonso said: “It’s awesome that I can rely on my roommate out there to make plays.”
Upperclassmen abound on the Cavaliers’ defense, from Richard Burney, Eli Hanback and Alonso on the line, to Jordan Mack, Charles Snowden, Zane Zandier, Rob Snyder and Matt Gahm at linebacker, to Bryce Hall, Nick Grant, De’Vante Cross, Brenton Nelson and Blount in the secondary.
The veterans “do a really good job of getting us all together,” Blount said. “In the DB room, I try my best to get the young guys on the same page, because they’re the future of this program.”
Virginia’s practices, not surprisingly, have been spirited this week. They’ve been conducted with one song blaring out of the speakers, over and over and over, inside the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility: the Notre Dame Victory March.
Asked Tuesday afternoon how often he’d heard often he’d heard the song at practice that morning, Blount shook his head. “At least 120 times. I’m hearing it in my head, for sure, but I’m just blocking it out. It’s annoying, but it also helps.”
During preparations for UVA’s Sept. 14 game against Florida State at Scott Stadium, Mendenhall employed a similar tactic with the Seminoles’ war chant, keeping it on repeat all week.
“They played that fight song over and over again,” Blount said, “but it makes you not want to let ’em score, so you don’t have to hear it.”