By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Georgia is fertile recruiting territory for the University of Virginia football program, and this first week of spring finds current Cavaliers scattered around the Atlanta metropolitan area. With University operations severely curtailed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, these players are back home, taking online classes and waiting for word that it’s safe to return to Grounds.
“It’s like I’m in high school again,” UVA safety Joey Blount said by phone Tuesday afternoon.
At Landmark Christian, however, he attended classes in the school building. Taking online classes has been an adjustment, said Blount, who’s majoring in American studies, with a concentration in popular and visual culture.
“You wake up in your own bed and you walk a couple feet over to your laptop. You have a teacher trying to lecture through a camera. I can’t even imagine how hard that would be, to rearrange your game plan. So I give a lot of kudos to the teachers out there. It’s really been a shock to everyone, but everybody’s just trying to make the best of the situation.”
Blount, whose father, Tony, was an All-ACC safety at UVA and played in the NFL, moved with his family from California to Atlanta when he was in the fourth grade. He was lightly regarded coming out of Landmark Christian, a small private school, but at UVA he’s become a standout in the secondary for defensive coordinator Nick Howell.
As a junior, Blount finished second on the team in tackles, with 95, and helped the Wahoos win their first Coastal Division title, advance to the ACC championship game for the first time, and make their first appearance in the Orange Bowl. He named to the All-ACC third team despite playing with an injured shoulder that required surgery after the season.
That marked the second straight January in which Blount had an operation to repair an injury suffered during the season. In 2018, it was his ankle, and he missed spring practice that year.
“I play hard, man,” Blount said, laughing. “I gotta get my body right.”
UVA announced this month that spring practice, which was scheduled to begin this week, had been canceled. Blount was one of the players who would have missed spring drills, but he’s about 12 weeks out from surgery, “so I’m pretty good right now,” he said. “I’m doing well mobility-wise, and I’m lifting now. It’s just a matter of time.”
Many gyms and training facilities in Georgia are closed, but Blount said he has everything he needs at home for his rehab work.
In 2017, when he backed up All-America safety Quin Blanding, Blount was one of 17 true freshmen to play for Virginia. Others included defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, linebackers Charles Snowden, Zane Zandier, Matt Gahm and Elliott Brown, cornerback Darrius Bratton, wide receiver Terrell Jana, offensive lineman Chris Glaser, and kicker Brian Delaney.
“I’m very excited to see where all the fourth-years take this team,” Blount said. “We can come together in this fourth year and do something special for this program.”
From a team that finished 9-5 last season, UVA lost several key players on offense, most notably quarterback Bryce Perkins and wideouts Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed. But of the players who started on defense against Florida in the Orange Bowl, only lineman Eli Hanback was in his final season of eligibility.
“The defense is filled with guys that have grown up together, worked hard and been through some things together,” Blount said.
Blount said he communicates often with his teammates through text messages and FaceTime conversations. The players also hear regularly from their coaches, who are working remotely in Charlottesville.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who’s heading into his fifth season at UVA, is “very adamant about being serious and staying on schedule,” Blount said. “You gotta be up and awake, and you gotta be on top of your schoolwork.
“We’re just trying to treat it as if we’re still at UVA. We’re trying to do the same thing, in a different location right now. I think he’s doing a good job of communicating with all the parents as well and keeping them at ease and letting them know the plan going forward.”
Mendenhall said last week that the players “have a schedule that was sent out to them as if they were still at UVA, meaning a wakeup time, their nutrition time, their workout times, their meeting times with academic coordinators, with mentors, with learning specialists, when their class times are. We’re adding structure to make this as normal as possible.”
Blount said the players’ commitment level while they’re apart will determine how well the team fares in the coming season. He doesn’t know when the Cavaliers will reconvene, but he can’t wait for that day.
“I’ve talked to Charles Snowden about that a lot, just looking forward to coming back together,” Blount said. “This makes you miss everybody. You realize you take these times for granted, and it stinks being away from your boys and your friends. But this is going to be a huge season.”
Blount recalled an interview he conducted at University Hall during his first year at the University. U-Hall has since been torn down, of course, and “now my career at UVA is coming to an end,” he said. “I just want to make sure I end it the best way. I want to leave a good legacy here, and then whoever steps in my shoes next can take it to a better place than I left it.”
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