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Virginia's blueprint finally coming together

Quin Blanding heard the talk nearly every day.

He was a five-star recruit. He could have played anywhere. But he wanted to play for a team that didn’t win a game in the ACC a year ago, for coaches whose job security was the source of constant rumors.

"I had people every day asking why I was going to Virginia," Blanding said. "But I knew I couldn’t let them distract me from what I wanted to do."

The pitch against Virginia was easy, but Blanding had gotten the behind-the-scenes tutorial on what the Cavaliers were building on defense, and he was intrigued.

The 6-foot-4 safety from Virginia Beach would make the trip to Charlottesville regularly to talk with the players. He grew close with star safety Anthony Harris, and he learned the ropes. He heard the sales pitch for Mike London’s program -- not from the coaches, but from the players who saw a team on the brink of something special.

The knocks against Virginia were easy to ignore, Blanding said. Being a part of a team -- and in particular, a defense -- that was about to take a big step forward was an opportunity too good to pass up.

"That was exactly the message," Blanding said. "Time would tell, and it was our time now."

Last season, Virginia won just two games and was 0-8 in the ACC. That’s a fact, but it’s not something that gets talked about much.

This season, the Hoos (4-2, 2-0) are the only Coastal Division team without an ACC loss. That’s the only fact Virginia is focused on now.

"We know we didn’t perform well last year as a team, but we believed each year is a new year," Harris said. "We worked hard in the offseason to get better as a team so we could go out on Saturdays and show our record last year doesn’t reflect our level of talent."

That level of talent is impressive. Henry Coley and Eli Harold both rank in the top four in the ACC in sacks. David Dean, Max Valles and Daquan Romero have developed into versatile, disruptive forces. And in the back end, Harris has led a veteran group that has tormented opposing quarterbacks, while Blanding has quickly developed into a star. The true freshman currently leads the ACC in tackles, including racking up 28 in his past two games.

"Right away I could tell [Blanding] was a really bright guy and has a lot of knowledge about the game," Harris said of his fellow safety. "Physically, if you look at him, he’s a guy who could come in and contribute. So the big thing was just how fast he could pick up on the defense. With his football IQ, he’s done a very good job on that, and it’s shown in how he gets to the football and makes a lot of plays for us."

The early success in 2014 has been encouraging, but not a surprise.

Whether it was during Blanding’s recruitment or the long offseason following a frustrating season, Virginia’s players understood that the pieces were in place to create a winner, and they talked often about overcoming those small obstacles that had kept the unit from coalescing.

"Each year we bring in a lot of talented guys," Harris said. "Fitting it all together and making it work, for the last few years we hadn’t been able to do it, but we knew it was there."

In a way, that brutal 2013 was exactly what sold Blanding on the program, and it’s exactly what the veterans of the group needed to turn the corner.

"Sometimes it takes a team to really go through something before you can really find out how everybody fits into the puzzle, how to work through certain things," Harris said. "Trying to get over the hump, it’s just one or two plays that’s the difference. Some of the adversity we’ve faced the last few years, we really learned from and we’ve really been able to grow."

On Saturday, Virginia travels to Duke in a game that could put the Cavaliers squarely in the driver’s seat in the Coastal. That is a possibility that sounded absurd to so many outside the program two months ago, but for those who had seen blueprint being drawn, it’s exactly where they expected to be.

"We feel like there are a lot of guys who have matured and grown a lot, and we’re speaking up and setting high expectations for the team," Harris said. "We feel like if we’re all bought in and have the same goal, we’ll be able to get it done."