Darryl Blackstock doesn't mince words, so when he says he was a "thug" in high school, that could be blunt honesty. But Blackstock, Virginia's playmaking freshman linebacker, also has demonstrated a knack for youthful braggadocio, so it just as easily could contain a hint of exaggeration.
Blackstock wasn't arrested and didn't beat anyone up at Heritage High School in Newport News. He wasn't expelled or suspended from school. His coach says he wasn't any trouble at all. Essentially, he was an immature and somewhat undisciplined teenager, getting into shouting matches, skipping class on a regular basis.
"Just not being a good kid," he recalled. "Being a luncher. Going to school to eat lunch. That's what I used to call it."
Blackstock, 19, uses the past tense for good reason; he has changed considerably since then. The detour he took through Fork Union Military Academy last year gave him the discipline he knew he needed.
"He's a person who is very easy to root for," Virginia Coach Al Groh said. "He wants to do well, he wants to do right, and he applies himself very hard to both those objectives."
Nine games into his college career, Blackstock stands among the best young pass rushers in the nation and the best of any age in the ACC. With 70 tackles and eight sacks -- a total that ties him for the conference lead and the ACC freshman season record -- he is a major reason Virginia is 6-3 (4-2 ACC) as it enjoys its second and final bye week of the season. (Blackstock also is using the extra week to rest a back injury that likely would have sidelined him if U-Va. had a game this weekend.)
The Cavaliers knew he could get to the quarterback; 51 sacks in the past two seasons attested to that. But in high school, that is all he had to do. Now he is an outside linebacker, thanks to his 6-foot-4, 224-pound frame, and also is learning to play the run and drop into coverage. Every week, he makes more and more "top-shelf linebacker plays," said Groh, who coached linebackers for much of his 13-year NFL career.
Blackstock is "really an impressive player," Georgia Tech Coach Chan Gailey said. "When you're watching film on him, he's always in the picture. He's always around the ball. . . . That's the biggest compliment you can give to any [defensive] player."
Throughout high school, Blackstock's talent was evident on the football field. The academic side of school was more of a challenge, largely because he was doing only as much as he needed to get by. That formula caught up to him in his final semester at Heritage, when he failed a government class and was not allowed to graduate with his class. He also came up 80 points short of the SAT score he needed to enroll at Virginia.
"He had just turned 18 when he [left] high school," said John Quillen, the Heritage coach at the time. "You could tell, too. Some of the things he did, he would show that immaturity."
Forced to delay his college plans for a year, Blackstock enrolled at Fork Union. Aiming to "stop acting like a little kid," he thought he needed "somebody to yell at me for a little bit, because I know I'm not always right."
Fork Union Coach John Shuman said he found little yelling was necessary with Blackstock.
"Before we got him here," Shuman said, "everybody was like, 'You can't take this guy. He'll never fit in. He's got braids and all that. The structure would kill him You're a disciplinarian; he won't be able to take it.'
"He walked in, said, 'Coach, I'll do whatever it takes.' . . . He went all the way to May 24 without a problem at all."
Blackstock got all A's and B's at Fork Union and got the test score he needed in one try. He became a platoon leader in charge of about 20 cadets, making the rare climb from private to lieutenant in one year. He had 22 sacks and established himself alongside Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dexter Coakley, Shuman said, as one of the two best players to play in the powerful Fork Union program.
"I went from a thug to a doggone nice guy, basically," Blackstock said. "The streets are still in me, but I learned how to think before I react, instead of doing stuff just because."
Even now, though, he admits he "really, really, really" does not like school. He would rather consider the football future once he adds bulk to his wiry frame. He plans to include a run at Chris Slade's Virginia and ACC career-record 40 sacks.
"When I get the size I want to be, I think I'll be a very elite player," he said. "I'll be very dominant. I really think so. Because I want to be able to control the linemen. Instead of reacting to them, I want them to react to me. I want to control the line. I want to do my thing."
Yet Blackstock has matured enough to understand he needs to take care of his academic responsibilities while playing football.
"Of course, football is his love, but he knows he's got to go to school," said his mother, Linda Williams. "That comes with it. . . . Going to Fork Union, he proved to himself that he could do it. He did well.
"So far, so good."