CHARLOTTESVILLE — Their relationship began with text messages.
Quin Blanding would fire them off to Virginia safety Anthony Harris throughout the football team’s dreadful 2-10 season last year, hoping to learn Harris’s take on the state of the Cavaliers. Harris would respond with encouraging words, well aware of the hype surrounding the 6-foot-4, 215-pound crown jewel of Virginia’s 2014 recruiting class.
But the possibilities of their potential partnership did not crystallize until Jan. 2, as Harris sat at home watching television in Chesterfield, Va., over winter break, contemplating whether to declare for the NFL draft after finishing with a nation-best eight interceptions as a junior.
On the screen, he saw Blanding in action at safety for the first time, playing in the Under Armour all-American game. Harris marveled at “how smooth he was” covering the nation’s best high school wide receivers in the slot and delivering punishing hits. A few days later, his decision had been made.
“Had I left a little bit early, I would have been running away from something,” Harris said last month at the ACC kickoff. “I want to be that person who can be the turnaround, who can be influential for the young guys.”
The development of the Harris-Blanding defensive backfield duo has been one of the more intriguing subplots this preseason as Virginia attempts to rebound from last year’s disappointing campaign.
Blanding, rated one of the top 10 players in the country by every major recruiting service, has worked with the Cavaliers’ starting defense since the first drill of training camp. Over the coming weeks, he’ll receive a crash course in defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s aggressive scheme, with Harris and safeties coach Mike Archer serving as his most influential teachers.
Coach Mike London noted with a coy smile that Harris and Blanding were “strategically” placed as roommates when the team moved into its training camp hotel this week. The two also have something in common.
In discussing his return to Virginia this year, Harris said, “loyalty is a big thing for me,” dating from when he fractured his tibia at the end of his junior season at L.C. Bird High. London continued to pursue him while other schools backed off their recruitment. Blanding, meanwhile, was the first player to commit to Virginia’s 2014 recruiting class in February 2013 and then stuck with his pledge while schools such as Alabama entered the fray as London’s job security came into question last fall.
So now it’s Harris who grills Blanding with daily quizzes, forcing him to “spit out some calls so I can see what he knows.”
“I’m the type of guy, I’m going to put a little pressure on him,” Harris said. “Make him feel a little uncomfortable.”
Archer’s role is that of — in his words — “the good guy.”
The former head coach at LSU, hired by Virginia this offseason to replace former assistant Anthony Poindexter, has known Tenuta for more than 30 years and can navigate the defensive coordinator’s gruff demeanor.
Archer could also sense early in his first meeting with Harris this spring that the first team all-ACC selection had a passion for the intricacies of the game and could be “like another coach” on the field for Blanding. Nonetheless, Archer said Blanding’s eyes looked like “a brook trout” on the first day of practice last week when he surprised the team by immediately lining Blanding up with the starters.
By Friday, though, Tenuta remarked how Blanding “picks stuff up in a hurry.”
“It doesn’t do any good to scream and holler at him. Jon will yell at him enough,” Archer said. “As I told him, ‘You just got to listen to what’s being communicated. I don’t want to hear you talking. I want to hear you listening.’ . . . He is a freshman. We can’t forget that.”
Blanding, a Virginia Beach native, grew up in the same youth football circles as several current Cavaliers defensive stalwarts and they’ve all offered some form of advice. Defensive end Eli Harold told him to “not set any goals for yourself” and simply roll with what his first season brings. Cornerback Demetrious Nicholson’s message after starting as a freshman in 2011 was to “just go fast” if he doesn’t know what to do on a particular play.
But it’s Harris, from outside Richmond, who seems to be breaking through the most from his spot alongside Blanding in the secondary.
He quickly learned Blanding is a visual learner, something he couldn’t pick up from the television, and now reads his protege’s facial cues in much the same way he’ll study a quarterback’s eyes this fall.
“It’s just a lot right now,” Blanding admitted last week. “They all test me. They want to see what I know. They want to see, am I learning the playbook. They want to see what I can produce to help the defense.
“[Harris] keeps it real with me. He teaches me the way I need to learn it.”