The Virginia football team is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and a dominant performance in the Belk Bowl against South Carolina. Add to that the Cavaliers’ highest-rated recruiting class since 2014 and it’s easy to see how expectations in Charlottesville are at a level unmatched by any UVa football team in the past decade.
The unofficial transition from summer to fall begins in a couple weeks with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’ll feature 19 UVa players to watch in 2019. Some are familiar names. Some are new. All are expected to play massive roles in Virginia’s continued rebuild this season.
We’ve reached the top 10 players to watch this season. Coming in at No. 10 is junior safety Joey Blount, who is one of the men charged with replacing former safety Juan Thornhill’s team-high six interceptions and 98 tackles from last season.
Thornhill — a second-round pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in this year’s NFL Draft — left Charlottesville tied with Chase Minnifield for sixth in program history with 13 career interceptions. Most coaching staffs would be scrambling to replace a player of his magnitude, but Blount was one of the Cavaliers’ breakout stars last season on defense, and he seems poised to step into Thornhill’s massive shoes.
Tale of the tape
Last season: Blount started five games at safety. An injury kept him out of games against Liberty and Georgia Tech, but he finished the season tied with Chris Peace for third on the team with 65 tackles. He added five tackles for a loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Depth at the position: The loss of a high-end NFL talent such as Thornhill is eased by the fact that Blount and Brenton Nelson are still on Grounds. In 2017, Nelson was the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he’ll almost certainly line up next to Blount in the season opener at Pittsburgh. Former quarterback and wide receiver De’Vante Cross moved to safety late last season and should provide solid depth, while the wild card is junior Chris Moore, who, in 2017, split five starts between safety and linebacker but suffered an injury last offseason, which cost him the entire 2018 season.
Number to know: 13. In just his second start, Blount racked up 13 tackles, 12 of which were solo. Both remain career highs. The closest he came to matching his total last season was an 11-tackle performance against Pitt. He may have broken his record that day, but he left the game in the second half with a lower-leg injury, which cost him the next two games.
Outlook: One of the many attributes that made Thornhill so attractive to NFL scouts was his instincts. He just knew when to put his head down and attack a ball carrier, and he knew what teams were trying to do in the passing game. Because of that, more often than not, he was in the right place at the right time. Blount shares those impeccable instincts. Last season, both he and Nelson showed a willingness to tackle and an ability to cover ground quickly, which made running outside the tackles a difficult proposition. Where they differ is in the passing game. Blount seems much more comfortable in space, and he has the skills to be the ball hawk the Cavaliers need in the middle of the field.
Following dad’s footsteps
Blount gets his nose for the ball honestly. His father, Tony, was a four-year starting safety for Virginia from 1976-79 and a fifth-round pick of the New York Giants in the 1980 NFL Draft. His teammates described him as a hard hitter, and as a freshman in 1976, he led the Cavaliers with three interceptions and returned one 63 yards for a touchdown, which still stands as the 11th longest interception return in program history. As a senior in 1979, he was a first-team All-ACC selection.
Father and son are similar in stature. During his playing days, Tony checked in around 6-1 and 195 pounds. Joey Blount wears No. 29 instead of his father’s 31 because running back Chris Sharp already had it, but it’s already clear that ball-hawking runs in the family.
Virginia defensive backs are no stranger to the NFL. Beginning in the late 90s with Ronde Barber (Buccaneers) and Anthony Poindexter (Ravens), whose professional career was cut short by injuries, and into the mid-2000s with Marcus Hamilton (Buccaneers), Chris Cook (Vikings) and Ras-I Dowling (Patriots), the tradition of members of the Cavaliers’ secondary hearing their names called on draft day is strong. Thornhill going to the Chiefs and Tim Harris to the 49ers this year are the latest additions to the list. Former safety Quin Blanding wasn’t drafted, but he recently landed on the Panthers’ roster.
Cornerback Bryce Hall could have gone this year, and he should be the next Wahoo to add his name to the list. Blount has a way to go before his name appears on any draft boards, but if he continues to produce the way he did last season, he’ll be on a couch surrounded by family and waiting to hear his name called before he knows it.