Part 2: The '757'
Fateful friendship guides Hampton Roads prospects to Virginia
“Nature and Nurture”
Current Bayside High School star safety Quin Blanding arrived in Charlottesville Aug. 31 to watch his childhood friends play college football. The game was the same fast-paced, hard-hitting sport that he had grown up with. The rules had not changed. But when Blanding gazed around him, he no longer saw a few hundred faces in attendance. Instead, he saw more than 50,000 screaming fans.
The journey that brought Blanding to Charlottesville on this day began years earlier, with a fateful friendship cultivated along the southeastern Virginia shoreline. It began in Hampton Roads or Tidewater — a region of the state that is equally well known for its colloquial area-code nickname the “757” and for its propensity to produce top-notch prospects.
It began on a Virginia Beach high school football field, where a 14-year-old Blanding played alongside current Cavaliers freshman running back Taquan Mizzell, junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson and sophomore safety Anthony Cooper in the 2010 Eastern Region title game against Oscar Smith High School. On that day, Blanding did not know what an offer was. Four years later, the players on that field at the Virginia Beach SportsPlex are leading a movement that may reshape the Commonwealth’s recruiting landscape.
“I just played the game like I knew how to play,” Blanding said of his Marlins’ 42-40 upset of the powerhouse Tigers, whose 49-game regional winning streak was snapped with the loss. “Now, it’s all come down to this, where it’s college and we’re just all sticking together.”
When Blanding arrives at the University in 2014, he will join a roster that already includes 13 players from Virginia Beach and nine more from other cities within the larger Tidewater area. If Blanding follows through on his verbal commitment, it will mark the fourth consecutive year that Virginia has secured a Rivals’ Top 100 recruit from the Virginia Beach area, beginning with Nicholson in 2011.
“We just want to go somewhere and play and represent where we’re from and just improve from there,” Blanding said. “It was more of like, ‘Let’s all try to go to the same school and let’s make a difference.’”
Nicholson was followed by star sophomore defensive end Eli Harold from Ocean Lakes High School in 2012 and Mizzell and Blanding from Bayside in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Other notable names from Virginia Beach include sophomore starting center Ross Burbank from Frank W. Cox High School and redshirt junior linebacker Henry Coley from Bayside.
The Cavaliers have also received a slew of prospects from nearby Chesapeake. Senior wide receiver Tim Smith and former Cavaliers Perry Jones and Alabama transfer Phillip Sims are all graduates of nearby Oscar Smith, located 15 miles away from Eastern Region rival Bayside.
But Chesapeake’s recruiting output cannot rival that of Virginia Beach, the largest and easternmost city in the “757.” It has become one of the most well-regarded recruiting hotspots in the entire nation, and is the hometown of Buffalo Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel — another Bayside graduate — and NFL All-Pro wide receiver Percy Harvin. It has also produced MLB Nationals star Ryan Zimmerman and former NBA player J.R. Reid.
Recruiting analysts have long recognized the importance of establishing a foothold in the talent-rich Virginia Beach area. The city has built a reputation as a bastion for budding pro-level talent across all major American professional sports. The reason for that sustained level of top-notch prospects is less clear.
“I think it’s a little bit of nature and nurture,” Bayside coach Jon White said of the talent in the area. “Some of our guys, when they’re young, they just want to be active … It just so happens when they go to camps they stick out.”
Aside from its reputation as a recruiting hotbed, the Virginia Beach area is quirky for another reason. Due to an abundance of youth sports leagues, training facilities and developmental camps, the populous area of 450,000 has the feel of a much smaller city. As a result, many of the top prospects in the region at any given time have crossed paths repeatedly.
For Blanding, Mizzell and Oscar Smith senior Andrew Brown, who committed to the University in June, that connection began at a young age. The trio played together on the same teams in youth leagues, forming a lasting friendship as pre-teens, according to Blanding. That bond endures to this day, and is a driving force behind the teenagers’ decision to reunite in college.
“They’re always hanging out talking; you can see them on Twitter,” Rivals’ Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Coordinator Adam Friedman said. “I know they text back and forth, they’re always out together … I know during the offseason they all train together, they all show up to camps together, they all ride to do things together at a lot of places.”
When Brown began mulling scholarship offers from roughly 30 schools, Blanding initially was “just staying on him” to ensure that the Hampton Roads products would reunite at Virginia. Brown announced his decision to join the Cavaliers June 29, 2013.
“It’s pretty cool on a national stage, you don’t see this a whole lot where you have this group of friends, all of them are national-level recruits, all of them five-star players,” Friedman said of Mizzell, Blanding and Brown. “[They are] really, really special players that have the potential to go onto the NFL and be great players if it all pans out in college.”
To Blanding, Brown’s commitment was the culmination of a process that was years in the making, a final act of loyalty and show of mutual trust that renewed their friendship for the foreseeable future.
“It was just a great day,” Blanding said. “I mean, he [saw] the big picture and just wanted to be a part of something we were building.”
Blanding has attended both of Virginia’s games so far this season, and he and Brown were both in attendance for Virginia’s 59-10 thrashing at the hands of Oregon in Charlottesville. Amid the blowout loss, they watched Mizzell, the top-ranked running back in the class of 2013, test his electrifying speed against the No. 2 team in the country. They also saw Coley make run-stuffing tackles, Nicholson break up passes with ease and Harold wreak havoc in the backfield, sights that had become commonplace in their hometown.
It was a scene that would have felt so natural if not for the stage that it took place on, with ABC broadcasting the game to a national audience.
For one more season, Blanding will play in relative anonymity on an unassuming high school football field. In less than 12 months, he will become another star attraction for tens of thousands of rabid fans and perhaps for the next wave of recruits visiting Virginia.
After the Cavaliers’ season-opening 19-16 win against Brigham Young in a thunder-delayed, five-hour marathon of a game, Blanding left his seat by the Cavalier tunnel. When he approached his future teammates and spoke with them about their future together, they communicated a simple message to him: get ready for it, and we look forward to having you.
“He might as well just see it for himself,” Coley said. “Just to be around that atmosphere and see what a team like us is doing in that aspect, I hope we can show him rather than tell him.”
This is the second installment of a four-part series detailing Virginia’s emergence as a recruiting powerhouse, particularly for prospects from the Virginia Beach area. Part three will investigate how Virginia has elbowed its way to recruiting preeminence in the Virginia Beach area since Mike London’s 2010 arrival.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Allen Iverson and MLB All-Stars David Wright and brothers B.J. and Justin Upton were from Virginia Beach. They hail from Hampton, Va. and Chesapeake, Va., respectively.