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Quin Blanding talks returning home, time in the NFL and, of course, the VT rivalry

The former Virginia standout safety and current team scout reflects on the years since being drafted

<p>In his third season at Virginia, Blanding recorded 29 stops — the highest number of all draft-eligible safeties in the conference.</p>

In his third season at Virginia, Blanding recorded 29 stops — the highest number of all draft-eligible safeties in the conference.

Quin Blanding remembers exactly where he was on Nov. 29, 2019 — the date of Virginia’s Commonwealth Cup matchup against Virginia Tech two years ago. The Cavaliers had dropped the last 15 games in the rivalry series, but that didn’t matter to Blanding. The Hampton Roads native and former star safety for Virginia was a member of the Carolina Panthers practice squad at the time, but even in Charlotte, N.C., he always made time for key matchups concerning his alma mater.

“One thing about me is that when we played Tech, wherever I was in the league, I was watching that game,” Blanding said.

Blanding was playing video games in his Charlotte apartment that day leading up to the highly anticipated matchup and when the game began, he started to live tweet. However, not everything went according to plan for the Cavaliers. A nerve-racking game down to the final seconds made for an extremely difficult viewing experience for all Virginia fans, Blanding included.

“I literally cut the game off five times,” Blanding said. “Like I cut it off saying ‘I can’t watch this any more ’... It’s so hilarious to me now. I started playing Call of Duty at some points of the game, because I couldn't watch it. Then I’d say ‘You know what, let me watch. I can’t do it.’”

Blanding’s and thousands of fans’ perseverance was rewarded when then-junior defensive end Mandy Alonso strip-sacked Hokie quarterback Hendon Hooker with a minute remaining in the game and Eli Hanback recovered the ball in the end zone for the Cavaliers to seal the streak-ending victory. It felt like a new chapter in Virginia football history. However, Blanding remembers the fallout from the win on social media vividly. 

“When we won, I promise I got the most hate in America,” Blanding said. “Tech fans hate me. They hate my guts for no reason. I didn’t do anything wrong to them, but they hate my guts.”

Blanding was confused by this reaction because Virginia never beat Virginia Tech in his four years playing for the program. However, he views himself as the catalyst for the change in culture that allowed for the first Cavalier victory against the Hokies since 2003. Fans view Blanding as one of the faces of “The New Standard,” the era of football initiated by the hiring of current Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall. 

The program was in desperate need of a new standard at the time of Blanding’s high school recruitment. Despite receiving offers from top programs around the country, the decision to attend Virginia and stay close to home was easy for Blanding.

“It meant a lot to me honestly, to know that my family and friends could come see me play whenever,” Blanding said. “Most importantly, it’s where I’m from and where I take pride in … I wanted to change the program around.” 

Blanding burst onto the scene for Virginia in 2014, recording 123 tackles, three interceptions and a sack — stats good enough for ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. He went on to receive three consecutive First Team All ACC nominations to close out his four-year college career. Although his high level of play was consistent, the circumstances surrounding his time with the Cavaliers were not. 

“I had two different coaches, four different position coaches and 2.5 defensive coordinators,” Blanding said. “You [have to] understand that culture shock ... You have to understand what each of them wants out of you. It’s hard. But you also have to understand that no matter what you have to go out there and perform.”

Virginia never had a winning record while Blanding was on the roster. However, by the time Blanding was a senior, the Cavaliers were bowl eligible once more, and it was clear to see that the program was on the rise. Blanding knows he was instrumental to the changes that put Virginia back on the map, but he made sure not to take all the credit for it. 

“I helped generate everything you see now, but I wouldn’t be able to do that without the people who came before me,” Blanding said. “I’m proud of where the program is, even if that’s where it should’ve been when I was playing ... but I laid the groundwork for [the current team] and they get to maintain that culture and make sure it doesn’t go down again.”

After graduating from Virginia in 2017, Blanding set his sights on a professional career and signed with Washington as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He was waived later that same year, but landed a few hundred miles south at the Carolina Panthers, fluctuating between reserve/future contracts and eventually signing with the practice squad. He was waived in 2020 and made the decision to walk away from the NFL. His time in the league was never easy, but Blanding is proud to have done what many thought was impossible.

“When you’re a bubble guy, you never know what can happen and every day you’re fighting for something …” Blanding said. “People can say ‘You didn’t do this or that in the league,’ but I made it in the league. I made it to points no one could ever think ... People know what’s real. I validate myself, not the league. I was more than willing to go, and I was ready to enter this new journey and new season [with Virginia]. I’ve embraced it with joy and happiness.” 

Blanding says the door was always open for a return to the Virginia program on account of the current coaching staff. 

“I contemplated it for a while,” Blanding said. “ A lot of people don’t know, in 2018 when Washington let me go, I almost gave it all up. The conversation started then in a sense. I thought football was done for me … But they’ve always said that whenever I was ready, something would be available [at Virginia].”

Mendenhall was instrumental to the program’s ability to retain connections with alumni and maintain an atmosphere of family that Blanding values.

“[Mendenhall] really does stay in contact,” Blanding said. “All our coaches do. Once you step into that program and form those relationships, it’s ‘Family First Always.’ And that’s the truth.”

Blanding joined the recruiting staff for the football team in 2021 and had one small complaint upon returning to the program he helped build.

“Yeah, [Mendenhall] softened up,” Blanding said. “We used to go through it. I don’t know if these kids could handle what we went through, but that’s all part of the culture too. Now that you guys are good you don’t gotta go through all of that because we did. He still gives them work but it wasn’t our type of work. It’s nice ... I wish they still had what we had though.” 

Blanding’s new role puts him in an unfamiliar position — one working from behind a desk. He scouts the areas where he grew up, including Hampton Roads as well as North and South Carolina for homegrown talent and spends most of his time analyzing film, getting information on recruits and sitting in meetings with the coaching staff to share his findings.

“I love it,” Blanding said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything … It’s fun to watch the kids I watched play little league football in the process of getting recruited. It’s amazing that these kids have the opportunity to change their lives and I’m glad I get to help them with it.”

Whether it’s on the field or behind a desk, Blanding is proud of his home state and takes even more pride in his role at Virginia. When asked about whether he would change anything he was unequivocal.

“I don’t regret anything,” Blanding said. “I don’t regret anything I’ve done, and I don’t regret coming to the University of Virginia. If I had to do it all over again, I’m coming back to Virginia. I made a stamp that no one could ever make ... I’m back home to Virginia and that’s what it’s all about.”

As for his return to the sidelines for this year’s rivalry matchup, Blanding’s nerves and excitement will be as high as they were in his Charlotte apartment in 2019, miles away from the action with Twitter and Call of Duty helping him through. 

“I’m ready,” Blanding said. “I can’t wait to see what’s in store this year.”

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