by Travis Mewhirter
The play is easy to recall for Montgomery Blair High School football coach Andrew Fields, since watched it several times in the film room to believe it.
It was third-and-4 in an Oct. 25 game against Albert Einstein. It didn't require a genius to guess the Titans would hand the ball to running back Khalil Wilson, the county's top returning rusher from last season. Blair linebacker Yonis Blanco took it a step further, saying he knew where the running back was going.
From the opposite side of the field playing weakside linebacker stood Blanco, a 5-foot-7, 160-pound junior. Blanco shot the gap and wrestled the bruising back down from behind to force Einstein to punt.
“It was almost like he was in the huddle,” said Fields, Blair's first-year coach. “When you coach guys, you want guys who will do exactly what you tell them to do and he's that guy. He can see a play before it happens. He can see something pre-snap and make an adjustment. He's just unbelievable. Just his ability to react and be one-step ahead, I've never seen anything like that at the high school level. Maybe college, but not high school.”
Blanco makes up for his smaller size with what Fields says is one of the highest football IQs he's ever seen. It's an ability the junior has developed through hours of watching film and asking lots questions.
“The first time I met him was at a team meeting, and he started asking questions,” Fields said. “Mature and intuitive questions. Right there I knew he was a smart football player.”
When Blanco is finished with his homework, he watches game film. During lunches, he frequents the library to watch some more. In between, he streams Hudl on his smart phone to continue brushing up on next week's opponent. The biggest tell he's looking for is from the guards. They're the key to sniffing out plays.
“The first thing I do is read the near back,” he said. “Then I look at the guards. I read his steps — if he's pass blocking, run blocking, pulling, that sort of thing.”
If the near running back initially moves left, Blanco steps with him. If the guard follows suit, Blanco shoots the gap. If the guard starts pulling, Blanco reads the makings of a sweep and plays contain, sure not to over pursue and leave his section of the field open for a cutback lane. The result? A game with 24 tackles, another with 18, and scores of others in double-digits.
“He's a combination of mental intelligence, athletic ability and football,” Fields said. “One of the most overlooked things about high school football — well, football in general — is football IQ. He's a top-5 guy I've ever coached.”
Fields claims to be very stingy on his statistics. Some coaches will inflate numbers to boost stats for one reason or another. Blair's coach is a stout opponent to that practice. In fact, he actually recessed Blanco's tackle number when the linebacker recorded 24 tackles — he actually had 25.
“Twelve, 13 tackles in a high school game, that's a great game. Twenty-five tackles? I didn't want it to sound fake,” Fields said. “That's how crazy it was. But that's who he is, that's what he is. That's just par for the course for him.”
Given Blanco's undersized body for his position, it's a wonder how he hasn't broken down with an injury sustain the pace he has all year. After all, he's chasing down running backs several pounds heavier than him. Larger lineman are also of no concern.
“I don't think about big linemen like that,” Blanco insisted. “I'm taught to shoot and rip so I don't spend time with the linemen. I use my speed to get around them so I don't get caught up with them. I still get sore after every game, but it's natural now. Taking a beating, it doesn't hurt.”
If Blanco was “Six-[feet], 200 pounds,” Fields says. “[He] would without a doubt have multiple Division I offers on the table. He is that kind of player.”
He has one more year to add to his frame, maybe grow an inch or two. But those are the things he can only do so much about. For now, he will be polishing up his football IQ.
“He's a kid you want to coach,” Fields said. “He's one of those guys who puts a smile on your face when you watch him.”