VIERA — Zack Blanch’s senior year was going to be special. The power running back had been a major offensive player for a Viera team that went 9-0 during the 2014 regular season and won its school’s first district football title.
But on the first day of contact during August practices, he was tackled around his lower leg and suffered a high ankle sprain. It’s a nagging injury that has kept many a professional out of action far longer than most fans would expect.
In addition to the personal loss suffered by a senior before his final season even had a chance to start, Blanch’s loss was a blow to a high-powered Hawks offense for which he had been an important balance as a junior.
Last year, Blanch carried for 933 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt. His team counted on another big year, and he wanted to do the job.
“I couldn’t wait to get back. I needed to get back,” Blanch recalled after Tuesday’s practice. “There were moments where I thought it might not be healthy enough to play, but I wanted to play. That’s what I set my mind to do.”
He tried on more than one occasion to fit back into his old spot, but the reality of his recovery was that he never felt healthy enough for the required cutting and absorbing of hits. But he had an alternative.
“I knew I wasn’t going to play running back as soon as I could play linebacker,” Blanch said. “Instead of playing running back and hurting it, I could play linebacker and play a full game.”
The decision was made before the fifth game of the season, and he has been a key contributor, across the line of scrimmage from his usual spot. When the Hawks (9-4) take the field Friday in Lake City against 12-1 Columbia in a Class 7A state semifinal, No. 32 will be playing to stop running backs rather than starring as one.
Yet, Blanch’s time at linebacker hasn’t been about boosting his self-esteem. The senior has had some monstrous games, including his first one at the position.
Against Brevard’s own monster team, Cocoa, Blanch recorded 13 tackles, eight of those solo. He made one stop behind the line of scrimmage.
His ‘off’ game was a seven-tackle effort, and his numbers have grown steadily from there. In the last two games, both win-or-go-home regional playoffs, Blanch has made 15 (Martin County) and 21 (Lakeland) stops.
In that Lakeland game, 12 of his tackles were solo, and four went for losses.
Keep in mind, Blanch is not playing a position where he can be hidden away as a weakness to be overcome. At middle linebacker, he is at the heart of the defense and has to be a physical and verbal leader.
“Well, it’s not like I have to call the whole defense,” he insisted. “I’m just making sure everyone does the right thing, making sure nothing is out of place.”
As much as he might try to downplay his responsibility, defensive coordinator Derek Smith recognized what he had. He and Mays, who have coached together through several jobs, shared a high opinion of their new defensive talent.
“He’s one of the most natural athletes we’ve been around and competed with,” Smith said. “When football was away, he came back hungry.”
His feasting has paid off in a variety of ways. Self-esteem as a goal or not, Blanch has found satisfaction in being able to contribute significantly to a team he helped build.
That’s quite a rebound from once wondering if his playing time at Viera had run out.
“He was down and tried to come back,” Mays recalled of Blanch’s ill-fated attempt to carry the ball against Melbourne. “He loves this game as much as any kid I’ve had. It’s great for him as much as it’s been great for us.”
Contact McCallum at 321-242-3698 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twiter @Brian_McCallum and at facebook.com/FLtoday.brianmccallum.