By Jeff Nations -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Skyline football coach Heath Gilbert had a feeling that Zack Blair might be the Hawks' next great middle linebacker as he watched the then-sophomore work through fall practice last season.
Blair needed just one play to confirm that assessment.
"We could see his potential when he was a sophomore," Gilbert said. "We really liked his play-making ability, and he really took advantage of it. His very first play against Dominion [a scrimmage], he comes through and makes a big hit on the running back, he fumbles it and [Blair] scoops it up and starts running."
Which is basically what Blair did with the opportunity to start as a junior -- he ran with it. Manning the strong-side middle linebacker spot, Blair racked up a school-record 120 tackles (46 solo) to earn first-team all-Northwestern District and second-team all-Region II honors as a junior.
Blair loves the contact manning the middle entails.
"I like as much action as possible," Blair said. "Our d-linemen know just what to do -- get their hands on the blocker, free up holes for me. I can't do my job without them doing theirs."
That may be, but teammate and fellow senior Nick Helmick -- a first-team all-district defensive end -- said he thinks Blair takes a fairly active role in initiating all those hits.
"He just flies around," Helmick said. "He sees the ball and runs to it, and he just tries to make the play as fast as he can."
Blair also has a penchant for making a game-changing play. His personal favorite came in the Hawks' win over Northwestern District rival Sherando, when he caught up to the Warriors' star running back Joe Ojo after a long run. Blair hit Ojo at about the 5-yard-line on a long run, stripped the ball and celebrated as Helmick recovered the fumble to save a touchdown.
Last year, Blair recovered five fumbles, blocked two kicks, had an interception and a sack.
"He's a leader on our defense," Gilbert said.
"He makes plays for us. He's savvy. He's not just trying to get tackles. He's trying to create turnovers. He's what you want in a football player."
Blair's play helped Skyline win a share of the Northwestern District regular-season championship with a 3-1 mark, but the Hawks finished 4-6 overall and missed the Group AA playoffs.
This year, Blair wants to help his team take the next step.
"We knocked off James Wood and Sherando, two teams that we had never beaten in the past," Blair said. "Those were big wins for us. We got co-district champs, which was very impressive for Skyline to do considering no one in Warren County had ever done that. It was a big year for us, and just a good year to build on. We have a lot of seniors this year and we expect to be really good."
Blair expects that most of his contributions will come on the defensive side. He backs up Helmick at tight end on offense, and didn't have a single catch last season.
"I'm mostly blocking," Blair said. "Offense really isn't my forte. Nick does such a lock-down job at his position. He's one of the best in the state, in my opinion."
Gilbert expects an even bigger season from the now bigger and stronger Blair.
"What he did this off-season was tremendous," Gilbert said. "He really changed his body. He's 205, 210 pounds now, he's right in there. He wasn't real big up top, but this offseason he's really changed that. It's been impressive to see his transformation. It was all about dedication, and not just to the weight room but also nutrition, eating the right things, getting enough rest when you're lifting so you can recover and go. He bought into all the phases that you need to get better."
Blair knows the postseason recognition comes with a trade-off -- he'll likely be a marked man on the field this year as opposing offenses look to slow him down.
"I really appreciated it," Blair said of the all-district and all-region honors. "I like to think that now that I've been recognized, it's going to be a little bit tougher on me and I'm going to have to step up my game a little bit."