By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Zack Blair understands the importance of being well prepared.
As a middle linebacker this past season for Skyline, Blair's job on the football field as a member of the Hawks' defensive unit closely resembled the duties required of the quarterback on offense.
Blair was the leader of the defense, the signal-caller, the one responsible for making sure his teammates were in the proper positions on the field. In order to do that effectively, the senior linebacker needed to understand Skyline's opponents better than anyone else.
"In my case, its just film study over anything," Blair said. "If I know a team's weak spots and I know their best players and who I need to shut down, it makes my job a whole lot easier."
Blair's devotion to studying game film, which he credits to Skyline defensive coordinator Steve Burton, began in his junior season when he was thrust into the middle linebacker role after playing his sophomore season at outside linebacker.
Blair said he began using his free period during the school day for film study, and his determination to understand everything he could about Skyline's next opponent carried over into this past season.
The hours upon hours that Blair spent in front of his computer studying game film consumed a large portion of the time that he spent off of the football field.
"Schoolwork honestly came second to football during football season," Blair said. "I did what I had to do to maintain my grades just to a passing level and then I kind of turned it on in the second semester, because football comes first, even if that's not everybody's saying."
Blair's unparalleled preparation helped him achieve the greatest season ever by a defensive player in Skyline's six-year history.
Blair, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2012 Football Defensive Player of the Year, finished the regular season with 131 tackles (52 solo), 13 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks.
In Skyline's two playoff games this season, Blair recorded an additional 30 tackles (10 solo), nine tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
In his junior season, Blair's 120 stops broke the school record for tackles in a season, which previously stood at 109 set by Ty Helmick. Blair broke that record again this year, and added the school career tackles record to his list of accomplishments this season. He will leave Skyline with a total of 292 tackles.
Blair's record-setting season earned him the Northwestern District Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as the title of Region II, Division 3 Defensive Player of the Year.
Blair was so dominant on the defensive side of the football that Skyline head coach Heath Gilbert said no one put another player up against him when it came time to vote for the all-region team.
All of the accolades have taken Blair by surprise, and he credits his coaches and teammates for helping him obtain those awards.
"It just kind of made me reflect on everything my coaches have done for me, the bonds I've grown with some of my teammates and the whole D-line," Blair said of the moment he learned of the all-region selection. "They [defensive line] actually kind of took into their own hands to make it their responsibility to allow the linebackers to make plays, and I'm always going to be grateful for that."
Blair's focus on learning the ins and outs of opposing offenses was certainly a key to the impressive numbers he put up this season, but the 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker also put in the physical work necessary to be a force in the middle of the defense.
Blair said he began working out with Burton during his junior season as Burton prepared for the Tough Mudder event, a grueling 10-12 mile obstacle course designed by British Special Forces. Blair said those workouts "kind of pushed me over the top."
Gilbert said Blair's combination of mental and physical preparedness is what sets him above the rest.
"He's relentless. He's so good at reading his keys and being in the right position. He has such a knack for beating a block," Gilbert said. "He can beat you physically ... he's run through fullbacks to make tackles, but also if there's that space there he's going to make you miss, and that's where he's getting that TFL. He's very savvy."
Blair said he wants his football career to continue at the collegiate level, but he is still sorting through his various options and the process is still "wide open."
Behind Blair and the rest of Skyline's seniors, the Hawks put together their best season to date. Skyline achieved a number of firsts this year: a 10-win season, an outright Northwestern District title and a playoff victory.
The Hawks also ended a two-game losing streak to cross-town rival Warren County with a 14-12 win over the Wildcats in the regular-season finale. Blair called Skyline's season one that "everyone dreams of for their senior year."
Gilbert said Blair was a main reason the Hawks were able to do what they did this season.
"To be honest, I don't think we're 10-2 without him," Gilbert said. "That's the kind of impact he had on our football team."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org