RENTON — The mindset existed for Marquise Blair long before he ever put on football pads and a helmet for any affiliated team in his hometown of Wooster, Ohio.
With two older brothers and two younger brothers — all close in age — and even a sister who was expected to participate, there was one way to play football in the front yards and open lots of their neighborhood: aggressive and physical.
Are you the hammer, or the nail?
Do you deliver the punishment, or do you receive it?
“It came from playing backyard football,” he said.
There were no flags on their waist to grab or two-hand touch to signal the ball carrier was down. No, you took him down.
“We used to play every day,” he said. “We had everybody in the neighborhood playing. And it was tackle.”
Well, there was no tackling on that cement pad they played on at their grandma’s house. But brothers being brothers, competition and anger eventually led to tackling.
Who hit the hardest?
“Me,” he said.
That attitude — born from wanting to beat your brothers, along with many scraped knees and elbows — carried Blair to stardom at Wooster High, took on another level when he was forced to go to Dodge City Community College after failing to qualify for NCAA eligibility, fit in perfectly with the ultraphysical style of play at the University of Utah, made him a second-round pick in the 2019 draft and has now elevated him to Seahawks starting safety eight games into this season.
“He’s never shown anything but playmaking, a style about the way he runs and attacks the ball and all that,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “There’s no surprise in what’s going on. It just takes time. Now, we’ve kind of forced the issue and he’s had a couple starts now and he’s ready to go. He’s ready to be out there competing.”
Was becoming starter as a rookie at a key position an expected goal for Blair?
“I mean, yeah, of course,” the safety said.
The progression to this point took a little longer than he and the Seahawks had hoped. After showing flashes of brilliance in the first preseason game, but also moments of obvious inexperience, Blair was sidetracked by back and hip injuries that limited his practice reps and kept him out of two preseason games.
“Remember that he had trouble in the offseason; we didn’t get him out there,” Carroll said. “We had trouble in camp keeping him out there as well. He’s just missed too much time to expect him to really be any farther ahead than he is. He just couldn’t get out there.”
Blair played sparingly to start the season, even being put on the inactive list for the games against the Cardinals and Rams. Most of his snaps came on special teams.
But with back spasms forcing Bradley McDougald to the sidelines and Delano Hill dealing with an elbow issue, Blair got the start against the Ravens on Oct. 20. He made six tackles and broke up a pass. It wasn’t a clean game, but he avoided the colossal mistake.
With McDougald still ailing, Blair started last Sunday in Atlanta, delivering a stellar performance that included 11 tackles (nine solo) and the game-changing forced fumble on Devonta Freeman near the Seahawks goal line.
“He’s a playmaker,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “He really grasps the concepts of the defense but he’s just flying downhill making plays. He made a play on the goal line where he’s making the tackle, but, to have the mindset to try get the ball out right before the guy gets on the goal line — I think he’s going to make a lot of big plays for us.”
A safety during his playing days and a secondary coach in his early years, Carroll has high expectations for his safeties. Like he did with Earl Thomas, he has worked hard with Blair to emphasize the fine line of responsibility within the scheme and the aggressive desire to make plays. You can do both without limiting one or the other.
“There’s a lot to that,” Carroll said. “First, they have to serve the defense. They’ve got to do things right, be where they’re supposed to be and give us the basics and the fundamentals of it. Then, as they make the statement that they understand and they get it, then they’ll feel more comfortable, more confident and free up more to be more active. Some guys don’t wait very long. This guy in particular, Marquise, he’s going for it. We’re really excited for his nature that he brings.”
Blair, who isn’t known to be verbose off the field, was more succinct.
“This is the league — they expect me to be where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “I wouldn’t go outside of my job to make plays, but when they come to you, make them.”
Blair has so many highlight-reel hits, it’s hard to find a favorite. For Cody Barton, a Utes and Seahawks teammate, the de-cleating of Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins in 2017 is top on the list.
“He smacked him,” Barton said. “But he got ejected for it though, but still he smacked him.”
Blair was ejected three times in college for targeting penalties. In his first NFL game, he was flagged for targeting, though it was a close call. Unlike in college, he was able to remain in that game.
The yearly trend to reduce concussions in football by policing how players hit is a constant adjustment for everyone, including Blair.
“You have no choice but adjust to it or you’ll get fined,” he said. “I’d rather not do it. It’s definitely frustration, but you can’t do nothing about it.”
There were no targeting flags back on those grass fields in Wooster with his brothers and friends, and no helmets or pads, either. When Blair registers his next gasp-inducing hit on a player, hopefully legally, you’ll know the roots of that physicality.
Things look different to Blair back in Wooster now. Kids no longer play in the sandlots or yards. It’s all organized and regimented — teams and practices, not brothers and friends in jeans and T-shirts.
“When I go back home, you don’t see anybody outside,” he said. “We used to be outside every day playing football. Tackle football.”