By Tim Gayle, Raycom Media Camellia Bowl Senior Writer
In a few months, Ronald Blair will get the opportunity to live out his dream of playing football in the National Football League. Five years ago, the Appalachian State defensive end was a player that no one outside of Boone, N.C., really wanted.
"It's crazy when you think about it," Blair said. "This team's come a long way and I've come a long way. The different experiences this team has gone through and I've went through has really made us grow as a team."
Blair and the Mountaineers (10-2) will face Ohio University (8-4) in the second Raycom Media Camellia Bowl on Saturday at Cramton Bowl. Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m.
Blair's football journey isn't unlike many of his teammates, guys who were never considered good enough to play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level but are now excelling after making the transition from Football Championship Subdivision.
"It makes you feel pretty good because a lot of those schools didn't look at you," said Blair, projected as an early-round NFL pick in the 2016 draft. "But it really doesn't matter because you got the opportunity to play ball and you're just thankful for that opportunity. It really speaks to our coaches and our cohesion that we've been able to be successful at this level even though we weren't prepared to be at this level when we first got here."
He only had a few Division II offers as a senior at Greene County High in Greensboro, Ga., when Appalachian State came calling, offering him a chance to join a Southern Conference team that had three FCS national title banners hanging from its rafters. A year later, the school embarked on a new journey that would take it through two years of a postseason ban as it made the transition to Football Bowl Subdivision.
"I thought I would be in the SoCon all four years, playing for an NCAA (FCS) championship," Blair said. "We had no idea this was happening. At first, we were like, 'We're not playing for anything,' but at the same time you get to play the great game of football, which a lot of people don't get to do. You're not playing for a ring or a national championship, you still get to play a game."
Along the way, as Appalachian State evolved into an FBS program, Blair developed into one of the nation's top defensive ends. Mountaineer coach Scott Satterfield thinks of Blair, the 2015 Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and recalls a similar player from Auburn High who was overlooked by major schools and signed by Troy. Demarcus Ware became the Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 as he led the Trojans to their first-ever FBS bowl, the Silicon Valley Football Classic.
Ware is now in his 11th NFL season with the Denver Broncos.
"He's one of those late bloomer types, kind of like Troy had," Satterfield said. "I think he's got a long future ahead of him in the NFL. Our defense plays great as a unit but when you look and somebody gets tackled in the backfield, it's probably Ronald Blair in on the tackle. He's one of those guys who has really developed into an outstanding player. He's put on the proper weight, he's extremely explosive. And he's also one of the most humble guys I've ever been around. He's a one-of-a-kind type of guy you want to have on your team. He's a great leader. He really doesn't say a whole lot but when he does, everybody listens."
Blair ranks 11th nationally in tackles for loss with 15 solo stops and six assists behind the line, helping an Appalachian State defense that ranks 12th nationally in total defense at 318 yards per game and 13th in scoring defense at 18.3 points per game. Now in the national spotlight, the Georgia native remains humble and said his only goal Saturday is to show ESPN viewers how hard work has paid off for the Mountaineers.
"We want to show people that we are what we've been showing everybody the whole season, a hard-working team that plays hard," he said. "We've got a great team in Ohio that we're playing Saturday and hopefully we can pull out a win. This is a big one for our history at Appalachian State. That would be great, 20 years down the road, to say we were the first team to do this in our first bowl-eligible season and this is what you want to hold up as our standard."
Only one other team (Marshall in 1997) has ever won 10 games in its first FBS bowl-eligible season. No team has ever won 11.
"We've come a long way but we just focus on one thing at a time, whatever's right in front of us," Satterfield said. "Because as football coaches and football teams, you're only remembered for your last game. Everyone will forget how we had this season if we don't play well this game so we've got to come out and play great and make some more history on Saturday night."