SALT LAKE CITY — Practice was over and Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah dismissed his players.
One of them, however, wouldn’t leave the field.
“Julian (Blackmon) loves to improve,” Shah said, drawing out the word love. “He’s a worker bee. I gotta shut him down.”
After one particular practice, Shah had to insist the junior take a break.
“I had to tell him, ‘You’ve got to get off the field. This is non-negotiable,” Shah said. “He was so (mad). He wanted to get back on the jugs machine, do more footwork, and I had to tell him, becoming great is also resting.”
The cornerback’s drive to improve comes from a few places — he wants to make his parents proud, he wants to prove doubters wrong, and he wants this year’s team to play for something special.
TURNING DOUBT TO FUEL
It wasn’t just college recruiters that doubted the former Layton standout could play anything more than high school football. That was a problem for the youngest of three boys because he harbored a dream of playing in the NFL.
“Always,” he said of when he began to think about playing in college and the pros. “But you always have those teachers who are, ‘Oh, make sure you have a backup plan.’ Then there was me who was like, ‘No, I’m going to the league no matter what.’ Ever since I was little, it just kind of made me want to prove them wrong, just like a lot of people in my life, doubters.”
For him, there has always been a purpose in the time and energy he devotes to the game.
“I’m here for a reason, so that’s why I work as hard as I do,” he said. “I want to prove them wrong, and the people who do believe in me, I want to prove them right.” Even as a standout at Layton High, Blackmon didn’t get much interest from college coaches until Utah offered him.
“That’s one of the biggest factors why I still push,” said Blackmon, who led Utah in interceptions (four) and passes defended last year and was named to the All-Pac-12 second team and also was the MVP of the Heart of Dallas Bowl. “Especially where I come from. I just want to show the kids from Layton, they can make it here. Whatever doubts they have, as long as they work hard, they can make it.”
In fact, his connection to his hometown, which he calls “a little town that has good people in it,” is so personal, he hopes his success inspires those who grow up in the Northern Utah community.
“I want to be the factor that pushes them,” he said. “I want them to say, ‘He did it, so I’m going to try to do what he did.’”
HONORING HIS PARENTS
Blackmon said it wasn’t being overlooked that threatened to derail his promising football career.
“Honestly, it was myself,” he said. “Just self-doubt. As a kid, you want to impress everyone. When you have that down moment as a kid, you’re just really hard on yourself.”
Developing confidence, his coaches said, is what transformed him from an athletic kid with stereotypical dreams to a football player capable of achieving those NFL aspirations.
“He just said, ‘Coach Shah, you said this to me, that I could be one of the best cornerbacks in the school's history,’” Shah said, of Blackmon thanking him for having faith in him during the recruiting process. “I saw the physical attributes back then. I told him, ‘I don’t know if you have the mentality, but I saw the physical attributes.’ Sitting in that meeting room today, he said, ‘Coach, I love you. Thank you for staying on me.’” Blackmon grew up with three older brothers, two of them within three years of him.
“All they did was beat me up,” he said laughing. “We used to go in the backyard and play, and I’d have to tackle them. They were huge compared to me because I was the youngest.”
He said running around the yard of his father’s Layton home trying to drag his big brothers to the ground felt like good preparation once he arrived at Utah three years ago.
“Coach Shah made me tackle everyone, and it was like, ‘Oh, I’ve done this before,’” he laughed.
Blackmon’s parents divorced when he was young, and he lived with his mother in West Valley City until he was 8.
“There was just more opportunity with what my dad had to offer at the time,” he said. “It was just a little bit more than what my mom could. He put us in a position to be able to be fortunate enough to be around the right people and be recruited.” Blackmon lived with his father, Johnnie, and stepmother, Kahea Blackmon, in South Salt Lake until fifth grade, and then the family moved to Layton. He called the situation “super complicated,” and no doubt it was emotionally tough for a young man who’d been a "mama’s boy."
“It was super hard,” he said of the transition from living with his mom, Carol Blackmon, to living with his dad. “She carried me up until I was eight. I was a mama’s boy. When I moved in with my dad, it took some getting used to. Then I kind of turned into a daddy’s boy.”
He said being the youngest, he felt a special kinship with both of his parents, and he credits them each with helping him achieve his dream of playing FBS college football.
“I do everything to impress my dad because he’s the reason I’m here,” he said. “My mom is the reason I’m here too. My family is one of the biggest factors for me.”
A SPECIAL SEASON
Blackmon could find himself struggling with the astronomical pressure of his junior season.
After being named to the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (awarded to the best college defensive player) and the Bednarik Award (College Defensive Player of the Year) watch lists, Blackmon deleted his social media accounts.
“I could care less about what’s going on in the media,” he said. “I could care less about any of that. That’s why I got rid of social media. I deleted my social media because I didn’t want to see that pressure. I didn’t want people to tell me what I was. I believe in myself. I don’t need people telling me what to do.”
Shah believes that is illustrative of his maturity and commitment to put the team first.
“(Social media) never helps,” he said. “It creates anxiety, unnecessary expectations on you trying to fulfill a level of somebody else’s expectations. Just go do what you can do.” Blackmon said this summer’s player-led workouts were the toughest in his three seasons at Utah.
“I text these guys all the time, ‘We’re doing this for a reason,'” he said. “Remember no matter how hard it gets in practice, just remember, we’re going to look back and be like, ‘We’re glad we went through this because look where we are now.’ I just want my guys to succeed. I want them to do even better than me. This isn’t about me, it’s about us. I share my advice with them. They share their advice with me.”
The entire team, he said, from new faces to last year’s stars believes this squad is capable of playing for something special.
“We want to win,” he said. “We have the talent to win, and that’s what we’re working for out here every day.”