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Julian Blackmon glad he gave up basketball for football and is now a star as Ute safety

Utah Utes defensive back Julian Blackmon (23) breaks up a pass intended for Arizona Wildcats safety Scottie Young Jr. (19) during the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In high school, Julian Blackmon was a basketball player. He started for the Layton High team that won the 5A state title in 2015 and he led his team to the semifinals the next year when he was a first-team all-state player along with current NBA player Frank Jackson and BYU star Yoeli Childs.

“Basketball was definitely my favorite,” Blackmon says. But he was also realistic enough to know that he might not have a great future in basketball at 6-foot-1, even if his high school coach is convinced he could have played in college.

“I figured I was a little too short for basketball,” he says with a laugh. “There are too many 6-7 point guards and I’m only 6-1.”

In prep football, where he mostly played wide receiver, Blackmon was never more than an all-region performer, in part because he missed much of his senior season with a broken hand. But he showed enough promise to be recruited by one school, the University of Utah, where he has become a three-year starter and is perhaps on the verge of an NFL career.

After being named MVP of the 2017 Heart of Dallas Bowl and a second-team all-Pac-12 cornerback last year, Blackmon has been moved to safety this year to help fill the void left by departing seniors Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard.

“He’s awesome,” said Utah safeties coach Morgan Scalley. “He’s what we want, a smart kid who does everything we ask, who sets the tempo in the room as an example. He has very good range, very good ball skills, and in terms of coaching the kid, he’s everything you want, ‘yes sir, no sir,’ and gets everything done the way you want it done. He’s a leader, no question.”

In order to be effective as a safety, Blackmon needed to put on some weight and is now listed at 204 pounds, up from 190 pounds a year ago. Besides packing on the extra weight, he prepared for this season by working extra hard in the summer.

“Every summer we have a break and that was a time for me to get better and understand what I needed to do to get better in my game,” he said. “I needed to get faster so I got faster, stronger so I got stronger and to be a safety I needed to get heavier, so I got heavier. It’s been comfortable, knowing that I put on the right weight.”

He did that by working with a team nutritionist, but said the biggest adjustment to his new position is learning the strong safety position, which is less like a cornerback position than free safety.

“Understanding the strong safety was a challenge, but I feel I got it down,” he says. “It’s understanding where I fit in the gaps. If you’re in a magic, and you see a tight end going away then you have to play back side A or back side B, and you have the D gap if the tight end stays down, little things like that.”

OK, we’ll take your word for it, Julian.

When he was in high school, Blackmon’s basketball coach, Kelby MIller, told the Standard-Examiner, “I have no doubt in my mind that he’s a D-I point guard, no doubt. Just what he does athletically, how he is on the defensive side of things, his anticipation, his willingness to sacrifice to what’s necessary to get wins. I have no doubt if that’s what he wanted, he could do that.”

By that time, Blackmon had already signed a letter of intent to play football for Utah, which was the only school to offer him a scholarship. As much as he loved basketball, football was his future.

Scalley was the main recruiter for Blackmon and recalls how impressed he and cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah were when they first saw him.

“I went up to Layton High School and they were telling me about this Julian Blackmon. We had him in camp and said, ‘this kid is athletic.’ We watched him in camp and I said to Sharrieff, ‘come look at this kid,’ and Sharrieff saw the same thing — he was athletic, competitive, and could jump. We loved it and that’s when we offered. He was a fun one to recruit, low maintenance. We don’t care who else offers a kid, if we love ‘em, we love ‘em. Thank goodness that we got him.”

As for his transition from cornerback to safety, Scalley said it’s been a smooth one.

“I had him in my room early as a freshman and was able to coach him up a little bit and knew he was able to handle the safety position,” he said. “Obviously athletic enough, great ball skills, great basketball player. We knew he could go up and get the ball and had great hops. The intellect combined with the athleticism made it a good match.”

Last year, Blackmon played a pivotal role in Utah’s win over BYU as his 27-yard interception return for a touchdown slowed the Cougars’ momentum and started the Utes’ comeback in the 35-27 victory.

With BYU up again in 10 days in Provo, he’s relishing his senior season and sees big things on the horizon for the Utes.

“It’s so fun, definitely my favorite season,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can to help my team win. We want to take it all, whether it be the Pac-12 or something further, we just want to win. We want a championship because we were cut short last year. That’s definitely our goal.”