Utah cornerback Ryan Lacy went into the season with the goal of setting a good example for the Utes' underclassmen.
"I had nothing left but to ball and work hard and set the ground for the younger guys," he said. "I wanted to send myself out on a good note so they'd think, 'Dang, I want to be like him.' "
Consider it a goal accomplished, even though the Utes still have a third of the season remaining.
Arguably no other player has made as big of a surprising impact for Utah's defense this year than Lacy.
An honorable mention all-Pac-12 player in 2011, Lacy has developed into not only one of Utah's best players, but also one of the prime defenders in the league.
From USC receiver Marqise Lee to Oregon State's Markus Wheaton to Cal's Keenan Allen, Lacy has been able to match up against some of the best receivers in the league and take them out of their game.
Lacy was banged up in the Cal game and is questionable for Saturday's contest against Washington State. If he plays, he'll undoubtably be one of the key defenders of Washington State's Marquess Wilson, who is one of the top receivers in the country, averaging 92.5 yards a game.
That Lacy has developed into such a defensive talent is as much of a surprise as anyone. Highly recruited out of Oakmont High School in Antelope, Calif., Lacy had designs on playing receiver.
He'd excelled on the offensive side of the ball in high school, with 1,922 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns, and finished eighth in the state of California in the 100 meters.
Lacy, who committed to the Utes as a junior, had great visions of using all that speed and experience to trip up would-be defenders. Instead, he joined a long line of players who found success with the Utes on the other side of the ball.
"They took me in and taught me to be great on defense," Lacy said. "I still have some of that receiver mentality, and I take that into games so I know what routes look like and breaks off turns and turn that into a good thing for me."
At 5-foot-9, 186 pounds, Lacy isn't an intimidating figure on the field like other celebrated Ute defenders such as Star Lotulelei. But with his speed and hard-hitting ways, Lacy is gaining a reputation for being an impact player on all levels.
Last week against Cal, he had two critical pass breakups and an interception. He spent most of the night on Allen, who finished with five catches for 61 yards, but had only two for 24 yards in the first three quarters.
One of Lacy's pass breakups would have been for a 29-yard touchdown play.
"I just got my hands in there," Lacy said. "I told myself I wasn't going to let him get one on me, and I didn't."
Lacy's play was one of the highlights in the game for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
"It was outstanding," Whittingham said. "Ryan is a very competitive kid, and that receiver is a first-round draft choice, certainly first day, and Ryan did an outstanding job in coverage."
Lacy's emergence is of particular importance because the secondary has had its rough moments this year as the Utes have juggled starters due to injury, inexperience or disciplinary reasons.
Through it all, Lacy has been a constant source of solid play.
"I love practicing with him because he is always competing," safety Brian Blechen said. "He is making plays and he is vocal and he's always getting on people. He is a huge leader who brings a lot of energy on and off the field."
If Lacy can't play Saturday, senior Moe Lee, who started earlier this season, will likely start in his place.
However, the Utes will be hard-pressed to keep Lacy off the field Saturday. The former receiver has a reputation he wants to defend.
"I'm excited because so many teams like to run on us," Lacy said. "We know they pass a lot, and we get to show that we can cover them and our D-line can get to the quarterback."
Ryan Lacy file
• 5-foot-9, 186 pounds, Sr.
• Oakmont High School
• Antelope, Calif.
Season highlights • Started all eight games. ... Leads Utes in interceptions (2) and pass breakups (4). ... Returned a fumble for a touchdown against UCLA. ... Has five career interceptions.
Career highlights • Led Utah and ranked sixth in the league in pass breakups in 2011 (10). ... Had a career-high eight tackles against Montana State in 2011.
Washington State at Utah
P Saturday, 1 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network