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Kragthorpe: Utes welcome back Brian Blechen as defensive playmaker

Published August 4, 2014 5:26 pm

College football • He's back at safety and seeking a return to form
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Amid everything that's new in the University of Utah football program in 2014, the Utes are hoping to discover the Brian Blechen of old.

Of course, in keeping with the times, Blechen was sporting a new look as Utah practiced Monday at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Gone is the buzz cut that once defined him, replaced by standard-length hair and a black beard that's six months in the making.

His explanation: "Just change it up a little, you know?"

Yeah, the Utes could use some of that, after consecutive 5-7 seasons.

If the beard evokes more of the comparisons to former Ute star Eric Weddle that surfaced during Blechen's freshman season of 2010, that can only be good. The receivers, running backs and coaches the Utes have brought in to juice up their offense should make a difference, but the defense also needs some playmakers.

Blechen was sidelined by knee tendinitis last season, when Utah's opponents attempted 443 passes and the Utes intercepted exactly three of them. Do the math: The senior safety with eight career interceptions can only help.

Asked what Blechen brings, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said, "His playmaking ability … just having a guy who knows what he's doing."

Blechen's high-impact nature caused such a stir in his freshman season that it also seemed like fictional material. Since then, much of what's happened to him — including some stuff he brought upon himself — is equally weird.

Recruited as a quarterback, in the tradition of other Ute defensive stars, Blechen was moved to safety when he arrived on campus and he joined the No. 1 defense in the first week of August. His interception ended Pittsburgh's overtime possession in a Utah victory in the season opener. Blechen established himself as a ferocious hitter with more game-changing plays to come, including a big fourth-down stop at Air Force and an end-zone interception at San Diego State that preserved another win.

He was a defensive force — that's Blechen, as in wreckin' — who once said, "I love just being able to hit people and not get in trouble for it."

As the Utes moved into the Pac-12, Blechen's sophomore year began strangely when a bee stung him in the throat during the team' first practice in August. Having outgrown the safety position and moved to linebacker, he lost 15 pounds as a result of the swelling. Other players' injuries forced him to move back to safety and he thrived in the second half of the season, with big games against Oregon State and UCLA as the Utes advanced to the Sun Bowl.

But then came a disastrous junior season, as Blechen was suspended for the first three games because of marijuana use and struggled in his return as the Utes were overwhelmed by Arizona State. Later, his personal-foul penalty kept an Oregon State drive alive, leading to a clinching touchdown.

Last year, the knee trouble made him unavailable as the season began and coach Kyle Whittingham bristled whenever he was asked about him. Blechen said he probably could have played late in the season, but he wanted to preserve a redshirt year and be fully healthy for a fulfilling senior season in 2014.

He's back at strong safety, where he's most comfortable, and he's a trim 210 pounds, ready to cover Pac-12 receivers. The difference-making plays that the Utes lacked in 2013 could come from those new offensive weapons, or from an old defensive guy.

"I'm tired of losing games in the last second, where we have it and we basically just drop the ball," Blechen said.

The plan is for the Utes to hold onto those passes, whether they're coming from their own quarterback or the other team's QB.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com