Homegrown star Julian Blackmon ready to shine for Utes against Pac-12's best

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah running back, Julian Blackmon (23) at the Ute football practice, Monday, August 7, 2017.

Julian Blackmon was where so many of you were.

On the couch Sunday night, glued to the TV just like you were as the latest episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” again sent show regulars into the routine nail-biting panic. As armies marched, and kings and queens conversed, and dragons flew overhead, Utah’s starting right corner back looked on as three tennis balls went round and round.

Julian Blackmon takes in pop culture with an added twist. He juggles. When the TV is on, he juggles tennis balls and stares through the bright green ring tuned, trying his best to focus what’s on the tube and not what his hands are continuously doing amid the multitasking. When the Mother of Dragons graces his TV, Blackmon is finding ways to improve his peripheral vision for those moments this season when he’ll need to notice a spiral soaring, entering his vicinity.

The 19-year-old sophomore from Layton juggles footballs, and at times, Gatorade bottles. It can go on for hours a day, he said. Whatever will help with his hand-eye coordination. He picked it up in fifth grade when a character he played in a William Shakespeare play required an actor who could juggle.

“Which is really weird,” he said.

Maybe to some.

But to those at Utah, the 6-foot-1, 187-pound corner is an ascending talent in a defensive backfield that lost three starters from 2016. After playing in nine games on special teams in 2016 and four on defense (Southern Utah, USC, Cal, Indiana), Blackmon entered fall camp the starting right corner on Utah’s early depth chart.

To improve his foot speed, he stepped in and out of foot ladders daily this summer. He’d study technique videos of NFL stars Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, head out to a field and practice what he saw with freshman wideout Samson Nacua on the other side and try to mimic best what he saw.

Homegrown, unearthed talent

“Nobody does what he can do,” Utah’s defensive back coach Sharrieff Shah said. “Nobody.”

Shah calls Blackmon an on-field contortionist. His athletic gifts allow him the luxury of not only playing tight on deep routes, but being just as effective in a crowd. Fluid hips, explosive jumping ability, plus arm length, instincts, flexibility and the ability to bait a quarterback, are all on his list of Blackmon’s attributes.

Basically, anything you want in a corner.

“His rise has come from a hell of a lot of hard work, a lot of studying and confidence,” Shah said.

Before he entered elementary school, Blackmon dreamed of sprinting out of the tunnel as a Ute after attending his first Utah football game. He was four or five. He can’t remember exactly. And Shah can attest. Blackmon’s father, Johnnie, was his fraternity brother in college.

Shah never saw Blackmon as a football player long-term. Growing up, Blackmon and his two older brothers were basketball stars in the Layton area. His older brother, Jarriesse, is currently playing at UC-Santa Barbara. Blackmon chose football because he says he’s “too aggressive.” He was called for too many fouls on the court.

Layton football coach Jim Batchelor calls Blackmon the best all-around athlete to come through the Lancer program in his tenure.

“Julian could do anything he wants, because that’s how gifted he is as an athlete,” Blackmon’s high school coach said. “He looks graceful in everything that he does. He’s smooth.”

Utah corner Julian Blackmon<br>Height » 6-foot-1<br>Weight »187 pounds<br>Position » Right cornerback<br>Class » Sophomore<br>Local product » Layton High graduate<br>Rising up » After limited action as a true freshman in 2016, the Layton High defensive back has impressed coaches in fall camp and has shown enough to be the starting right corner back on the preseason depth chart.

Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scally eventually took notice at one of Utah’s summer camps. And Scalley was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. He was waiting for other Pac-12 schools to swoop in and offer.

“It was just like, ‘What, are people not seeing that we’re seeing?’” Scalley recalls.

The Utes saw what Batchelor did a few years prior: Some raw, untapped potential.

Utah offered a scholarship, and Blackmon completed his childhood aspirations of joining and since become a bit of a rarity. As he noted, the state isn’t known for churning out Division I skill-position players. He shoulders the onus now, “to show that we have athletes, just like every other state does.”

“He’s a very bright individual who was has picked it up pretty quick now,” Scalley said.

Beyond the growing pains

Scalley references some Utah greats when discussing the transition Blackmon went through in Year 1. Utah’s defensive coordinator mentions Marcus Williams, last year’s free safety drafted by the New Orleans Saints, and Eric Weddle, the godfather of Utah defensive backfield stars, as first-year players called upon to play the back end.

“All those guys that play early, they’re going to have growing pains just because game-time experience sometimes the only time you can learn certain things,” Scalley said. “[Blackmon] got burned a couple times last year and has learned from that.”

“Last year I definitely felt my confidence level just wasn’t what it is now,” Blackmon said. “I didn’t expect to play as much as I did last year. Just looking back at the things I could have done with the confidence I have now, it’s just really interesting to see.”

In a practice this week, Blackmon baited quarterback Tyler Huntley and broke on a route before Huntley let the ball loose out of his right hand. Upon snagging it, he ran down the sideline at Utah’s baseball field before the entire defense mobbed him in celebration.

Attempting to run along side him stride-for-stride in front of the forming frenzy were players, coaches and staffers, including Scalley.

“When he’s starting to play and defend kids like Darren Carrington and Raelon Singleton and making good plays on them,” Shah said of Blackmon, “confidence begets confidence.”

As Ute fans clamored over much-hyped freshman defensive backs like Jaylon Johnson, Javelin Guidry and Nygel King this fall, Utah already had another young corner ready to embrace the limelight.

“He did what he needed to do [to get where he is]” Singleton said, “and now look at him.”