Terrell Burgess laughed. The question he fielded during an interview at Utah’s Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center is the same subject that comes up wherever the senior safety goes this summer.
“It's crazy,” he said. “I feel like I get that question every day I'm at the grocery store: 'Are you guys feeling the pressure?' ”
It’s worth asking. In two weeks, the Utes undoubtedly will be picked No. 1 in the Pac-12 South in the conference’s official media poll. Another distinction likely will come next month, when Utah will make the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time in the program’s nine years of Pac-12 membership.
“Honestly, I feel like every year in the summer, we all know what we're going for,” Burgess said. “The vibe may be a little different this year, but every year, we have the same plan.”
Burgess acknowledges the Utes’ status as the South’s defending champions creates “a more clear picture” of what’s possible or even expected this season, with the reasonable goal of winning the Pac-12 championship game and advancing to the Rose Bowl.
Julian Blackmon, having moved from cornerback to team with Burgess on the last line of Utah’s defense, is good with those expectations. “I kind of embrace pressure,” Blackmon said. “Coaches are always telling us: ‘You guys have a target on your back.’… For me, none of that matters if my teammates don’t believe that we can do it. … It all comes down to our habits, the way we work. For me, I’m excited; it makes me want to work harder, because teams have targets on us. You know what? Come with everything you’ve got, because I’m going to be prepared.”
That’s a healthy response to the challenge that Blackmon and Burgess will face this season. They’re replacing Marquise Blair, a second-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks, and Corrion Ballard, signed by the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent. One set of B & B safeties is following another in the Ute lineup, and that’s asking a lot.
“We're picking up right where they left off,” Burgess said.
Performing at that level will require teamwork, and these two have a good relationship on and off the field. The interview format helped make it possible, but this actually happened: One player finished the other’s sentence: “The bond’s really important,” Burgess said … “for team chemistry,” Blackmon concluded.
They’re arrived at this point in their careers from different angles. Burgess played behind Blair and Ballard last season, starting two games and playing the second half against Washington, partly because of Blair’s targeting ejections. Blackmon was a second-team All-Pac-12 cornerback, playing a demanding position that made him a target of some fans’ displeasure. His move stemmed from a combination of Utah’s needs at safety, a well-stocked group of cornerbacks and Blackmon’s belief that safety is his natural position.
In spring practice, “Honestly, I was very comfortable right when I started playing safety,” Blackmon said. “I learned it very fast. I kind of just understood it. It was something that was natural to me. … It's going to be fun to finally get out there there and show people what I can do, because I feel I'm naturally a playmaker that way.”
His new job officially begins Aug. 29, when the Utes visit BYU. The dynamic of the rivalry’s being contested in a season opener for the first time is making for an interesting summer. BYU’s Media Day was held in mid-June for a ninth straight year, with a new line of questioning. Stories and sound bites from the Cougars inevitably have had a Utah theme.
“They talk a lot of this, a lot of that, and we just kind of let 'em talk, because when the pads come on, we'll see. … They're a good team and we know it, and we're going to respect them, but we'll be prepared when the time comes,” said Blackmon, a Layton High School alumnus.
To illustrate his bond with Burgess, who's from southern California, Blackmon spoke of studying film in the football complex and texting his fellow safety to compare notes about formations and coverages. “We're watching film on BYU right now,” Blackmon said. “Like, don't get that wrong; we're going to be ready for the game. … Me and him being on the same page is very important.”
They’re bonded in the back end of a defense that intends to make a statement, in late August and beyond.
Height/weight • 6-1, 195.
High School • Layton HS; competed in football, basketball and track and joined brother Jarriesse in winning the 2015 Class 5A state basketball championship.
Ute highlights • Heart of Dallas Bowl MVP with two interceptions vs. West Virginia in 2017; returned an interception 27 yards for a touchdown vs. BYU in 2018 when the Utes trailed 20-0; led Utah and tied for fifth in the Pac-12 with 10 pass breakups in 2018.
Height/weight • 6-0, 198.
High school • San Marcos (Calif.) HS; played football and competed in track and field, returned an interception 100 yards and a kickoff 99 yards for touchdowns.
Ute highlights • Made a career-high eight tackles vs. Washington in 2017; played in nine games on defense in 2018 with two starts and made five tackles plus a pass breakup vs. Arizona.