Monson: Julian Blackmon becomes a safety-first kind of guy for his senior season at Utah

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah defensive back Julian Blackmon at the first day of spring football practice in Salt Lake City on Monday March 4, 2019.

Julian Blackmon’s story — a heartening tale, indeed — is inked out on his left arm, one of the hammers he uses to tackle opponents. The cluster of tattoos there has the components of his life that are most meaningful to him, and there’s space left unmarked for more to come. A lot more.

The Utes’ safety presently awaits his next turn, his senior season, a year of promise for himself and his team. Blackmon will play a huge role as one of the quarterbacks in the back of a defense that could become Utah’s best group ever. A notable statement, to be sure. And if he works hard and plays well, he has his eyes on an NFL career to follow.

“I have my dreams,” he says. “But I’m focused now on the present.”

The ink on his arm represents the past. Boards of black include the five stars on the Samoan flag, as a tribute to his mom and her Polynesian heritage; the state of Utah, as a reminder of his home; a lion, as a connection to his father, who is a Leo; Roman numerals spelling out his birthday; and markings that represent roses growing out of concrete, an illustration of, as he puts it, “growing something out of nothing.”

Football is an important part of that growth.

“It’s helping me help my family, helping me be something,” he says.

Blackmon has rather noticeably blossomed out of less-than-advantageous circumstances. He was born in Price, moved as a youngster to Salt Lake City, and grew up in Layton, a product of a broken home, and then, a reunited one in which his father and step-mom joined together nine kids, five boys, four girls, among whom Blackmon is the third-youngest.

“It’s a big family,” he says. “My brothers were huge guys. They were eating all the food, leaving me the scraps. That’s why I was smaller.”

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Utes defensive back Julian Blackmon (23) is pulled down by Arizona Wildcats (16) as the University of Utah hosts the Arizona Wildcats at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Friday Oct. 12, 2018. Utah defeated Arizona 42-10.

He’s now a sturdy 6-foot-1, 204 pounds.

Blackmon loved sports — all of them, playing baseball, basketball, football and running track. He liked soccer the most, but, for whatever reason, never played on the pitch in any serious competitive setting. His brothers played basketball and football, too. And he followed, ultimately, by deciding between the hardwood — he was a point guard — and the gridiron, where he was mostly a wide receiver, but also a running back and, at times, a quarterback.

Utah recruited him out of Layton High School, properly enough as an athlete.

“It was the only school I ever wanted to go to,” he says. “The coaches here ended up liking me.”

When Blackmon arrived, he was drawn to the environment immediately on account of its impressive diversity. Players from all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities coming together, embracing one another in the pursuit of a common goal. A brotherhood. It was a reflection of Blackmon’s frame of reference, the aforementioned family which consists of Polynesian members, black members, Chinese members, white members. “Almost every race,” he says. “That taught me to talk to all kinds of people in different situations, to understand them, to relate to them.”

He, himself, is half-black, half-Samoan.

“Our team is really close like that,” he says. “It’s a strength of our team.”


Height/Weight • 6-foot-1, 204 pounds.

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.

On the field, Blackmon mostly prospered, initially playing cornerback, experiencing highs and lows, before switching to safety coming into this season. Initially, Utah’s coaches allowed him to choose between offense and defense, and he favored the latter because he “wanted to be aggressive.”

“I knew nothing about playing on the defensive side,” he says. “Had to learn. But I liked it, once I got it going.”

He relished the move to safety, although it was a mystery to him. To adjust, he packed on the weight, which was fine by him, working for the opportunity to understand the whole of the defense, not just his own little corner of it, to direct the thing, and to play with greater brute force.

“He’s done an outstanding job settling into the safety spot,” Kyle Whittingham says. “He looks like a natural, like he’s been playing it his whole life. He’s got all the skillset you need for the position — the instincts, the speed, the ball skills are very good. He’s about 200 pounds now, which is about 15 pounds ahead of where he was last year, which he needs. Safety is a tackling position.”

It’s also a thinking position.

One that asks, then, for brawn and brains.

The greatest challenge for Blackmon was more on that mental side than the physical, coming to know where all his teammates would and should be on the field on every set of plays.

“I’m comfortable with it,” he says. “It’s my position. I feel like I’m home. It’s challenging. You have to know everything. You can make a play on every play. I love it.”

Looking ahead, Blackmon believes this iteration of Utes can be something extraordinary, especially the defense, and he fully expects to play his part. “I think our team is going to be great. We’ll see what we do, but I’m pretty confident. I feel good.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.