Pro Football Focus’ evaluators named Utah safety Julian Blackmon one of the country’s most underrated players and one of the Utes’ five most valuable players this season. Those grades are evidence of how much Utah will miss Blackmon in the Alamo Bowl.
Blackmon and his primary backup, R.J. Hubert, will miss the Dec. 31 game vs. Texas, due to injuries they sustained in last week’s Pac-12 championship game, Ute coach Kyle Whittingham confirmed Thursday during an Alamo Bowl news conference in San Antonio.
Whittingham described their injuries, while undisclosed, as “fairly serious,” ending Hubert’s sophomore season and Blackmon’s college career. Nephi Sewell filled in for them in vs. Oregon, making three tackles on defense and another stop on kickoff coverage. Sewell was activated for the Nov. 30 regular-season finale vs. Colorado, having received an NCAA waiver to become eligible this season as a sophomore, having transferred from Nevada.
Blackmon this week was voted as one of Utah’s eight players on the All-Pac-12 first team. His absence was noticeable in the fourth quarter of the 37-15 loss to Oregon, as the Ducks’ CJ Verdell broke free for touchdown runs of 70 and 31 yards. Blackmon’s most memorable hit of the season came on the Ducks’ first offensive play, as he tackled receiver Johnny Johnson III for a loss.
Pro Football Focus named Blackmon a first-team All-American, grading him No. 4 nationally among free safeties with an 89.8% mark for the season. He excelled in pass coverage with four interceptions and was a consistent tackler.
PFF cited Blackmon as the highest-graded Utah defensive player since safety Marcus Williams (2016), who now plays for the New Orleans Saints, and noted his remarkable improvement since moving from cornerback in the spring.
Blackmon’s apparently leg injury came in a non-contact situation in the second quarter, when an Oregon play was whistled dead due to penalty. Hubert then was injured “within minutes” of Blackmon, Whittingham said. In the 2018 title game at Levi’s Stadium, Utah lost receiver Britain Covey to a knee injury.
Hubert started against Idaho State in September when Blackmon had a knee injury and was part of a three-safety starting lineup against Washington in November as the Utes tried to clamp down on the Huskies’ all-conference tight end, Hunter Bryant.
Utah’s secondary will face a major test from Texas, with 4,000-yard passer Sam Ehlinger and 1,000-yard receiver Devin Duvernay.
As for his team's healthy players, Whittingham said he's not aware of any seniors who intend to skip the Alamo Bowl to preserve themselves for the NFL predraft process this winter. He acknowledged this is a different era, when sitting out bowl games is becoming more common, but he believes players can enhance their draft stock by playing in bowl games.
Former linebacker Chase Hansen is the only Ute player who finished the 2018 conference championship game and missed the Holiday Bowl. Hansen had compelling medical reasons for doing so; he underwent back surgery in January and has spent this season on injured reserve with New Orleans.
The Utes will resume practices this weekend, with players having completed final exams and coaches having spent the week recruiting. The December signing period begins Wednesday.