SALT LAKE CITY — Utah junior defensive back Julian Blackmon went through a drill at the end of a fall camp practice in August where he and the other DBs stood 10 yards in front of a passing machine and trained their reflexes and hands to better catch footballs.
Earlier, in the 11-on-11 portion of practice, the Layton High alum read a pass, jumped the route perfectly and didn't come up with the ball. In a game, it would’ve been a pick-six.
Often, defensive backs don’t get a clear look at interceptions — usually it's a split-second deflection and hoping you're in the right spot at the right time. So he was taking this drill seriously.
Last year, he broke out for the Utes as a sophomore with 48 tackles, six pass breakups and four interceptions. Two interceptions came in a Heart of Dallas Bowl win over West Virginia and he earned bowl MVP honors for the performance.
Last season's accomplishments also earned him a ton of preseason attention and a brighter spotlight ahead of the Utes’ season-opener against Weber State at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The offseason attention has come in the form of award watchlists, preseason accolades and even a mention on NFL.com as a rising junior cornerback to watch.
All for a kid from Layton High.
“It’s amazing, I think about it all the time. I’m just thankful that I came from where I came from and I get to play for the people back home,” Blackmon said.
At first, he liked the offseason attention but quickly started to dislike it.
He did something not a lot of 20-somethings would do: he deleted social media apps from his phone in late July and says he hasn’t used them since.
“So lately, I haven’t really noticed it because I’ve put myself on the lower radar, focusing on this year. It doesn’t really matter what people say in preseason,” Blackmon said.
He cut a relaxed figure even after an intense, early August practice under hazy skies. He said he was much more focused, which seems a little difficult to accomplish this year with all the attention on him.
Has it helped to rid himself of social media? Blackmon definitively said yes.
“I think it helps me realize that I’m right here, right now, trying to get better with my team, trying to focus on this year with my team, trying to win with my team, focusing on whatever comes next, what happens when it comes,” he said. “I don’t want to skip this situation and move on to a next one when I’m still in this one.”
Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah says no one he’s ever coached has shut down their social media on their own terms. It tells him Blackmon is all-in when it comes to the 2018 season.
“He came to me and said, ‘Coach, I’m going to shut it down, it’s bothering me, first it was fun, (then) I read too much of it, it got me in a bad headspace, I’m shutting it down.’ I said, ‘Congratulations, smartest thing you could do,’” Shah said.
Shah preaches to Utah cornerbacks to take more calculated risks this year. It stems from a feeling they left a lot of potential game-changing plays on the table last season.
What he means by calculated risk differs by situation. One example could be if Blackmon blitzes from his cornerback spot on the boundary a couple times, the opposing quarterback defers to his first hot read while under pressure to just get the ball out.
Then if Blackmon fakes blitz and drops into coverage, the ‘calculated risk’ would involve him going to the spot of the hot read where the quarterback has previously thrown the ball while under pressure, expecting the QB to do the same, and hopefully grab an interception.
Granted, there are hundreds of potential situations. Like jumping a hitch route when you know you have safety help over the top, closing in on a receiver when you see a quarterback take a 3-step drop and knowing it's a quick pass play, etc.
They all require one thing.
“It takes a lot of confidence to get to that point, (as well as) practice. As long as you practice being confident and as long as you practice being in the right positions ... you’re going to make those plays in the game,” Blackmon said.
Though Blackmon is the most experienced of the defensive backs, there's still work to be done. Shah needs Blackmon to be a better leader, be smarter and to speak more in meetings, among other things. Preseason accolades don't mean anything to Shah, he said.
"I need him to be able to be a better tackler. He’s the best tackler on the defense and he still missed too many tackles so there’s too many things I need from him to be better," Shah said.
Just like when Blackmon is in control when he drops back into coverage against a receiver on the field, part of his reasoning for deleting social media — apart from a desire to be more focused on the now — was a desire to be in control off the field, too.
"I don’t want people to tell me what I’m supposed to do, I just want to go out and do it, so that’s why I got rid of it," he said.