Blechen's switch to safety pays off for No. 8 Utah
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - As a high school quarterback, Brian Blechen wasn't afraid to bring it, once bowling over a safety so hard to reach the end zone he knocked off the player's helmet.
Now, as a true freshman starting for No. 8 Utah, Blechen is making his mark in a similar style, albeit on defense.
Saturday figures to be his toughest test thus far, with the Utes on the road against Air Force's vaunted triple-option offense.
"It presents a big challenge,'' Blechen said of the Falcons, who lead the country with 326.5 yards rushing per game. "Air Force is super smart and super tough. They're going to make us play really disciplined and we're going to have to definitely show up, because if we come out soft, come out slow, they'll get right on top of us and won't stop.''
The fact that he turned 19 just a month ago hasn't stopped Blechen from stepping into the spotlight and playing both strong and free safety for unbeaten Utah (7-0, 4-0 Mountain West).
It was Blechen who read the play in the opener against then-No. 15 Pitt and made the overtime interception that set up a 27-24 Utes win.
Big game. Big stage. No problem.
Then again, this is a kid who was born during Monday Night Football and whose grandfather, Bob Blechen, was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1956 and continued to play organized football until he was 64.
Blechen's father and uncle also both played college football.
"He's just really mature beyond his years as far as experience on the field,'' Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said.
Sitake gives credit to head coach Kyle Whittingham not only for recognizing that Blechen would fit into Utah's secondary but would do it so soon.
"He's tough, has instincts and also is smart,'' Sitake said of Blechen. Starting as a true freshman "doesn't happen that often. But we were lacking some depth there.''
Not that Blechen lacked experience at the position.
At Moorpark (Calif.) High School, he played safety, linebacker and punter in addition to being considered one of the top quarterbacks in the nation.
His diversity helped lead Moorpark to back-to-back Marmonte League Championships in 2008-2009.
Though he arrived at Utah primarily as a quarterback, coaches told him right before the start of summer camp that they needed him as a safety.
"I was fine with it. Whatever way I could help the team,'' he said.
So which is more fun? Tossing a TD pass or delivering a good, clean hit on the opposing quarterback?
After thinking about it a few seconds, Blechen went with the latter "because you don't get to do that a lot and when it's there, it's fun to take advantage of.''
With Air Force (5-3, 3-2) up next, that opportunity may present itself.
"You've got to take away the run game, and it all starts with the guy who handles the ball,'' Sitake said, referring to Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson. "He's going to be the big issue for us, and their downhill play with the fullback. After that, they just have a bunch of athletes that can run with the ball and block.''
Sitake is confident Blechen will remain aggressive while becoming even more diligent about discipline this week.
As far as the freshman's future, Sitake said it was as bright as the spotlight on Utah.
"The best is yet to come for him,'' Sitake said.
Now if Blechen can just make that transition from Southern California to the Rocky Mountains.
He left his room on Monday in a T-shirt and shorts, not realizing Salt Lake City's fall weather had turned to winter overnight.
"Everything was covered in white,'' said Blechen, who endured some ribbing from his teammates for his pre-practice attire.
"The next day I was in a sweatshirt,'' he said.
A quick study, he doesn't figure to make that mistake again.
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