LAS VEGAS — Technically, safety Brian Blechen is still a true freshman. The final game in his first campaign with the Utah Utes is Wednesday night against Boise State in MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
Blechen, though, hasn't really played like a newcomer this season. He wound up leading the Utes with four interceptions, including game-saving picks in the season-opening win over Pittsburgh and the hard-fought victory last month at San Diego State.
The 19-year-old, who was a three-time Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Week, averaged seven tackles over Utah's final five games. He wound up making 61 stops in the regular season, third-most on the team.
"It's exciting but it's something I try not to pay too much attention to, really, because the season's not over," Blechen said. "We've got the bowl game. So really I'm just trying to keep working hard and stay focused. Even in the offseason, I've just got to keep getting better."
That work ethic, noted safeties coach Morgan Scalley, has allowed Blechen to overcome some shortcomings in his game.
"There's always a growing process. He understands he doesn't know everything about our defense quite yet. But the thing you see in his play is just a lot of confidence," Scalley said. "He's still got to work a lot on technique and fundamentals, but what he lacks in that area he makes up for with toughness, with effort. He just has a knack for making plays."
As such, Blechen has started in all 12 games this season. He's expected to make it 13 when the Utes face Boise State.
A big game?
Blechen, however, is not shying away from the challenge. This is a guy who has already taken the field and performed well against the likes of Pitt, TCU, Notre Dame, San Diego State and BYU as a true freshman.
"I have a couple of big games experience," Blechen said. "So I'm not really worried about it."
Blechen thinks MAACO Bowl Las Vegas will be a lot of fun. He's already enjoying the trip.
"It's awesome. So far it's a blast," Blechen said. "I know they have a bunch of fun stuff planned for us."
Getting nervous about the game just isn't in his DNA. In fact, Blechen thrives on the big stage.
"I always try to play to my fullest," he explained. "With the atmosphere and the other team going super hard in big games, there's chances to make big plays and a couple of times I made them."
Blechen has had some help along the way. Ex-Ute Eric Weddle offered some advice when the Utes edged San Diego State 38-34 at Qualcomm Stadium on Nov. 20.
"During the game he was telling me 'just don't get down' because we went down early and stuff," Blechen said. "As for the true freshman thing, he just told me not to worry about it, don't get too overwhelmed by anything and he was like 'you'll do just fine.'"
At 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, Blechen is evolving physically as well. He could grow into a hard-hitting linebacker, something head coach Kyle Whittingham has hinted about as the season progressed.
"I think it's something we'll evaluate in the offseason," Scalley said. "You just look at his body type and I think naturally he's just going to put on that weight."
Scalley added that Blelchen could evolve into a linebacker/safety hybrid of sorts, a position the Utes have effectively used late in the season.
Blechen is good with whatever the coaching staff decides. He acknowledged, however, that linebacker looks exciting.
"I'm not worried about it either way, especially not right now. Safety or linebacker? To me, I don't really care," Blechen said. "There's been talk about it, but not too much. I'm sure after the season we'll talk about it more and stuff. But as for now, I'm good with either."
Scalley reaffirmed Whittingham's long-standing approach to putting the 11 best players on the field.
Here or there, Blechen will be in the mix.
Whittingham said the Utes couldn't have asked for anything more from a true freshman.
MAACO Bowl Las Vegas
No. 19 Utah (10-2) vs.
No. 10 Boise State (11-1)
Wednesday, 5 p.m.