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Rick Bowmer, AP
Utah defensive back Marquise Blair (13) tackles North Dakota's James Johannesson Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Salt Lake City.
Basketball was my favorite until high school. And then I just got too aggressive. I can’t play basketball anymore. —Marquis Blair

SALT LAKE CITY — When Marquise Blair was running around the neighborhood trying to round up enough buddies for a backyard football game or a playground basketball game, he had no idea sports could pay for an education.

Even as he moved from loving basketball to relishing his role on the football field, he didn’t realize where the sport could take him.

“I didn’t grow up watching sports,” he said. “I didn’t really grow up watching TV. I just played because it was fun. It was just a game to me. … I haven’t met anybody in my family who has done that.”

The junior free safety has no NFL heroes, no stadiums he’s yearning to play in, no colors that summon childhood loyalties. The Wooster, Ohio, native didn’t even consider playing sports collegiately until his junior year.

“That’s when I got an offer, and I was like, OK, then let’s do this,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be here, to be honest.”

His mother, Tonya Boykins, said that while she’s always emphasized the importance of a college education to her six children, she didn’t really understand the opportunities her second-to-youngest son had available to him until well into the recruiting process.

“We were shocked when he got the offers,” she said. “He was going to go to college, but not D1. We never expected this. It was a big turnaround for all of us.”

Blair, who considered himself a basketball player until high school, ended up going to Dodge City Community College in Kansas, which is where Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley saw him.

“He is everything you want in a defender in terms of just aggression,” Scalley said. “Some guys you have to get going, ‘Let’s be physical; let’s go!’ Him it’s like, ‘It’s practice, hold off.' You’ve got to tame him down a little bit.”

In fact, when asked to describe his style of play during a radio interview, Blair answers simply, “Aggressive.” When pushed on that, he shrugs and smiles, emanating more a surfer vibe than that of an assassin.

“That’s just how I’ve always played,” he said. “Just aggressive.”

When discussing his passion for basketball as a child, he laughs as he describes why football eventually won his affection.

“Basketball was my favorite until high school,” he said grinning, “and then I just got too aggressive. I can’t play basketball anymore.” He laughs and nods when asked if he fouled out a lot.

Blair’s build is that of a basketball player, but his mindset is that of a linebacker. The trick is harnessing that energy for maximum benefits.

“We’re working on face mask up when you’re striking,” Scalley said, referencing the targeting call that caused Blair to be ejected from the Arizona game and forced him to miss the first half of the Stanford game. “He’s just aggressive by nature, which you love as a defensive coach. He’s a smart football player, very instinctive. He’s got a lot of things that make a very good defensive player.”

Considering coaches didn’t start working with him until fall camp, Blair has outpaced most expectations.

“When we first started working with him, footwork and stuff, we didn’t know if he was going to be utilized as a backer,” Scalley said. “But his weight kept us from putting him in that slot. His footwork has impressed me, just the way he’s come along with his footwork, and his ability to play man coverage.

"Those are two things we weren’t sure of when we recruited him. But we knew he had speed. We just didn’t know if he could adapt and play man and some of the things we ask our safeties to do. So he is every bit of what we had hoped for and a surprise from him, and he’s progressed very well.”

Boykins said her son has always been a unique blend of quiet confidence and intense focus.

“Of all my children, he’s the only one, he just doesn’t let things get to him,” she said, noting his personality is a lot like hers. “I have five other children, but he was always really close to me. Every time, I would leave, he’d want to go with me.”

Teasing about being a ‘mama’s boy’ never bothered him.

“He is just a very special kid,” she said.

Blair said he and his siblings just played sports because they enjoyed them.

College was something Boykins encouraged her children to pursue because as a single mother she wanted their paths to be easier than hers.

“We didn’t even think about offers or scholarships,” she said. “They were just going to go to college. … I just wanted my kids to have more than me. I didn’t want them to struggle.”

Blair said one of his older brothers is a police officer, while the other just graduated from college. Unlike him, his siblings have attended colleges closer to home.

Blair laughs and shakes his head when asked if he knew anything about Utah before coming on his official visit last winter.

“Coach Scalley just showed me the scheme and I liked it,” he said. “I got here, and I remember it was snowing. We went snowmobiling, and I don’t know, it was just so beautiful.”

College is exposing Blair to a lot of new things. He’d never been to most of the states in the conference, including this week’s trip to California.

“It will be exciting,” he said.

He’d never met anyone of Polynesian descent, and now he rooms with Jordan Agasiva and plays for the program with the highest percentage of Polynesian players in the Pac-12.

“They’re the funniest people I’ve ever met,” he said. “It’s different. It’s fun, and I’m just enjoying everything about it.”

He admitted that college football is much more like a job than his prep or pick-up games were. But that hasn’t diminished his ability to enjoy every second on the gridiron.

“I’m just here to have fun,” he said grinning wide. “I just like football. I don’ think about (the depth chart) or anything. I’m just playing. I just want to play and none of that matters.”

Boykins said her son, who hopes to major in psychology, is now talking about pursuing a career in the NFL. She’s never worried much about learning the game, she’s just committed to supporting his hard work.

“He’s mellow and fun-loving, but he won't’ let anybody get the best of him,” she said. “He won’t argue back. He’ll just laugh it off, give you that smile, and walk away.”

If he has anything to say, he’ll let his abilities speak for him. The community where he grew up, Wooster, is enjoying his rise as much as his family is.

“He has a lot of supporters in the community,” she said. “We always have, with all of the kids. But Marquise is the talk of the town right now.”