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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Utah's Julian Blackmon shows the MVP trophy after the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl between the Utah Utes and West Virginia Mountaineers in Dallas, Texas, on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017.
I love that he’s not shying away from being a leader. Even though he’s young, nobody cares about being young. Be strong; be tough. Lead by example. —Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah, on Julian Blackmon

SALT LAKE CITY — For Julian Blackmon, the challenge of becoming the best football player possible begins far from the football field.

“Mentally, it just comes down to doing everything right off the field,” the junior cornerback said. “I think you’ve got to do everything right off the field, whether it comes to going to class, being on time for class … all of that helps my mental edge.”

And for the Layton alum, who led the Utes in interceptions (4) and passes defended (10) in the 2017 season, he sees his ultimate goal of being the best football player he can be as a journey made up of hundreds of seemingly small details.

“I feel like the little things really matter in football,” he said. “You can understand the big things, but if you don’t have those little things, like understanding which foot first or having the right hand on somebody, you can really mess up.” He said that he feels pressure to improve after last year’s standout season that ended with all conference honors and being named MVP of the team’s bowl game. “I have to improve. As good as I was last year, I wasn’t good enough. At least, I don’t think I was. I just want to be the best. I want to be great.”

His relentless drive to improve is just one of the things cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah loves about the young man who had never played cornerback until he arrived on the University of Utah campus.

“He works and works and works and works until I have to tell him, ‘Stop working. You need to rest. If you’re going to get better, you have to recover,’” Shah said. “He does everything I ask him to do.”

Blackmon and his roommate, wide receiver Samson Nacua, sought an extra edge in the offseason, working with a trainer in Provo who helped them with speed, agility and strength.

“It doesn’t hurt to be faster,” he said smiling. “Especially at corner. I just think there is always room for improvement.”

While Blackmon said he feels more comfortable as he enters his third season at Utah, Shah said it explains how he’s changed since he came to Utah as what head coach Kyle Whittingham has called “a diamond in the rough.”

“The thing that’s become apparent is his level of confidence in his own ability,” Shah said. “When (we) recruited him, we watched him play basketball (at Layton High). …He was a pretty good football player. But he had such an athletic ability, I felt it was transferable.”

Some questioned whether Utah should offer Blackmon a schoalrship, as he didn’t have other offers and missed most of his high school senior season with a broken hand.

Shah said Utah coaches never wavered.

“Coach (Morgan) Scalley and I loved him,” he said. “His first year he was swimming. … He’d never, every played corner against the guys we were asking him to every week, and it was hard.”

Blackmon confirms his first year at Utah was overwhelming. Shah said that as he improved, so did the competition he had to face.

“That all made it difficult for him to get really comfortable,” Shah said. “The thing about Julian is that he’s a young man of faith, and I love that. I said, ‘God doesn’t make mistakes. We get impatient, but don’t you get impatient. Just believe, and know that I believe in you.” He looked at me, and he was crying, and he said, ‘All right, coach.’”

Shah said Blackmon is “such a good example of what complete trust and confidence in your coaching is, refining your own ability and just faith.”

Blackmon often credits Shah with helping him become one of the best cornerbacks in the Pac-12.

“I said, ‘First of all, God did that for you,’” Shah said. “I was only the tool to just tell you how to get it done. It was God. And it was supposed to happen like this.”

Blackmon said the players in the secondary lead each other, but he also tries very hard to embrace any leadership role. That pleases Shah as much as anything Blackmon has accomplished statistically.

“I’ve loved his development and his leadership role,” Shah said. “I love that he’s not shying away from being a leader. Even though he’s young, nobody cares about being young. Be strong; be tough. Lead by example. There is no label on being a senior. It’s not ‘Oh, I’m a senior. Oh, I’m a starter.’ No. It’s ‘I’m a University of Utah football player, so lead.’” Blackmon is happy to take new and younger players under his wing, including freshman quarterback Jack Tuttle. He wants them to feel comfortable, to understand the technique and the schemes.

He repeats the advice offered to him when he was a freshman struggling to keep up with the demands of collegiate sports. It is the same advice he’d give his freshman self, if he could.

“Be patient,” Blackmon said smiling. “Be patient, and keep moving your feet.”