Former Utah defensive back Julian Blackmon earned AP second-team All-American honors in 2019 as he led a Utes defense that ranked 12th nationally in pass defense. For his career, Blackmon returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
Cody Barton is a Utah Ute through and through.
The Utah linebacker is the son of two former Utes: his mother, Mikki, played basketball and volleyball. In 1993, she was named the WAC Player of the Year in basketball and led the nation in blocks in volleyball to earn all-conference honors. His father, Paul, played football and baseball in Salt Lake City. He went on to spend a year in the minors with the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization.
Paul and Mikki not only passed on the Utes genes to Cody but his older brother, Jackson, and his younger sister, Dani, also donned the red and white.
Dani plays volleyball while Jackson played offensive tackle for the last four years. Jackson finished this season as a first team All-Pac-12 performer while Cody was named All-Pac-12 honorable mention.
Despite having a brother on the team and a family of Utes, the person on campus Cody Barton might be closest to is linebacker Chase Hansen.
Last offseason, Barton helped Chase in his transition from safety to fellow linebacker.
“We had a strong bond,” said Barton during the week of the East West Shrine Game. “Me and Chase were very close. He’s one of my best friends on the team besides my brother, I stayed at his house a couple nights during the week.”
Barton said he and Chase would compete in everything from lifting in the weight room to running in the hallways.
The bond translated from Chase’s studio apartment all the way to the gridiron. The pair finished as the team’s two leading tacklers.
Barton finished with 117 tackles while Hansen added 114. Barton also bested Hansen with four sacks to two. He added another piece of hardware to his trophy case during the week of the 2019 East-West Shrine game, when he won the Pat Tillman Award, which is given to a player who best exemplifies intelligence, sportsmanship and service.
“Throughout his career, Barton has demonstrated a relentless drive and great awareness on the field, frustrating offenses like the man for which the award is named,” stated a press release from the East West Shrine Game.
The Utes finished 13th overall in yards allowed per contest and that mark could be attributed in part to Barton’s work as the commander of the defense.
“Just about every play we’re communicating with (the defensive line),” Barton said. He also on occasion talks with the back end of the defense.
The communication between the three levels of the defense allows the Utes to run various stunts and shades in the front while timing blitzes between the linebackers.
The NFL prospect credited Utah Utes defensive coordinator and safeties coach Morgan Scalley for the harmony among the Utes defense.
“We’re always disguising,” Barton said. “Everything we were doing we were always disguising.”
One thing Barton doesn’t disguise is the brotherhood he has with his fellow Utes and the personal competition he has with Chase.
“I hope he sees this and knows I’m faster,” said Barton. It’s worth noting, Barton finished with a 4.64 40-yard dash at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, while Hansen didn’t participate due to a hip injury.
A football and soccer ball have striking differences but none of that seems to matter to this NFL hopeful.
Former Utah Utes kicker Matt Gay played just one season of high school football but after being named a consensus FBS All-American in 2017, he is preparing for the NFL Draft.
“It’s just a fitting ending to the hard work and the risk that I took kind of leaving soccer a few years ago.…and showing it’s paying off. It just shows the next step in the journey to go in the NFL,” Gay said during the week of practice at the 2019 East-West Shrine Game. “It’s a testament to hard work and I just really appreciate the opportunity being down here.”
The former walk-on, who has a 71-percent touchback rate on kickoffs, has been able to translate his strong leg to the gridiron but he does note some technique differences between kicking the different balls.
“Kicking a soccer ball at my position of center forward was about trying to keep the ball low and on goal and now (in football) you have to get the ball up and above blockers,” Gay said.
Another difference Gay noted is most soccer kicks vary depending on the situation but in football every kick should be exactly the same.
According to DraftNasty analysis, Gay keeps an erect upper body on kicks that require power and he keeps his head inside of the football and in-between the plant foot and his kicking platform.
However, the draft prospect still has to shake his soccer tendencies. Gay’s soccer background will occasionally show up and he’ll punch at the ball on some of his longer attempts, like he did on Day 2 of practices during the week of the East-West Shrine game, when he pushed a 58-yard field goal low and to his left from the right hash.
“Sometimes I find myself in a soccer mentality where you punch at it because I’ve done it my whole life,” Gay said. “It’s about getting the repetition in your body to change to certain techniques to make sure the kicks look the same.”
Before transitioning to the gridiron, Gay was a three-time all-state soccer player and a team captain at Orem High School.
From there, he played two years of soccer at Utah Valley, where he earned second-team NSCAA All-West Region honors.
It wasn’t until 2017 when he walked on to the Utah football team during preseason camp that he left the round checkered ball behind.
His acclimation to the oblong ball has been swift. Gay says he is comfortable kicking from 60 yards out and is even confident in himself from as far as 65 yards out.
The relative newcomer to the game of football has also proven he can play in all types of weather conditions.
“Sometimes you get a perfect night early on in the season but we’ve had games in Colorado where it’s raining or the ball is cold and flat. You have to be able to handle it because no one is going to give excuses,” Gay said. “You have to make kicks when it’s snowy or rainy or sunny.”
As he gets more and more comfortable, Gay said he has relied on former Utah Utes and Chicago Bears kicker Andy Phillips.
Phillips was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2014 and was a second-team All-American in 2015 before signing with the Chicago Bears during the 2017 offseason.
Despite being waived by the Bears, Phillips enjoyed a successful career at Utah, where he set the school records in makes (23) and attempts (28) in 2014. However, both of those records have been broken twice over by Gay.
“He’s around all the time, I talk to him and he’s good about giving tips and pointers about staying calm,” Gay said.
The former pupil has turned into a master in his own right. Gay made all 85 of his extra point attempts and was 56-of-65 on field goals during his two seasons in Salt Lake City. The 86-percent success rate ranks him ninth all-time in the NCAA and first in the Pac-12 for kickers who have made at least 50 field goals.
The 24-year-old has also established himself as a team leader and was named a captain for the Utes.
Gay wants NFL teams to know that no matter who selects him they will be getting a kicker who is willing to take his lumps and learn from them.
“Failure teaches you more than success,” Gay said. “In those moments when you fail that’s a big learning lesson. Success is great and enjoyable but you learn more when you fail.”
If his transition from high school and collegiate soccer to winning the Lou Groza Award in college football is any indication, Gay is a quick learner and has the potential to be successful at the next level.
The 22nd-ranked Northwestern Wildcats used a furious third quarter rally to overtake the 17th-ranked Utah Utes, 31-20. Led by a defense that forced timely turnovers and 2018 SDCCU Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP Clayton Thorson, the Wildcats scored 28 unanswered points in the third stanza. DraftNasty’s Corey Chavous takes us inside the game with this photo collage.
22 Hansen working pass rush counter with 30 Barton in the pregame
Utah All-Pac-12 linebacker Chase Hansen, pictured, would have been huge for the Utes in this game but did not play due to an undisclosed injury. The player he's doing drills with -Utes captain and LB Cody Barton- finished his 2018 campaign with 116 tackles, four quarterback sacks, 10.5 tackles for losses and six pass break-ups.
6 Anae final copy of forced fumble
Utah's Bradlee Anae (No. 6 pictured) forces a fumble versus Northwestern running back Isaiah Bowser (No. 25 picutred) in the fourth quarter. He finished 2018 with 51 tackles, eight quarterback sacks, 15.5 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and three pass break-ups.
18 Thorson releases for this third quarter TD
The Wildcats were down 20-3 at halftime before a furious third quarter rally featured 28 unanswered points. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (No. 18 pictured) threw this third quarter pass to offensive lineman Trey Klock (No. 39 pictured) to put the Wildcats up 24-20.
Pace and Thorson MVPs
Sophomore safety JR Pace was named the 2018 Holiday Bowl Defensive MVP (7 tackles, 1/2 TFL, 34-yard fumble return, one interception and one pass break-up). Thorson was named the 2018 Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP after completing 21-of-30 passes for 241 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
The Heart of Dallas Bowl will feature two teams with explosive offenses that underwhelmed in their respective conferences.
Utah (3-6, 6-6) will match up against West Virginia (5-4, 7-5) in Dallas on Tuesday.
The Mountaineers will be without transfer quarterback Will Grier, who is out with an injured finger. The Mountaineers will also be without running back Justin Crawford, who is entering the draft and will sit out.
The Utes resume lacks a signature victory but they did defeat short-handed UCLA in November and could have similar success against the Mountaineers, who will be without two key offensive pieces.
Utah has won 13 of its past 14 bowl games.
Players to watch
13 David Sills V WR-Junior
Crawford and Grier combined for over 4,500 yards worth of yardage during the regular season. Junior wide receiver, David Sills, who led the team with 18 touchdowns, will have to shoulder the load if his team has any chance of winning. Sills, 6’4, 203 lbs., will be targeted early and often by backup quarterback Chris Chugunov.
3 Al-Rasheed Benton LB-Senior
Al-Rasheed Benton ranks at the top or near the top in every statistical category for the Mountaineers defense. Benton led the team with 73 solo tackles (102 total) and finished second with two interceptions, a forced fumble and three quarterback sacks. He has 18 career tackles for losses.
9 Darren Carrington II WR-Senior
Senior Utes receiver Darren Carrington will suit up one more time in his collegiate career, which spans back to three years at Oregon. Carrington, 6’3 205 lbs, feasted on early non-conference opponents and against his former team. Despite having not recorded a single 100-yard receiving game since that matchup versus the Ducks, he enters the bowl game with 66 receptions for 918 yards and six touchdowns.
23 Julian Blackmon DB-Sophomore
Utah’s sophomore defensive back Julian Blackmon covers a lot of ground and is equally strong against the run as he is against the pass. Blackmon finished the season with 36 solo tackles and two interceptions. The Heart of Dallas Bowl could be a sneak preview for the future NFL prospect.
Prediction: Utah 34 West Virginia 23