LARAMIE – Keyon Blankenbaker is playing catch-up.
The University of Wyoming redshirt sophomore was moved from cornerback to nickel prior to spring drills, but Blankenbaker missed most of the spring with a hamstring injury.
Despite that, he was listed as the starter heading into fall camp.
“Keyon has to emerge and take it over,” UW defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said.
The nickel in UW’s 4-3 scheme is a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive back. That person must have a combination of physicality to defend the run, along with speed and athleticism to cover speedy slot receivers in the middle of the field.
UW coaches like the skill set the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Blankenbaker brings to that position.
Blankenbaker is healthy, and confident he will be ready when UW opens the season Aug. 31 at home against Missouri.
“To be honest, I feel way more comfortable now than I did in the spring because I was getting a lot of mental reps in the spring,” Blankenbaker said. “That’s what I really needed. Physically, I can play nickel. The mental reps helped me learn my assignments and fits. I got in a lot of work in the summer, too, by watching film.”
Blankenbaker played cornerback last season as a redshirt freshman, and recorded 29 tackles and broke up three passes. UW moved senior Tyler Hall, who played nickel last season, back to his natural position at cornerback in the spring where he will team with senior Antonio Hull. Both have played a combined 70 games for the Cowboys.
Dickert said Hall’s experience and smarts could result in him playing some nickel this season, and at various spots in the defensive backfield.
Hall said Blankenbaker’s last play of the spring before he got hurt was a pick-six, and Hall has liked what he has seen from Blankenbaker early in fall camp.
“Keyon is picking up where he left off,” Hall said. “The big thing at the nickel spot is man-to-man coverage. Early in camp they’ve tried to throw some fade patterns against him, and he stuck with his guy. I’m confident in him filling that spot.”
Assuming Blankenbaker proves he is the starter at nickel, the next question is who plays behind him?
Dickert said true freshmen Allen Smith and Keonte Glinton will get looks in fall camp. Redshirt freshman walk-on Blake Harrington was moved to nickel from cornerback after the spring.
Then there is sophomore Azizi Hearn.
The Arizona transfer is a cornerback and eligible this season. He started games at Arizona last season as a redshirt freshman. Perhaps he gets a look at nickel, or if he shows promise at cornerback it could allow Hall to move back to nickel, or even alternate between those two positions depending on matchups.
But for now, Blankenbaker is the guy and has no plans to give it up.
“I try to stay humble because my spot could get taken any time,” he said. “I just try to ball out every play and every day, but it is cool to be the top guy right now.”
The Cowboys had their second consecutive practice in half pads (shoulder pads and helmets) Tuesday morning.
“It was a physical practice, even though we were in half pads,” sixth-year UW coach Craig Bohl said. “We worked heavily on the inside running game. We have to be able to establish the line of scrimmage and knock some guys off.”
Bohl said true freshman tight end Treyton Welch has stood out after four fall camp practices.
“He has shown good explosion and good hands,” Bohl said.
Welch is listed at 6-3, 207 pounds, and was a wide receiver at Buffalo High in Buffalo, Minnesota.
Bohl said others who have caught his eye during camp are senior middle linebacker Logan Wilson of Casper, junior fullback Skyler Miller of Torrington and junior defensive tackle Ravontae Holt.
UW’s first practice in full pads is today at 9:25 a.m.
“We will have a physical practice. For us to be physical this year, you have to practice that way,” Bohl said.
Bohl said redshirt freshman defensive tackle Mario Mora injured his back Tuesday and didn’t finish practice
Maluia on watch list
Senior outside linebacker Cassh Maluia was one of 62 players on this year’s Polynesian College Football Player of Year watch list, which was released Tuesday.
Maluia was fifth on UW last season with 47 tackles. In 37 career games, Maluia has 137 tackles, 9½ tackles for loss and two interceptions.