Indianapolis Colts rookie safety Julian Blackmon on Sunday made his NFL debut against the Minnesota Vikings, about 9 1/2 months after undergoing surgery for a torn ACL suffered in his final collegiate game. The loss of starter Malik Hooker, plus Blackmon’s strong performance, could mean a larger role for the Utah product moving forward. Andrew Walker
INDIANAPOLIS - Watching Julian Blackmon on Sunday, it would've been impossible to tell that he had undergone major knee surgery just 9 1/2 months prior.
The rookie safety was making plays all over the field for the Indianapolis Colts in his NFL debut against the Minnesota Vikings, finishing with two tackles and two passes defensed - one of which was tipped to fellow safety Khari Willis for an interception.
Even on a pitch count, Blackmon found a way to make an impact, but his emergence against the Vikings is encouraging for the team in more ways than one.
Head coach Frank Reich confirmed today that starting free safety Malik Hooker suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the first half of Sunday's game, meaning the rookie Blackmon is in line to see his role expand drastically moving forward.
"Yeah, he did play well, watching the tape," Reich said of Blackmon. "He played in a limited capacity - was on a pitch count - so we'll continue to evaluate (the situation), but, yeah, he came here to compete for a starting job. (We're) obviously very high on Julian and he showed everything that we wanted and expected to see for him yesterday. So we certainly had that expectation, given Hook's injury, that he could step into that role."
Blackmon was a standout cornerback at Utah his first three seasons - earning Second-Team All-Pac-12 honors at the position in 2017 and 2018 - before volunteering to make the move to safety his final year in 2019. Blackmon blossomed at his new spot, bringing the cover skills of a cornerback and the physicality of a safety, and finished the year with 60 tackles (four for a loss) with 1.5 sacks, eight passes defensed, four interceptions and two forced fumbles, earning Second-Team All-American and First-Team All-Pac-12 honors.
Blackmon had high-round talent and potential, but saw his stock take a hit in December when he suffered a torn ACL in the Pac-12 championship game. But the Colts were already sold on Blackmon's talent and football acumen, and decided to take a chance on him in the third round of this year's NFL Draft, knowing patience would be key for his recovery and rehab process throughout the offseason and into training camp.
Blackmon entered camp on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list, and by Aug. 31 he was removed from NFI and allowed to begin practicing with the team for the first time. He was inactive for the Colts' 2020 season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but the team had seen enough throughout last week to put him on a pitch count to make his NFL debut Sunday against the Vikings.
Blackmon was terrific in his first taste of NFL action, showing exactly why the Colts were so eager to pick him up in this year's NFL Draft; he showed off his physicality on both of his tackles, and then on one play in particular was solid in coverage against Pro Bowl wide receiver Adam Thielen, knocking quarterback Kirk Cousins' deep pass attempt into the air and into the waiting hands of Willis, who earned his first-career interception.
Blackmon credited his quick start on Sunday to months of mental preparation he put in while his recovery and rehab work had him sidelined.
"What's nice is I always have tried to mentally prepare. So once I finally got on the field it was easy because I didn't sit back and pretend like I wasn't a part of the team," Blackmon said. "I also have a responsibility and my responsibility off the field was to make sure I knew what I was doing so when I got my name called, I'd be ready."
Reich had been gushing about Blackmon's potential within the Colts' defense for weeks, and said after Sunday's game that the rookie showed exactly what they were hoping to see.
"He made the one play on the Cover 2 down the middle - that looked like it's going to be a big play for their offense, and he breaks it up, gets his head and hat on the ball," Reich said. "Those are the instincts that we saw on film. We know that that's the player that he's going to be.
"He just deserves so much credit, No. 1, physically what he had to come back from; No. 2, just mentally staying ready," Reich continued. "He couldn't practice for so long, and he wasn't even able to participate in walkthroughs because of how we had him designated. A credit to him staying in it mentally. Then you could just tell the competitor in him showed up today on gameday."
Blackmon is one of a few safeties the Colts will count on stepping up in Hooker's absence. The team also has veterans George Odum and Tavon Wilson at the position, while sixth-year veteran Ibraheim Campbell is also available on the practice squad.