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SALT LAKE CITY — Even with tens of thousands of cheering fans engulfing the stadium, the sound of impact from the University of Utah’s strong safety Marquise Blair is thunderous in comparison.
His booming tackles are cringeworthy, causing fans, teammates, opponents and media to cover their mouths as they “ooh” in unison over his play.
A transfer from Dodge City Community College, Blair built himself a reputation across the Pac-12 as a bruiser whose opponents dreaded his open-field hits in his first season with Utah last year.
“He’s nasty,” defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said.
Nine weeks into the 2017 season, Blair had six starts and playing time in every game as either a strong safety, free safety or outside linebacker. He ranked third on the team with 48 total tackles, including a season-high 10 tackles against Oregon. Blair led the team against San Jose State with eight tackles and two pass breakups and against USC with eight tackles and an 18-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown.
But as Blair’s successful first season as a Ute was thriving, it was unexpectedly cut short. With 14:48 remaining in the second quarter against UCLA, Blair came up on a throwback pass to UCLA's quarterback Devon Modster. Suddenly, without contact, Blair's knee appeared to buckle underneath him, and he instantly fell to the turf.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t be serious, but I couldn’t get up,” Blair said. “I knew something was up.”
The crowd fell silent. Teammates and medical staff rushed across the field to help him, but Blair couldn’t put much weight on his left leg as he was helped off the field. The seriousness of his injury sank in when he returned to the sideline later in the game with a leg brace and crutches.
Patience and persistence
In the nine months since his knee injury, Blair has been “patient,” taking the “slow” process, as he describes it, day by day. After rehabbing with trainers, he spent his days watching film — hungry to return to the field. He said he missed everything — practice, games, being around teammates — so much that he kept pushing himself for his return.
“Coming from junior college and getting hurt my first season here, it was hard not playing,” Blair said.
Eventually, his persistence paid off. His legs became stronger, allowing the 6-foot-2, 195-pound senior to work on his footwork and tackling — some things he thought he needed to improve.
Blair wasn’t ready to take part in spring ball, but after “feeling 100 percent for a couple of months,” he finally made his anticipated return on the first day of fall camp.
“He handled it the right way,” Scalley said. “He came back faster than we anticipated. He’s so competitive and wanted to be out here.”
Just as eager to get No. 13 back on the field were Blair’s teammates and coaches.
“It’s a blessing having him back,” free safety Corrion Ballard said.
The team has yet to be in full pads to start fall camp, so it’s hard to tell how things are going, but Scalley said he likes what he sees so far.
“You wish that more people were born with (his) attitude,” Scalley said. “He’s a guy who, when you practice on days with no pads and there’s not a lot of contact, he’s impatient. He gets frustrated because he wants it live.”
Scalley added that Blair is different from a year ago, that's he's "more mature." This time last year Blair was focusing on putting his physicality and enormous hits on display. Now, he understands that there’s a lot more to the game, Scalley said. Plus, he recently became a father, welcoming a baby boy to the world.
“He’s always had a great heart,” Scalley said. “I love that kid. He just had a baby — that does a lot to give you perspective. I don’t know if it softens him here (on the field), but it definitely gives you a new perspective.”
As the 2018 season unfolds, Blair is feeling good running around and getting back into it. Meanwhile, coaches are focusing on making sure Blair meets weight requirements. As much as he runs, the safety can lose a lot of weight during practice.
“He’s fun to watch,” Scalley said.
Blair and the Utes will open their season hosting Weber State on Thursday, Aug. 30 at 6:00 p.m MT.