SALT LAKE CITY — The weirdness began for Utah safety Brian Blechen at the moment he swallowed the bee. It only kept him out an afternoon of fall camp in 2011. But thereafter, nothing went normally.
There was the three-game suspension in 2012 for failing a drug test and a knee injury that sidelined him last fall. Not to mention the video that, well, stirred up a hornet's nest.
Though fairly innocuous, the video became a raging topic of discussion on social media, nearly a year ago. In the lead-up to the Sept. 21 Utah-BYU game, Utah players were seen performing what appeared to be a mock baptism in a cool-down tub. Blechen was at the center of the controversy, as he was one of the involved players.
The timing coincided perfectly with the annual rivalry game. Coach Kyle Whittingham, himself an active LDS member, claimed there was no malice, as did LDS player Jake Murphy. Still, it put off some LDS members, particularly those of BYU persuasion.
“I don’t even know how that video was made,” Blechen said on Monday. “I wasn’t even aware anyone was recording it.”
He wasn’t aware it would offend so many people, either. He mostly smiled and ruefully shook his head when it was brought up Monday.
Which brings us to 2014, his senior season.
Has he ever considered having a “normal” football-only year?
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “First year was great. After that, you know, I think there wasn’t a year that has been as exciting or consistent — whether it was (due to) a suspension or being unhealthy. So this year I got my knee back and I’m feeling really good.”
Maybe in his final year he’ll turn out to be the player named to four freshman All-America teams in 2010.
“The team is just ready to go,” Blechen said.
Ready or not, it seems Blechen is destined to be the focus of something, either on or off the field. At Monday’s camp kickoff, a shaggy beard framed his face. That’s how he rolls. He said he started growing it about six months ago “just to change it up a little bit.”
Changing patterns, at this point, is probably a good thing. As a freshman, the bone-rattling tackler impressed coaches and fans alike, finishing third in the Mountain West in interceptions (four) and being named the league’s defensive player of the week three times.
The next year he made honorable mention All-Pac-12, starting 13 games, first as a linebacker and later strong safety — his position this fall. He was fifth in the conference in forced fumbles (three) and eighth in interceptions (three).
That’s the thing about Blechen: he can be jarring, in multiple ways. He’s actually not a particularly noisy personality. Soft-spoken and agreeable, he directs conversations to the team and its unity.
Ochocinco he’s not.
“We know we’ve got the talent, and now it’s just about good leadership and we’re all on board,” he said.
While the bee sting swelled his throat and forced him out of practice, it wasn’t a huge distraction to the team. The suspension in 2012 was. Though the baptism controversy even drew national attention at places such as SI.com, the suspension did more damage.
“This year I want to be there for my teammates and just bring my energy,” he said.
Last year there were occasional blips, where it seemed he would be ready to play, but he said on Monday that rather than play just four or five games with a bad knee, it would be better to have surgery and start fresh this season. He came back this week, trimmer and hungrier.
“I’m finally feeling healthy,” he said. “I haven’t been this light since my freshman year, so this year I want to reach my potential.”
Whether the real Blechen returns is up to conjecture. He estimates fans have seen perhaps 75 percent of his potential. One thing seems certain: his potential for making news never has died down.
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