LARAMIE — Keyon Blankenbaker’s transition was slower than expected.
With Marcus Epps off to the NFL and Tyler Hall better suited on the outside of the defense, Wyoming needed another nickel — the fifth defensive back in the Cowboys’ 4-2-5 base scheme. Wyoming’s coaches turned to Blankenbaker, who was moved to the position this spring after stepping in to start four games at cornerback last season when the Cowboys’ depth there took a hit with injuries.
But Blankenbaker pulled a hamstring just four practices in and missed the rest of spring drills.
For Blankenbaker, the mental progress that was halted as he worked to learn a new position was just as frustrating as the physical pain.
“I was trying to make sure I was ready for fall camp so I know everything and everything was down pat, but it set me back,” Blankenbaker said.
Yet the decision to keep him sidelined for the rest of the spring helped in the long run. Blankenbaker said the hamstring was fully healed by May, and he’s going through fall camp with no limitations. He said he also took it upon himself this summer to catch up on his new position mentally by watching film with defensive graduate assistant Jalen Ortiz, who also played nickel during his time as a Wyoming defensive back.
Blankenbaker said he’s at a point now where he is “pretty good with the plays.” The focus during fall camp has been constant repetition so that knowing where he’s supposed to be and what he’s supposed to do become second nature.
“Right now, I’m just trying to relearn all the plays, installments and stuff and make sure I run it with good execution,” he said.
Perhaps at no other position on the field does Wyoming need that to come to fruition more.
Blankenbaker is virtually by himself on the depth chart there for now. Hall started the season at nickel last year and could move back inside in a pinch, but coaches want to keep him at corner given the senior may very well have the best coverage skills on the team. Arizona transfer Azizi Hearn could get a look at nickel, but he’s been working exclusively at corner after starting the last three games there for the Wildcats last season.
Walk-on Blake Harrington has been mentioned by Wyoming coach Craig Bohl as someone who could rotate in there, but the most likely candidates to fill out the depth chart have yet to play a down in college. Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said freshmen Allen Smith and Keonte Glinton are among the newcomers who will likely be counted on to provide depth immediately at a position where it’s lacking.
It makes Blankenbaker’s development all the more important as he works to solidify the position.
“I’ve got an urgency about it because I know that I have to step up,” Blankenbaker said.
Blankenbaker as well as his coaches believe he’s got the perfect skill set for it. He’s got the speed to stick with slot receivers in coverage, and while he’s not the biggest defensive back at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, he isn’t afraid to mix it up in run support. He may also be called on to blitz off the edge from time to time at a position that requires versatility.
“Our evaluation of that position was hard in the spring because Keyon after four practices got hurt and we didn’t see him,” Dickert said. “But he’s got all the tools to be as good as we’ve been at that position.”
Blankenbaker said he’s not spending as much time in the box as Epps did when he made the move down from free safety last season. Epps, who’s going through training camp with the Minnesota Vikings after being the only Wyoming player taken in this year’s NFL Draft, finished third on the team last season with 63 tackles and tied for second with eight pass breakups.
Exactly how much the Cowboys ask Blankenbaker to do in his first season as a full-time starter remains to be seen, but now that he’s healthy, he’s got no problem playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
“I love it,” Blankenbaker said. “You’re close to the ball. You can do way more things. You’re just more active in the defense.
“I can cover good, I’m aggressive, and I like to tackle. That’s what a nickel does.”