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Brian Blechen's blood was smeared across his cheeks like some players wear eye black.
As he walked off the field after Thursday's spring practice, a passerby told him to wash his face. He laughed at the suggestion.
After all, the senior safety would rather walk off a football field with his face caked in his own blood than spend another minute on the sideline, allowed only to watch.
"It was fun today," he said. "No pads and it's already getting a little chippy with the offense and the defense. That's the stuff I missed."
Back from a redshirt season thanks to knee tendinitis, Blechen has wasted little time in getting back in the groove at his old safety spot. Even without pads, he's constantly announcing his presence on the field: coming up behind a receiver prepared to lay him out, making plays on errant passes, or just shouting smack at quarterbacks and flashing a craggy smile.
Utah's coaching staff doesn't lack for reminders why they missed him so much last year. The Utes needed more players who could force game-changing plays: interceptions, fumbles, big tackles and breakups.
That's what Blechen offers.
"That's his forte, the physical game he brings to the defense," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He's a leader. He's smart. It's just great to have him back at 100 percent, and hopefully it stays that way."
First and foremost, Blechen is a natural football player. The distinction, former teammate Trevor Reilly said, is in how he acts on the gridiron: without fear.
Reilly and Blechen bonded over their California roots, but found that this common trait was one of their strongest ties. Blechen may not appear to have the physique or athleticism as some of the players he chases down, but he doesn't waste a second he simply flies.
"Brian never hesitates, and that can make up for any kind of physical thing he lacks," Reilly said. "The other guy may run a 4.4, but if you don't hesitate, you can make that up real quick. Try to come across the middle, Brian will try to take your head off."
Blechen splashed into the program as an impact freshman, but his role is as much about his mind as it is his hard-hitting recklessness that's been his signature for years.
He's played multiple positions in his career, which has helped his understanding of defenses. But his knowledge extends beyond that: He knows the purpose behind each play call, and can often be heard instructing the defensive line or cornerbacks what they should be doing.
What eventually did slow Blechen down last year was knee tendinitis, a condition that required him to get his knee scoped and go through rehabilitation. As he was regaining his ability to sprint and backpedal, his team was losing games. And it hurt.
Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said he thought Blechen could've helped the defense last year, despite being hampered by his troublesome knee. But ultimately the decision to redshirt Blechen was for his own benefit.
"It was hard for him not to play, but it was hard for me to not play him," Sitake said. "It came down to, do you play a kid who is not 100 percent. Does he deserve that in his last year? We didn't feel like it was right to force him to play injured. We wanted to give him the chance to come back."
And come back he has, after lots of workouts and rehab sessions. Blechen did find ways to help at the tail end of last season, even, serving as a scout team player.
But this is where he belongs, he said after his second spring practice. This is where he wants to be: With his teammates, on the field, for better or worse. Bleeding if he must.
"It's a group of guys who I've played with a long time," Blechen said. "I'm inspired by them, by all of us coming together. We've been through a few rough seasons, but it's going to be a fun finish."
Brian Blechen at a glance
• Three-time all-conference honorable mention as safety and linebacker
• Freshman all-American for the Utes in 2010 season
• Eight career interceptions, including two game-savers