Jack Howell and Henry Blackburn are integral to the future of Colorado State football.
Role models in the locker room and playmakers on the field, CSU’s safety tandem is leading the way for a Rams team that is in the midst of a major transition.
If you’ve watched the Rams at all this fall, regardless of the score, No. 17 and No. 11 are working their tails off to make plays for CSU and to give the team an opportunity to be competitive. Whether it’s coming up with a turnover, making a touchdown-saving tackle or just breaking up an opponent’s pass, the versatile pairing have really impressed with their constant effort.
During his weekly press conference on Monday afternoon, Jay Norvell talked about how the entire personality of the defense is impacted by the up-and-coming duo, and that you could see the negative impact of not having them out there as they worked through injuries earlier in the season.
“I love their attitude,” Norvell said. “They both have great football sense and great field vision. As a safety, you have to be able to see the whole field and be able to diagnose things and then react and get involved.”
Norvell continued, expressing that he believes the Rams are building a foundation of how they would like to compete on the defensive side. And what’s really encouraging is that many of the key contributors, like Howell and Blackburn, are still going to be in the picture beyond 2022.
“We’re not going to lose that many guys next year,” Norvell said. “So that’s what’s really exciting — that we have so many good young players that we’ll have for the future.”
“That’s awesome,” Howell added later. “I think we all have the same eligibility left. I know we’re all Rams until we die. So, you know, we’re gonna be here, and we’re just going to keep getting better and keep building chemistry. We want to be one of the best DB units in the country.”
The safety duo may not be getting all of the national recognition they are aspiring for quite yet, but they have played tremendously this fall, racking up stats and making plays week after week. In CSU’s most recent loss, the two combined for 31 total tackles, or roughly 42 percent of the team’s total for the game.
Norvell talked about this on Monday, telling reporters that while they do not want to put too much pressure on the guys in the back end to have to make all of the plays, he did not feel it was super unusual considering the way the safeties are very active in CSU’s system.
“A lot of times, in some of our pressure looks, those guys have key fits in the run game,” Norvell said. “And especially when you play against the running quarterbacks, the safeties have to do a good job of tackling and filling in the alley.”
“You’ve got to be able to do everything in this system,” Howell said. “As a strong safety, you’ve especially got to be able to cover and you definitely have got to be able to tackle… We’re in cover 3, we play a lot of man, so it’s been fun to add more versatility to my game.”
As things currently stand Howell is top 10 in the FBS in total tackles with 84 (No. 1 in MW) and he’s tied for second in the conference in interceptions (3). Blackburn has been productive as well with 35 total tackles, five pass breakups and a couple of forced fumbles.
As important as they are to CSU’s defensive production — and that’s pretty much undeniable after Boise State — beyond the numbers what really makes these safeties important is their infectious competitiveness.
“They have an edge to them,” Norvell said. “They love to compete, and they have a fieriness to them and, you know, that’s what defense is all about. You’ve got to have pride.”
“I would just say that I’m going to bring it no matter what,” Howell added. “I don’t care if we’re up 40, down 40, I love ball. So you know, it just comes naturally.”
What has also come naturally for Howell and Blackburn is a strong rapport that benefits them on and off the field. The two clearly play well together and have talked about how they have solid chemistry out on the gridiron. “Henry is a heck of a player,” Howell said. “I think it’s nice, looking back and knowing that I have him over the top at free (safety).” Their relationship extends beyond the football field as well though, with the two becoming extremely close over the last couple of years.
Funny enough, while they are as thick as thieves nowadays, Howell and Blackburn actually started out as high school rivals playing for Valor Christian and Fairview, respectively. In exclusive interviews with DNVR back in September, the Colorado high school products reflected on their journey and laughed about how they used to view each other as foes.
“Yeah, it’s weird because obviously football is so intense, and you don’t want to like the other team. And then all of a sudden you’re on the same team,” Howell said. So there’s definitely a different aspect there. But you know, once we got to CSU, it’s a family. And you learn that quickly.”
“We always knew of each other. He went to Valor Christian and I went to Fairview. It’s funny that we definitely were a little bit of rivals in high school,” Blackburn added, before talking about how he sent a DM to Howell when he was offered a scholarship as a junior. “I was committed and I was like, hey man, giving my spiel on why he should come to CSU.”
Blackburn’s pursuit to persuade Howell to be a Ram did not end there. As a freshman, he and former CSU defensive coordinator Chuck Heater discussed the need to get Howell in the Green & Gold. “Me and him had conversations about what we can do to get this kid Jack Howell to come to CSU,” Blackburn said. “And you know, it all ended up working out. Now me and Jack are really close.”
It’s just nice having like-minded people in the secondary,” Howell added. We just click really well.”
Blackburn raved about Howell’s humble personality, telling DNVR that based on the way he carries himself, you would never know Howell’s dad was a legend at CSU or that he earned freshman All-America honors a year ago. It’s just not the type of person Howell is. You will never see him boasting about individual glory. Instead he simply lets his play do the talking.
“He’s never been the one to talk about himself,” Blackburn said. “He’s always talking about other people and what other people are doing good, which I really appreciate as a friend and a teammate. He’s just a super humble guy.”
Moving forward the two intend to help CSU become the type of winning program that it was when Jack’s father, John, was starring for the Rams at the beginning of the century. Blackburn in particular has been extremely vocal about being sick and tired of losing, and how he will do anything in his power to turn things around.
In order for that to happen, both guys have emphasized the importance of loyalty and commitment.
It’s been a unique situation for CSU this fall with many of the veteran players that started the season on the team electing to quit within the first two months of the campaign. However, according to the players that are still in the building, the Rams are better off without them.
“We don’t want guys on the team who are one foot in, one foot out, who aren’t going to give it their all, and are going to have a different agenda,” Blackburn said in October.
“All we need is in that locker room,” linebacker Dequan Jackson recently stated in the Utah State postgame press conference.
Alongside the safeties, Jackson is one the individuals that has really been a vocal leader for the Rams this fall. Howell talked about how much he’s learned from the fifth-year linebacker and that while he and Blackburn are taking it upon themselves to lead by example, they are also trying to absorb as much as possible from those around them.
“I think we’re definitely trying to lead the young guys and you know, even guys our age, but also we’re still learning too,” Howell said. “We’re young. And you know, I’ve learned a lot from Dequan Jackson and Chiggy. So continuing to lead, but continuing to learn and learning how to grow.”
It’s been another long season for the Ram faithful. We all probably got a little ahead of ourselves with the realistic timeframe it would take for Norvell and Co. to right the ship after years of losing. What should be encouraging to the fans though is that the staff can count on CSU’s star safeties to help lead the way as we finish out the 2022 season and transition into an extremely important year 2 under Norvell.
While some guys are jumping ship and electing to finish their careers elsewhere, Howell and Blackburn are firmly committed to doing what it takes to get CSU back to prominence.
“It’s the effort, and it’s the everyday grind. A lot of people say it, but not a lot of people do it,” Blackburn said.
“A lot of teams didn’t give me a chance coming out of high school. I’m loyal to CSU,” Howell said. “And then when coach Norvell got here, he saw potential in me and wanted me around, so I’m gonna be loyal to him.”