Howell and Blackburn anchor CSU football’s defensive foundation

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Collegian | Kaden Porter

Safeties Henry Blackburn (11) and Jack Howell (17) stand together at the practice field next to Canvas Stadium Nov. 1.

Kaden Porter, Staff Reporter

In a Colorado State University football locker room that saw more than 50 new additions for the 2022 season, safety duo Jack Howell and Henry Blackburn have established themselves as a defensive anchor for the team to build around.

“Those dudes are program guys,” said Freddie Banks, defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. “I love coaching them; they’re tough dudes. They’re exactly what we’re looking for, and they’ll lead us into playing really good football in the future.” 

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Blackburn became a Ram in 2020, coming out of high school as a three-star recruit. He started the second half of his freshman season, playing two of just four games CSU competed in due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on college athletics. 

Safety Henry Blackburn (11) secures a catch during practice
Safety Henry Blackburn (11) secures a catch at the practice field next to Canvas Stadium Nov. 1. (Collegian | Kaden Porter)

Howell arrived at CSU in 2021 as a three-star recruit as well. He quickly proved himself as a starter, making his first start in week three, and was named the Mountain West Freshman of the Week for his performance in his first start. By the end of the season, Howell was named a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America.

The duo’s connection to CSU and each other goes beyond their CSU playing days. The pair are both homegrown Colorado kids; they even played for rival high schools — Valor Christian High School and Fairview High School — before Howell finished his high school career at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Arizona.

“We’re trying to put our name on the map, and being from Colorado means a lot,” Blackburn said. “That’s why I came here; I wanted to represent where I was from.”

Howell’s connection to Colorado State goes even beyond being a homegrown recruit. His father, John Howell, also played safety for CSU before playing professionally and winning the 2002 Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Every time I put on my jersey, I play for my last name,” Howell said. “I’m the player who I am because of him, so it means a lot.”

“I just think they’re really buying in. I think the personality of our defense has really been greatly affected by those two guys.” -Jay Norvell, CSU football head coach

This season, the duo continues to grow. Through their game against San Jose State University, Howell leads the team with 88 total tackles and three interceptions. In the Boise State University game, Blackburn and Howell both hit career highs in tackles.

“We’re getting more comfortable in the defense,” Blackburn said. “We’ve had some tough games, and all you can really do is learn from those mistakes. … I think we’re headed in the right direction; we just need to clean some things up.”

Safety Jack Howell jumps to make a catch during practice
Safety Jack Howell (17) jumps to make a catch at the practice field next to Canvas Stadium Nov. 1. (Collegian | Kaden Porter)

Howell was also named as a part of the 2022 Pro Football Focus Midseason College Football All-America Team. At the time of being chosen, he ranked as the fifth-best coverage safety with a 87.8 grade and the fourth-best pass-rush safety with a 89.8 grade. 

“I love Jack (Howell’s) attitude,” head coach Jay Norvell said. “He loves the game, he loves practicing the game, he loves studying the game. … I just think that’s so important at his position; you kind of have to be the quarterback of the defense when you’re a safety.”

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Though the roster was in turmoil earlier in the season as numerous players departed the program, staying at Colorado State was never in question for the duo.

“I know we’re all Rams until we die, so we’re going to be here, and we’re just going to keep getting better and just keep building the chemistry,” Howell said. “We want to be one of the best (defensive back) units in the country.”

Due to the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility for athletes who competed during the 2020 pandemic season, the duo has the same remaining eligibility at CSU. 

“I think we’re building a foundation on defense of how to play,” Norvell said. “We’re not going to lose that many guys next year, so that’s what’s really exciting. … I just think they’re really buying in. I think the personality of our defense has really been greatly affected by those two guys.”

But for now, the team and duo are focused on their next game: the Border War rivalry game against the University of Wyoming Nov. 12.

“Winning the (Bronze Boot) in 2020 was real fun,” Blackburn said. “Obviously, winning is the best feeling ever; you can’t find that anywhere else. I’m just trying to feel that a lot more, and we’re doing everything that we can to get more of those moments together.”

Reach Kaden Porter at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @kqporter5.