In May 2016, Brandon Blackmon caught a glimpse of his dream.
He was in Arizona working with a 7-on-7 club high school football team, so he drove to Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium with his wife to take a tour. During his visit, he went in the press box.
Looking out at the empty stadium, he said a prayer.
“One day, I hope I can coach here,” he said.
Blackmon’s love for ASU goes back further, though. He has five ASU mini helmets. He bought three in in 2013 and two before then, but gave one out to a friend who is a big ASU fan. The replica mini helmets represent his lifelong goal of being a Sun Devil, which he never fulfilled during his football playing career.
About three weeks ago, ASU wide receivers coach Rob Likens contacted Blackmon. The two had previously known one another, but on this particular occasion, Likens told Blackmon he was highly recommended for a graduate assistant job working with the team’s tight ends.
It was February 27th. Blackmon once again drove from California to Tempe, but this time to meet with head coach Todd Graham. Graham told Blackmon he respected his coaching experience and junior college connections, which he said could aid ASU’s recruiting efforts.
Graham offered Blackmon the job on the spot.
“Growing up, this has always been my dream school, so it’s crazy how it all worked out,” Blackmon said.
Blackmon could only describe that feeling by referencing a separate conversation he had with Graham when the two first met. During their talk, Graham discussed his coaching journey. Once a high school coach in Texas, Graham quickly climbed the ranks once he entered Division I football. Blackmon’s jump in the ranks was an uncommon one because he went from coaching defensive backs at Orange Coast College in Southern California to ASU in a matter of weeks.
Regarding his career arc, Graham told Blackmon, “It was only God.” Blackmon believes the same applies to his own situation.
“Some things as a person, you just can’t do yourself,” Blackmon admitted.
There wasn’t much time to reflect because Blackmon had to quickly get to work. Luckily for him, ASU cancelled a previously scheduled March 3rd practice and postponed spring football until after the university’s March 5-12 spring break.
During the break, some of ASU’s football players vacationed. Others went home to visit family. For Blackmon, class was already in session.
“I didn’t even know the players, I didn’t know a lot of the coaches, I didn’t even know the playbook,” Blackmon recalled. “Thank God we had spring break right before spring ball. This whole past week, I just was grounded in the office from morning until night studying the playbook, learning our terminology and trying to learn everything.”
Not long after, Blackmon found himself wrapping up his first week on the job as ASU’s third spring practice ended on Saturday. His passion and enthusiasm showed as he stayed after the session to work with redshirt sophomore tight end Tommy Hudson. He demonstrated technique to Hudson, who observed and then tried to repeat what Blackmon did. The two were working for about ten minutes after the team broke its final huddle.
He also coached alongside his boss during his first week. Graham stood beside Blackmon and worked with the tight ends for a bit at ASU’s first spring practice on March 14th. The early reviews on Blackmon have been glowing.
“He’s just infectious,” Graham said following ASU’s March 16 practice. “Every guy who comes here has to be a great teacher and has to love our players. One thing I noticed in working over there with him is just how much better the work ethic and practice habits are, and that’s what a coach does.”
Blackmon is also forming relationships with players. He compared junior tight end Jay Jay Wilson to Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker, a former teammate of his (and ironically a one-time serious ASU prospect) when the two played at Mt. San Antonio College in Blackmon’s early collegiate days. Blackmon said coaching Wilson is like “getting the keys to a Lamborghini.”
Wilson was fond of DelVaughn Alexander, ASU’s former tight ends coach who took a job coaching receivers at Notre Dame in January. The two still have a good relationship.
However, Wilson said he already feels a natural connection with his new coach. Blackmon often reminds Wilson of the Walker comparison to show him what he can be.
“He makes you want to get better,” Wilson said. “I feel like he’s here and he wants to get better himself, so he’s going to bring us along and push us in ways that maybe DelVaughn Alexander couldn’t push us.”
“If you mess up on a play,” redshirt freshman tight end Jared Bubak said, “he’ll get after you like a coach is supposed to, but he corrects you. He doesn’t just yell at you.”
Blackmon’s résumé is unique. He is a Fullerton, California, native who played defensive back at Purdue and Tennessee State after transferring from Mt. San Antonio. He then made multiple stops in the Arena Football League and Indoor Football League after college.
Ray Oliver — Blackmon’s uncle and a former Cincinnati Bengals coach — turned Blackmon onto coaching. Blackmon’s first coaching gig was with defensive backs at Augustana University in 2012. Since then, he has coached in high school, junior college and the IFL. In addition to coaching defensive backs, he has also been a defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, and wide receivers coach throughout his short career.
Blackmon admitted he was worried about ASU’s tight ends not accepting him because he has more experience with the defense. But that wasn’t the case.
“They sat on the edge of their seat and were like, ‘What can you tell us about defense?’,” Blackmon said.
Blackmon gives them tidbits. He puts them in the mind of the defender.
“You want to know what the defensive end is going to do here, you want to know what the safety is going to do here,” Bubak said.
As most assistants do, Blackmon dreams of becoming a head coach one day. He said he has more to learn because being a head coach goes beyond just X’s and O’s. It’s about management and organization. The off-field duties are as important as the on-field decisions.
“At the end of the day, I’ve always learned you just got to be yourself,” he said. “But always take something — whether you like it or don’t like it — from each coach you’re under and let that build you and mold you.”
About 10 months after he and his wife took the initial trip to Arizona, Blackmon once again found himself at Sun Devil Stadium. He wasn’t in the press box as a visitor, but stood on the field as a coach.
And he wasn’t saying a prayer. His had already been answered.
He now takes the ASU mini helmets everywhere he goes. He is sometimes cautious about leaving them in his parked car, so he often takes them out to prevent their logos from melting in the blistering Arizona heat.
“I always take those helmets with me,” Blackmon said, “because it reminds me of a guy who just three weeks ago was dreaming about being at this level and now he’s finally here.”