LARAMIE -- Keyon Blankenbaker is small in stature but large in personality.

It didn't matter that the junior nickel back was wearing a mask during his Zoom interview with the media Monday night, you knew there was a smile underneath.

A big one.

Why?

Because he's on a football field again.

"It's definitely all over the place," Blankenbaker said of his emotions over the past month-plus. "I'm just trying to stay positive. I am staying positive. I'm just trying to prepare for Oct. 24 when we get to play ball."



You think the Oak Park, Ill., product didn't remember that date?

Last season, the 5-foot, 10-inch, 175-pound nickel back made his presence known early with a seven-tackle performance in an opening-night upset victory over Missouri. His most productive outing came in Week 10 in Logan, Utah. Blankenbaker tallied nine tackles and forced a fumble in a 26-21 loss to the Aggies.

Blankenbaker finished the year with 55 tackles, 37 of the solo variety.

Sports Info Solutions also compiled Blankenbaker's 2019 stats as a pass defender. They read like this: 36% completion percentage allowed, 4.9 yards per target, zero touchdowns.

What does it all mean? Blankenbaker was the Pokes' top pass defender.

Not too shabby for an undersized player who refuses to shy away from physicality.

"I actually didn't know I was the highest rated," he joked. "I don't care about that stuff though."

Blankenbaker said his improvements need to come in the form of takeaways. As a sophomore, he batted away 10 passes. There's nothing but goose eggs in the interception column, though.

"I need to get more picks, in my opinion," he said. "Instead of (pass breakups), to get to the next level, I feel like I need to get more interceptions. That's something I've been working on, looking for the ball and playing the ball in the air."

He's getting plenty of opportunities, too.

So far in camp, Blankenbaker has strictly manned the cornerback position. That's mainly out of necessity because of depth concerns after 12 freshmen tested positive for COVID-19 late last week.

It might be a must for the junior right now, but it also shows his flexibility and diversity in the defensive backfield.

Does he want to play corner?

How about safety, after it came to light that Rome Weber would be one of five players to opt out this year because of medical concerns surrounding the pandemic?

"Oh yeah, I'm comfortable anywhere," he said with a chuckle. "They can put me anywhere and I'll ball out. Corner, nickel safety -- yeah, I'm comfortable. I'm just trying to do anything I can for the defense."

How about defensive end? Any interest with the absence of Solomon Byrd and Devon Wells-Ross?

"Yep," he joked. "I'll be a stand-up D end though."

All kidding aside, Blankenbaker has embraced another role on this squad as a leader. When he heard the freshmen had an outbreak, forcing 31 players to quarantine for up to 14 days, he said it was his job to "motivate."

Mainly, he wants the freshmen to know how important they are to this team and a possible run at a Mountain West title this season.

"Right now, it's expected. Somebody is going to test positive. There's a virus out there," he said. "It's difficult to stay away from that. We have to get through the adversity and stay positive -- and keep testing negative"

Ah yes, staying out of harm's way. That, Blankenbaker joked, is his life off the field. When the Pokes travel to Reno in three Saturdays, he's going to be on that plane.

Whatever it takes. Even if that's a smack on the head from Craig Bohl's 6-foot "social-distancing stick."

"We stay together at the house," he said of his off-field activities. "Other teammates might pull up to the crib -- as long as they tested negative for their COVID test."