Not with an ever vigilant army of college scouts continually scouring the country in search of mass and mobility to anchor the middle of defensive fronts.
It's at that critical point most defenses succeed or fail. It's ground zero in gridiron battles for superiority. It's a clash of the heavyweights that tips the scale in favor of the winner. Take the inside run away from the offense and you force it outside where a defense's speed and pursuit make consistent success problematic. Take the inside run away and you eliminate the shortest, surest path between two points — the point of the snap to pay dirt — and six points, as in touchdown.
When Tennessee failed to close off the most convenient course to first downs and touchdowns this season, it found itself in immediate peril. South Carolina forced the Vols to go into overtime for a victory by exploiting this breach on cutbacks. Auburn dominated early and held on late strictly on the strength of a ground game that chewed up chunks of real estate via UT's soft center. Alabama threatened to make the Vols losers of three straight until Tennessee finally shored up the line and went on to win in five overtimes.
Thereafter, Tennessee's defensive tackles were born again tough as the Vols went on to hold three of their next five opponents without a touchdown, including the mighty Hurricanes in Miami. Building on that foundation is quite likely the key to Tennessee's 2004 gridiron prospectus. That translates to developing existing talent and attracting new talent.
One such talent was on UT's campus last week in the form of 6-41/2, 295-pound Fred Bledsoe of Little Rock Central High School. Besides having the frame of a run stopper, Bledsoe has the finesse to pursue. In addition to having 4.8 speed in the 40, he has exceptional quickness and reaction skills. He manned the middle of the Tigers 50-front this season and helped lead Central to a 14-0 record and the Class-AAAAA state championship.
"He's got a lot of athleticism," said Central High School head coach Bernie Cox. "He moves extremely well. He can move laterally very well. He's big, he's strong. Since he's been over here, he goes right from football to basketball. He's naturally very strong and when he gets on the weights full time, oh boy, there's no telling what he can do. If he works on weights, he'll have great, great strength."
Central's basketball team is a lot more than a conditioning program for the basketball players and Bledsoe has earned serious playing time on a squad that is serious about the game as well as it's perpetual pursuit of hardwood hardware. As a junior he averaged five points, 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocks per contest. He's also been known to set one of the meanest picks west of the Mississippi.
"After the visit to Tennessee I'm beginning the basketball season," Bledsoe said. "I think we've got a chance to win the state championship in basketball, too. I said that in football and I'm saying that now in basketball. I'm hoping my words can carry over.
"I play power forward. This is my fourth year playing basketball at Central. I clean up, rebound, block some shots. They don't like my picks because I lay them out."
Bledsoe grabbed five boards in his first outing this season and got physical in the post.
"I haven't been practicing because we just finished football," Bledsoe said. "I got in the game and got about five rebounds. I knocked one guy on the floor who got on my back."
When Bledsoe isn't flooring opponents, he's wowing college coaches with his ability to inflict damage and make big plays.
BIG GAME HUNTER
Big Fred Bledsoe was a ferocious force for Little Rock Central in 2004, recording 89 tackles (37 solo) with seven stops behind the line of scrimmage, three interceptions, one pass break up and six quarterback sacks. This total was achieved despite sitting out significant stretches in blowout victories.
However, it's his outstanding instincts and ability to chase the ball that really sets him apart from other prospects of his considerable dimensions. Bledsoe also has an uncanny knack for turning in his finest performances in the biggest games
. For instance: In the state semifinal against Pine Bluff, he posted nine tackles and intercepted a pass. He followed that effort with six solo stops (one for minus eight yards) and a sack in the finals against West Memphis High School. Bledsoe also picked off another pass and returned it for a 10-yard touchdown with 1:38 remaining in the contest to seal the Tigers 28-17 victory.
"He was reading a screen pass on his interception," Cox explained. "He got all three of his interceptions this year by just reading the screen. He got underneath when they were throwing the middle screen and picked it off."
Bledsoe was less impressed by his big play than any of the 9,000 spectators huddled in War Memorial Stadium on that cold, gray December day.
"All I did was read the quarterback's eyes," he said. "I saw the running back go to the side a little bit so I just read it and had it in my hands."
However Cox saw the interception and touchdown return as the culmination of an excellent career by the defensive tackle.
"I think the screen pass was a tribute to Fred Bledsoe and his career here," he said. "He has blossomed into a football player that is going to be a great one one day. Whoever is able to sign him, if he decides he wants to play at that level, he is going to be a great college player, and maybe beyond."
Bledsoe's unforgettable touchdown set off a celebration among Tiger fans and gave Central a record 17th state title, but it wasn't the play that he was most proud of from his senior season.
"I got a double team against Bryant and they ran a reverse," he said of his personal favorite play. "I beat the double team and the ball was already on my side of the field, and this guy runs a 4.5, 4.6. I split my double team and ran to the sideline, when our cornerback turned him back in I was there and I just leveled him. That was like the play of the week (on one of the local TV stations). That's something I did to help my team by stopping runners from cutting back. Sideline to sideline, that's what I like to do. I go with the flow."
His capacity to range wide and make plays is impressive, but it's his ability to rise to the occasion that makes him such a standout in the trenches.
"He can raise his game to the level of the competition," said Cox. "I think he showed that in the championship. He came out ready, he was excited about playing. He knew the consequences of that ball game and he played well."
Bledsoe will have ample opportunities to raise his game to the level of the competition in the near future.