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.
Bledsoe has a laugh that's larger than his barrel chest and a smile that's wider than his imposing wing span. He's well liked by his teammates and a strong leader on a championship squad that trailed for only 3:55 of a 14-game (672-minute) season.
When the Tigers needed a push, Bledsoe gave them a shove. He was the among the first to identify a state championship as the only goal that mattered, and a player who recognized "running the bleachers" of Quigley Stadium was a vital, albeit torturous, conditioning routine.
"All the bleachers were worth it," said Bledsoe. "Coach Cox made us do it, regardless of if we hated him or disliked him or anything. It was good for us... we had no choice."
When the Tigers needed leadership, Bledsoe was one of their top choices. He earned the nickname "Juice" for his ability to energize teammates. When he wasn't getting into his teammates heads, he was trimming hair as the Tigers unofficial team barber. Through it all he proved there's more than one way to bring a team together, and more than one way to lead.
"We didn't have regular captains,' Cox said. "We had captains for each game. He was one of our captains for the championship game. He's definitely one of our team leaders."
Cox credits Bledsoe's parents with providing him the proper guidance and support to help him become a well-rounded and confident young man. "He's very polite," said Cox. "He's got a mother and dad that reinforce positive things. He's real fortunate to have both his mom and dad supporting him. He's a good kid."
Bledsoe is the youngest of three children in his family. His father, Fred Sr, played basketball and his brother is a body builder. Despite his size, Bledsoe grew up playing skill positions in youth football.
"I say I'm an athlete," he related. "I've been playing the skill positions all my life before I got too big in high school and started playing in the line. I did play tight end some the last three or four games this season but I didn't get to catch any passes."
Playing tight end in college isn't a farfetched notion. Arkansas, which is noted for utilizing big tight ends, has told Bledsoe he might be considered for pass catching duties depending on depth at that position.
"He's gone to several camps and they timed him," said Cox. "Some of the kids told me he ran a 4.78 at Arkansas' camp. That was several pounds ago but, still, I think he can run that right now."
Bledsoe has taken his strength training to a new level in anticipation of tackling college competition next fall. Whereas he hasn't lifted during basketball season in the past, he will this winter.
"I didn't lift last season during basketball but I will this season," he said. "The coaches understand and have told me it's okay. I'm benching 300 (pounds). I hit 315 last week. On the leg press I'm around 950, maybe I can do 1000. I can power clean 280 right now."
Although his high school playing career has concluded, Bledsoe believes he still has a responsibility to set the right example for his teammates and to go out the right way.
"I've been a starter for three years now," he said. "I've seen us win some and I've seen us lose some. I watched some great players come through Central like Derrick Poole and Josh Sullivan. Those guys showed me how to be a true leader. I wanted to show our juniors how to be leaders. I'm passing the torch."
Fred Bledsoe didn't make it to any football camps outside the state of Arkansas last summer, but word of his play this fall has traveled far beyond the Nature State's borders.
Oklahoma State, Florida and Tennessee are among a long list of schools to offer him a scholarship besides the Razorbacks, and all remain on his list of finalist. He will visit Oklahoma Jan. 9 and Arkansas on Jan. 16. He's not certain if he'll visit Florida and he canceled a schedule visit to Alabama. He was in Knoxville with his family last weekend (Dec. 13). for an official visit.
"I'm looking for a great overall school," Bledsoe responded when asked to list his criteria for choosing a college. "I'm looking for great professors and great facilities. I'm just looking for a great coaching staff. I just want to be at a school that will help me get my degree the right way. I want to take my four years of college. I'm looking for a football program that will help me be a better man and a better athlete."
So how did UT fare when compared to his ideas of what a college experience should be as a student/athlete?
"The trip went fantastic," Bledsoe said. "The coaches greeted us when we got there, all the players and people were talking to us. It was just a great atmosphere. Man, I really liked it. The players came in and told me about the school and facilities and how the coaching staff was. The visit all around? I would give it a 10."
Bledsoe's father was equally taken with the UT visit.
"The visit went great," he said. "They really rolled out the red carpet and showed us all the facilities and educational opportunities. It was fantastic. My head is still spinning from everything they showed us. We've got some other visits to make, but it will be hard to top Tennessee."
Bledsoe was hosted by fellow Arkansans Greg Jones and Brett Smith, who both lettered at Tennessee as true freshmen. They told Bledsoe about life in Knoxville as a Tennessee Vol and the opportunity they had been given to make early contributions on the playing field.
He also spent time with UT's defensive coaches which included Steve Caldwell, who is recruiting Bledsoe. Caldwell played and coached at Arkansas State and is well known among the state's high school coaches. He signed Rashaun Fellows and Smith from Warren High School in 2003, Jones from Jonesboro High School in 2002 and Cedric Houston from Clarendon High School in 2001. Both Houston and Smith were high school all-Americans.
"We have a great relationship," Bledsoe said. "I like coach Caldwell's kindness. He's a very kind guy. Every question that I ask he breaks it down for me and helps me out. He really understands about recruiting and how much pressure all of this has given me, and he really helps me understand it better."
Education is important to Bledsoe who plans to major in computer science.
"I wouldn't say I'm a computer geek," he said. "But I like to mess around with computers. My major in college is going to be computer science."
When asked, what it was about his Tennessee trip that impressed him most? Bledsoe said: "The professionalism, the facilities and the coaches. They just really kicked my meter right there by how nice they were."
Bledsoe said he remains "wide open" on the idea of leaving the state to go to college, and readily admits the Vols have set the bar high. Wherever he ends up, he'll bring talent, personality and great upside.
"I think he made more progress from last year to this year in all areas of his game — his concentration on it, his lateral movement to the football, his awareness of the game all improved," said coach Cox. "He had to run a lot after plays this year because teams ran away from him. He had to run after the football and he did a good job of that. He made tackles on the sidelines, literally on the sidelines away from him.
"His best football is ahead of him."
And so is a very bright future.
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