Everyone covets size at the wide receiver position, and that's one good reason why the Pittsburgh Steelers are taking a long look at Issac Blakeney, who towered over the much of the team this past spring.
Listed at 6-6, 225, Blakeney caught 47 passes for 559 yards as a senior at Duke for former Steelers wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery in 2014. It helped him land with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2015, but he was waived four months later, spent a quick stint in Washington and was eventually picked up by the Steelers, who were intrigued by his physical gifts as well as his familiarity with their offensive scheme.
“My offensive coordinator was Scottie Montgomery," said Blakeney about the 2010-12 Steelers assistant. "He actually was my receivers coach for a year, and then my offensive coordinator for a year, so a lot of the things he brought to Duke were very similar. The gap isn’t as big for me as it is for others, but it’s still a learning curve and I’m still getting the hang of everything.”
The last year has been a whirlwind for Blakeney. “This is actually my third team,” he said. “I played preseason with the 49ers, had my time with the Redskins, and then I got here. All three spots have been very different. The craziest part is they all have the same terminology for the plays, but it’ll mean different stuff every time, so you just have to keep re-programming your brain.”
While the Pittsburgh offense holds similar schematic elements to the system at Duke, Blakeney must also muddle through the fog of recently retained information from the other organizations.
“It hasn’t been an easy transition,” he said. “The San Francisco offense is totally different. The things they try to accomplish are very different. Here, they try to get their playmakers in space and things like that. Back in San Fran it was more get a first down, work our way down the field, not too many big shots, just try and run and pound the ball. Here it’s much more down the field, working your technique down the field, things like that.”
Even with Martavis Bryant suspended for the 2016 season, the Steelers don’t have a crying need at the position. Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey will back up Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton, leaving one or two spots for Eli Rogers and sixth-round pick Demarcus Ayers and long shots Blakeney, Canaan Severin, Marcus Tucker, Levi Norwood and Shakim Phillips.
If Blakeney has one advantage, it’s the fact that his athleticism and physical upside have never been in question. As a redshirt senior at Duke, Blakeney participated in his first collegiate track meet with fantastic results. The rangy pass-catcher combined with three former teammates to comprise the Blue Devils’ 4 x 100 relay team and immediately posted the second-fastest time in Duke history. They went on to top that mark in the ACC Championship Meet and recorded a number of impressive results to finish their season.
It’s been Blakeney’s story hailing back to his high school days at Monroe, North Carolina, located about 25 miles southeast of Charlotte. There he was a basketball and track star while also excelling at football. The wideout also played linebacker at Monroe, and then at Duke he started off as a tight end/h-back.
Blakeney was a reserve at Duke before starting five games as a redshirt junior. He finally grabbed a full-time job at receiver in 2014 and finished his career with 98 catches for 1,093 yards and 12 touchdowns. At his pro day, Blakeney measured 6-4 3/8, 223 and ran a 4.62 40, according to NFLDraftScout.com, with impressive numbers in the vertical jump (36.5), 10-yard dash (1.58), broad jump (10-9), 3-cone (6.89) and bench press (17 reps).
Given those measureables, Blakeney feels his strengths are accentuated on the outside rather than in the slot, a sentiment the Pittsburgh coaches seemed to agree with at practice.
“I prefer to be outside but I think I can do both well,” Blakeney said. “I definitely prefer to be outside, one-on-one, trying to use my size, things like that. Inside, you’ve got a safety, linebackers, a lot more help, but when you’re outside you’re more isolated so I think I can use my size advantage more out there.”
During OTAs and minicamp, some of those one-on-one matchups were against a familiar face. Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell was a teammate of Blakeney’s at Duke, where the two would often battle in practice.
“Very smart guy,” Blakeney said. “Ross is one of those guys who, on top of being a great athlete, can out-think you, too. He watches a lot of film, breaks down a lot of things and he studies us. So based on your alignment and certain moves, he’s gonna jump you, so you always have to be two steps ahead and know that he’s smart and that you can’t be sloppy with your technique. You gotta drop, you gotta snap your routes, you gotta sell things, do all the little stuff or he’s gonna jump all over you. He’s a tough matchup.”
As formidable as Cockrell has been, there was no hesitation from Blakeney when he was asked to name the best corner he’s ever squared off against.
“(Aqib) Talib from the Broncos,” Blakeney said. “I played against him when I was with the 49ers last year in the preseason, and he just makes everything look so easy. He’s so tall and he’s so smart, and he jumps everything and he’s long. I just have never seen a guy where every time I took a step he was just right there.”
Blakeney knows he has his work cut out for him in order to make the Steelers' final 53-man roster, but he’s thrilled to be in a city that values his contributions to the team, as minimal as they might be right now.
“In the city of Pittsburgh this is the most love I’ve seen, as far as a city loving an NFL franchise,” Blakeney said. “D.C., you know, there are a lot of things to do to get your mind off of football. San Fran has a lot of things, too. Pittsburgh is a good city, too, but it’s football when it’s football time and hockey when it’s hockey time. It’s just a sports town, man. They really love their sports.”