I distinctly remember the shrill thrill in Paul Rhoads’ voice on Signing Day 2003, how the Pitt defensive coordinator reacted after receiving a signed national letter of intent faxed from a kid named Horatio Benedict Blades.
“We just got ourselves the best pair of inside linebackers in the country!” Rhoads screamed into the phone after Blades joined Clint Session, along with Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop, in signing with Pitt. Click here
Rhoads proved prophetic, to some degree, as Blades developed into an All-America middle linebacker, three-time All-Big East first-team selection and 2006 Big East Defensive Player of the Year for the Panthers.
At Plantation (Fla.) High School, Blades had played both inside and outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. At Pitt, he played both spots in a 4-3 scheme, playing outside his first two seasons and inside his last two.
Blades hopes that versatility – he also played on every special teams unit except for field-goal protection – pays off in this weekend’s NFL Draft.
“I tell teams, ‘I’ll play wherever you need me to play, help you win games and I’ll come up huge for you,’” Blades said. “It did nothing but help me. It showed that I’m versatile. You can’t put a label on me, inside linebacker or outside linebacker. Plus, I’ve done a lot of things playing special teams. That makes me a lot more valuable.”
Some scouts confused Blades and Session, who are roughly the same size, at Pitt’s Pro Day. A few actually left more impressed by Session, who has a better build and is more explosive. But there was no mistaking their differences on the football field. While both were capable of making big hits, Blades continually separated himself by being in position and making sound decisions.
“At the pro day, I ran a lot better than what people expected me to run,” said Blades, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.69 and 4.72 seconds, the 10-yard dash in 1.62 and the three-cone drill in an impressive 6.98. “Throughout the whole process, I’ve surprised people with the way I can move. I think they thought I was a lot stiffer.”
Not as stiff as some of his hits. I asked Blades Tuesday what he considered were his most memorable plays at Pitt. Although he had 20-tackle games, two came to mind.
“Notre Dame game, my junior year. I went through two offensive linemen and hit Darius Walker on a screen pass. Against Central Florida, I hit the running back in the hole and made him fumble and I recovered it,” Blades said. “Those are plays you always dreamed of making. When you’re in that situation, you have to make it happen. Every linebacker dreams of meeting the running back in the hole; it’s what you do when it happens that sets you apart from everybody else.”
The moment Blades cherishes most, however, came his sophomore year, when Pitt beat West Virginia, 16-13, a game that helped the Panthers win a tiebreaker to clinch the Big East Conference’s BCS bid to the Fiesta Bowl. (Pitt defeated South Florida, 43-14, to clinch the crown).
“West Virginia is such a huge rivalry, and it was the only (win against the Mountaineers) I had in my career,” Blades said. “For it to go to a BCS bowl was huge. It was one of the best moments of my career, to be a champion, to be the first Pitt team to win the Big East and the first to go to a BCS bowl.”