“Pfffffffffffff.” An extended pursed-lip breath alone proves a fitting answer to the question as NFL-bound Joshuah Bledsoe searches for the words to describe what receiving THAT call on Draft night will mean to him.
When a job opening’s applicants have been physically and mentally programmed to step among the chosen industry’s apex employees since as early as kindergarten, the magnitude of the eventual job offer can sometimes feel understated, like a mere formality, even.
But the occasion isn’t lost on those who prevail in college football’s survival of the fittest, survival of the strongest, survival of the smartest, survival of the unrelenting, resilient, fastest, biggest, luckiest and, ultimately, best. Particularly the Missouri safety.
“Whenever I get that call…. I’ve been playing football since I was five, really like right now just to know I’m going to be on a team come next fall it’s surreal, it’s going to be a dream come true,” Bledsoe tells Sky Sports.
“It’s kinda felt like a long process, stressful, but I’m just ready for everything, just taking it one day at a time and I just can’t wait for Draft day to be here honestly.”
Bledsoe has navigated his way through the pre-Draft process with the same beaming smile and personable nature he radiates as he reflects on meeting with every single NFL team at the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl, all of which he felt liked him. As far as he is concerned, the build-up to April has been everything he ‘hoped it would be’.
“They want leaders and tough guys, and that’s the type of player I am,” he said of his biggest takeaway from team interviews. “I’m a leader and I feel like I bring my physical nature to the game so I feel like I’m everything they need in a player.”
The Houston native doesn’t profess to growing up “hard” like some children his age did in Texas, and admits feeling blessed to have had both parents in his life when others in a similar position might have only had one. He details a childhood in which it was not only mum and dad steering him on the right track, but an entire community of coaches and mentors.
And it shows, as the question ‘Who is Josh Bledsoe away from football?’ prompts him to volunteer his time and attention to aiding friends and teammates: “They can talk to me about whatever, I’m always going to put a smile on their faces.”
His NFL motivation doesn’t necessarily stem from personal turmoil, childhood adversity or even rejection, but instead a footballing ascent somewhat in the shadows.
“I feel like I’ve been slept on my whole life,” he explained. “From coming out of high school I didn’t really get the big time offers, I got Missouri and that was good enough for me and I’m happy where I ended up at, but I wasn’t really rated as a high recruit because people just didn’t really believe in my ability for some reason and it’s been like that my whole life.
“It’s nothing new at this level, I’m still going to continue to prove everybody wrong. It just gave me a chip, a little bit more of an edge and that’s always good.
“I like when people underestimate me because it just gives me that extra push to go and prove them wrong.”
Bledsoe was a three-star recruit coming out of Dekaney High School as he committed to Missouri following other offers from Rice, Louisiana-Monroe, Southeastern Louisiana, Texas-San Antonio and Tulane. He entered the fold immediately upon arriving as a freshman in 2017 and by the end of his four seasons had racked up 130 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, 18 pass deflections, one interception, and one forced fumble.
In that span he also garnered a reputation as the team’s top cover safety, occasionally splitting time between high safety, slot corner and even linebacker as he pit himself against the varying attributes and physical statures of slot receivers, running backs and tight ends.
“I’m just a versatile guy, you can put me anywhere you need me on the defensive side of the ball and I can play whatever position at a high level,” he said. “Whatever the scheme is and wherever the team needs me scheme-wise I can do that at a high level.
“I feel like covering wise I’m the best safety in the Draft that, with my size, can play and cover man-to-man against the smaller slots.”
Bledsoe offers the kind of hybrid package that defensive coordinators were enamoured by with Arizona Cardinals linebacker/safety Isaiah Simmons as he came out of Clemson last year, his game film depicting the blend of assertive box tackling and meticulous press coverage capable of meeting the NFL’s need for flexibility.
His man coverage expertise were underlined in October’s 45-41 win over LSU when Bledsoe swarmed Terrace Marshall’s quick out route to break up Myles Brennan’s intended pass and ice a decisive goalline stand with 16 seconds to play.
Two weeks earlier in the 2020 opener against Alabama he had flashed a glimpse of his less discussed adeptness on deep assignments, displaying exceptional coverage to match DeVonta Smith’s go route stride-for-stride while simultaneously rotating his hips and keeping his eyes on the ball to snuff out Mac Jones’ pass in the end zone.
GOAL. LINE. STAND.
MISSOURI UPSETS LSU!
Bledsoe believes he possesses the traits capable of helping him flourish in a modern defensive scheme.
“That nickel/slot safety is so critical especially in today’s league, you need somebody who can do both,” he said. “That can be in the box or step out and cover those shiftier guys.
“There are not a lot of people that can do both of those jobs at a high level, I feel with my ability and skillset I fit perfectly in being able to do that. I will be valuable to any team that Drafts me.”
Every talented safety needs a reliable partner beside him and Bledsoe had just that, with Mizzou’s ability to deploy him in the slot aided by the presence of a gifted high safety in Tyree Gillespie, who will also enter the 2021 Draft.
“Man, when you’ve got two top guys out there like that it just makes it exciting,” said Bledsoe. “It just gives me more confidence knowing I’ve got somebody that’s just as good as me if not better right alongside me. It’s just fun, it feels easy when I’m back there with him.”
Given the increased value receivers now put on release techniques and patterns, refined footwork is an integral asset for safeties alongside their ball-tracking and footballing IQ, especially for one of Bledsoe’s coverage responsibilities.
Watch: #Mizzou senior Joshuah Bledsoe comes up with a HUGE interception in the end zone. But, Bazelak threw an INT right back to the Bulldogs. pic.twitter.com/uEzoEbrEvZ
His sole interception in 2020, which came in the final game of the year against Mississippi State, arguably typified the player he has become. Defending a second-and-10 from the Mizzou 13-yard line, Bledsoe was insistent on showing Jaden Walley inside to gauge his true intentions, recognising the corner route, attaching himself to the hip of the receiver and out-working his man to snag the pick at the back of the end zone.
“Technique is everything,” he said. “If your technique is where it needs to be you can cover anybody, no matter how quick a guy might be, how fast a guy might be, if you stay on your technique and believe in yourself and your ability then you can cover anybody you want to.”
It meanwhile requires little digging to unearth the 5’11”, 200 pound defensive back’s vigorous tackling style, which is perhaps reflective of a man who studies Tyrann Mathieu and compares his game to that of the Kansas City Chiefs safety.
His bigger frame, the agility he offers and the fierce competitiveness he operates with has made him a match for both the size of a tight end and the nimbleness of a slot threat.
“I don’t fear no man,” he added. “When I’m out there it’s a war in the game of football so it’s kill or be killed. You’ve either got to show up or somebody is going to do you wrong. I just feel like it’s more of a pride thing.”
Bledsoe’s versatility dates back to Little League football when he initially started out as a quarterback, playing the position up until the latter stages of his freshman year at Dekaney before being shifted to safety.
Looking back, he deems the position change as valuable education in his development as a defensive playmaker.
“There was another guy that had kinda beaten me out at the quarterback spot so they moved me to safety and then from there it was just my natural position because my father played corner and my brother played corner as well, defense kind of runs in the family,” he said.
“I was always an offensive player and I still feel like I can play offense at a high level. Just having an offensive mindset and playing defense it makes my defensive play even higher.”
His speed and overall athleticism paved the way to him also occasionally contributing as a running back and kick returner in addition his duties in the secondary. Bledsoe finished his senior year at high school with two interceptions, a pass break-up and around 30 tackles, as well as nine rushing touchdowns, one receiving touchdown, one fumble return and one punt return.
Despite the glowing reviews, he was overlooked by a number of the leading college programmes as he headed for the Old Gold and Black of Missouri.
Eventually it became difficult to imagine college life anywhere else, Bledsoe’s time there also notably providing him with the opportunity to matchup against the schools that had passed him by.
“Honestly, Missouri was the place for me,” he explained. “Looking back I feel like that was the best place for me.”
“Everybody wants to go join the Alabamas, the LSUs, they’ve already got top talent at their school, at Missouri, we get talent but we don’t get the five-star and four-star recruits every year like the rest. So to be able to go to Missouri and be able to compete against other top programmes and show I can be dominant against them has really helped me a lot.”
Bledsoe credits the Missouri coaches that put their faith in him and offered him a platform on which to shine as major influences in his growth both on and off the field.
Most forced incompletions from the slot since 2019:
1. Damar Hamlin, Pitt – 16
2. Elijah Molden, Washington – 15
3. Joshuah Bledsoe, Missouri – 14
4. Trevon Moehrig, TCU – 13 pic.twitter.com/VDF41vUa4F
“I feel like they played a very important role in me becoming a man,” he said. “College is critical, that’s when people actually become who they are in life.
“Especially coach (Ryan) Walters, who showed me a lot as a man and as a player. He took my game to the next level as far as letting me play how I want to play, but critiquing me on my game so I can feel free out there on the field.”
Projected as a mid-round prospect, he now waits to find out which NFL coaching staff will be scheming ways to exploit his versatility, just as Mizzou did.
“I’m very excited, it’s just like the unknown,” he said. “I really don’t know where I’m going to end up, I don’t know what kind of scheme I’m going to end up in so it’s being nervous and excited at the same time to be able to go to the next level.
“But whatever team takes me knows they’re going to get a dawg for sure.”
For updates on free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, be sure to follow along at skysports.com/nfl and on Twitter @SkySportsNFL.
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