H.B. Blades wants to set the record straight: He does not throw punches at the bottom of the pile. He does admit to, among other things, digging elbows into rib cages, gouging eyes and picking noses (opponents', not his), acts he laughs off as "harmless stuff." The junior linebacker and scion of the football-playing Blades family--his dad, Bennie, and uncles Brian and Al first were notorious yappers at Miami, then in the NFL--could win the Heisman if it were awarded for trash talk. "Against Boston College last year I was in their players' ears the whole time," he says. "They got so mad, they went to the refs."
All of this comes from a guy who off the field draws as much attention as a sleeping cat and eschews campus parties to spend time with his eight-month-old twin girls, Aalyah and Takaia. "I can't explain this Dr. Jekyll--Mr. Hyde thing," Blades says. "Maybe it's pent-up aggression from every-day life. Everybody just thinks I'm an angry kid."
Whatever is driving Blades will be valuable to a Pitt team in transition. New coach Dave Wannstedt, a Pittsburgh native who played offensive line for the Panthers from 1970 through '73, has already hammered his imprint on last year's co--Big East champ and Fiesta Bowl participant. In the spring he ordered every player to shed pounds before the start of August practice. He scrapped former coach Walt Harris's West Coast offense and installed a physical, run-first attack. (Pitt ranked 105th in the nation in rushing last year, with 97.8 yards per game.) And in searching for more speed on defense, Wannstedt has been turning ends into tackles, linebackers into ends, corners into safeties.
Wannstedt, who spent the last 16 seasons as an NFL coach or assistant, hesitated to take the Pitt job, weighing the notion of staying in the pros in some capacity after resigning as Miami Dolphins coach last November. Then he picked the brains of former NFL mentor Jimmy Johnson, USC's Pete Carroll, Alabama's Mike Shula and Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey--all of whom have coached in the pros and college--and was convinced that the right move was to return home. "This has been very, very energizing for me," he says.
At the center of Wannstedt's defensive changes is Blades, who moves from strongside linebacker to the middle. Blades compensates for a relative lack of size (6 feet, 245) with quickness and a nose--his, this time--for the ball. Last season he led the Panthers with 108 tackles. "I'm not a hey-look-at-me, finesse-type linebacker," he says. "I'm in your face, and I'm going to talk [trash] to you. I'm a mean, dirty, physical player."
We get the message. --G.M.
2004 RECORD 8-4 (4-2, T1 in Big East)
FINAL AP RANK 25 RETURNING STARTERS 18
KEY RETURNEES (2004 stats)
QB Tyler Palko (Jr.)
24 TD passes, third-best in school history
TE Erik Gill (Sr.)
Mackey Award hopeful snagged 25 passes
LB H.B. Blades (Jr.)
Top tackler had 108 stops, 10½ for loss
CB Darrelle Revis (Soph.)
Defended 14 passes (two INTs) as freshman
108.1 Receiving yards per game for wideout Greg Lee, the seventh Panthers wideout to lead the Big East in the last eight seasons.
Quarterback Tyler Palko and wideout Greg Lee formed the nation's best sophomore passing combination last year, and Lee's big-play ability was integral. The 6'2", 200-pound Lee had a highlight-reel, one-handed 57-yard touchdown reception against Syracuse. He finished with 68 catches for 1,297 yards (fifth in the nation) and 10 TDs, three of which went for 50 yards or longer.
3 NOTRE DAME
9 at Ohio
17 at Nebraska
24 YOUNGSTOWN STATE
30 at Rutgers
15 SOUTH FLORIDA
3 at Louisville
24 at West Virginia
CHRIS LIVINGSTON/ICON SMI
Blades (51) brings trash talk and much more to his role as Pitt's stopper.