When Missouri defensive backs coach Charlie Harbison was asked about safety Joshuah Bledsoe, the veteran coach rattled off a number of his qualities before finishing with a simple yet effective phrase: "The game isn't too big for him."
Never was that more evident than last September when Harbison and the Tigers hosted defending national champion LSU in an early-season SEC showdown. The back-and-forth affair featured very little defense, and as time whittled away Missouri was clinging to a 45-41 lead.
But in the final minute the visitors moved the ball inside the Missouri 5 and had four cracks at a go-ahead touchdown. The defense held on the first three downs and with the ball sitting at the 1 and just 20 seconds left, the game came down to one final play.
LSU's Terrace Marshall had dominated all afternoon, racking up 11 catches for 235 yards and three touchdowns. Despite that monster production, Missouri allowed Marshall to be single covered with the game on the line. The man assigned to keep Marshall from a winning fourth touchdown was Bledsoe.
Marshall lined up in the slot to the right and LSU quarterback Myles Brennan took the shotgun snap and immediately rolled that way. Marshall took three strides before quickly cutting to the outside with the ball already in flight in his direction. But Bledsoe read the play perfectly, bumping Marshall on his break while diving underneath to knock the pass away, preserving a huge SEC victory for Missouri in the process.
"He can really do a lot of things," Harbison said. He played mostly man, and in the SEC that's really asking a lot of a safety to line up in the slot and keep tabs on these guys from Alabama, LSU, Florida … you name it, he covered everyone. He held his own against the SEC schedule. Josh is just a football player. No matter the opponent the game isn't too big for him."
View photos of Patriots sixth round pick Safety Joshuah Bledsoe in action at Missouri.
Bledsoe is a 5-11, 201-pound safety who is as comfortable playing in the slot as he is out in space. He worked as an extra linebacker in the box occasionally but more often than not showcased his man cover skills and locked horns with some of the nation's toughest wideouts. In addition to Marshall, who did most of his damage on the outside against Missouri and was a second-round pick of the Panthers, Bledsoe saw plenty of Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and Florida's Kadarius Toney as well – both first-round picks.
He suffered through some growing pains in the process, allowing eight touchdowns during his career, but Harbison pointed out that he won many of those battles as well and in the process improved greatly as his final season progressed.
"Within our defense he was a guy that we always put a lot of stress on" Harbison explained. "We would have him run with guys in motion and he had to deal with a lot of speed, guys using double moves on him in space, and he produced. He's very coachable. You can be tough with him and he responds every time."
Bledsoe was selected by the Patriots in the sixth round with 188th overall selection and already signed his four-year rookie deal. Harbison explained how a wrist injury suffered at the Senior Bowl may have negatively impacted his draft stock because he was not able to work out for teams during his Pro Day.
Still, Bledsoe projects to figure prominently in the special teams mix while he gets acclimated to NFL life in Foxborough working behind veterans Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and second-year man Kyle Dugger.
"He can run and he has good size," Hardison continued. "He was a big part of our coverage units, the punt team especially. He's like a Swiss Army knife. If he hadn't gotten hurt at Senior Bowl he may have gone higher. He was in a cast at his Pro Day and couldn't work out."
Off the field, Harbison said Bledsoe was focused both on improving his game and maintaining his academic standing.
"He's more of a quiet guy," Harbison said. "He doesn't deal with a lot of people, he's not out hanging around all the time getting in trouble. He's about his business, especially his academics. Which I respect.
"I had only one year with him, but he was a guy everyone respected and looked up to. A lot of people looked up to him within his group, and that says a lot. He's going to be a guy who asks a lot of questions because he wants to learn and he wants to get better. I would think he's going to a great environment for that up there.
"All he needs is an opportunity and he'll prove what he's worth."