O'HARA'S NOW AND THEN: Isaiah Johnson and Bennie Blades

Posted Jul 15, 2015

Bennie Blades’ advice to any young safety entering the NFL is based on expectations -- the ones a player has for himself.

Bennie Blades arrived hitting as the young leader of the Lions’ secondary. What was written in the scouting reports from his career with the Miami Hurricanes that caused the Lions to draft him third overall in 1988 is what he showed on the field for nine seasons.

From opening day of his rookie season, when he had a team-high solo tackles in a 31-17 victory over the Falcons, until his final game as a Lion in 1996, Blades lived up to expectations. He set a standard for intensity and commitment, and he expected it from those around him.

Blades had the resume to be a leader, and he backed it up on the field. He was a two-time All-American at Miami, winner (ahead of Deion Sanders) of the 1987 Jim Thorpe Award as the top defensive back in college football, a Pro Bowl safety for the Lions and a 2006 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Blades’ advice to any young safety entering the NFL, from a top draft pick to undrafted rookies such as the Lions’ Isaiah Johnson, is based on expectations -- the ones a player has for himself. They should be high.

“This is how football is: Do your job, every single day,” Blades said in a telephone interview from south Florida, where he is a school principal and operates the Bennie Blades Youth Camps, among other pursuits.

“Here’s the best advice I can give young safeties coming in. When Ron Rice (a safety with the Lions) was brought in, I told him, ‘Be the best you can be. I don’t care who’s in front of you, me or a 12-time Pro Bowler.’

“When I came into the league, I didn’t care who it was. I was going to be the best Bennie Blades, and make it impossible to keep me off the field. It doesn’t matter who’s in front of you. You make it tough for that coach to say, ‘I can cut you.’”

With a transition in coaching staffs after the 1996 season – Wayne Fontes out, Bobby Ross in – Blades signed with Seattle as a free agent, where he spent his final season in 1997.

Johnson entered the NFL at the opposite end of the spectrum from Blades. After a solid career at Georgia Tech, Johnson was not one of the 15 safeties taken in this year’s draft. The Lions moved quickly to sign him after the draft. A signing bonus of $12,000 showed they had more than a token interest in him.

Johnson’s attitude is in line with what Blades likes to see in young players. He hasn’t let the draft snub diminish his effort, and he has not been caught up calculating where he stands on the depth chart.

“I did expect to play at this level,” Johnson said. “I won’t allow myself to fail based on the things I can’t control. As far as my being here, my effort, being on time – I expect that will not be the way I will fail.”

Like Calvin Johnson, Isaiah Johnson went to Sandy Creek High School in suburban Atlanta before going to Georgia Tech.

Isaiah JohnsonS Isaiah Johnson (Photo: Detroit Lions)

Isaiah Johnson was a four-year player for the Yellow Jackets and a full-time starter for three. He sat out the 2013 season with a knee injury he sustained in practice before the 2012 Sun Bowl – a 21-7 victory over Southern Cal.

For his career, Johnson had six interceptions, seven fumble recoveries, three sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

The deck – specifically the depth chart – is stacked against Johnson making any impact as a rookie. Free safety Glover Quin was a Pro Bowl starter last season, and strong safety James Ihedigbo was a Pro Bowl alternate.

Behind Quin and Ihedigbo are veterans Isa Abdul-Quddus and Don Carey.

Johnson has taken to heart some of head coach Jim Caldwell’s sayings to keep his focus on what he wants to accomplish and not stumble on any roadblocks in his path.

“For us rookies, I see that the coaches are really digging into us,” Johnson said. “It’s for good reason. They want us to catch up. One thing I took from Coach Caldwell that really stuck with me is that he has patience, but he doesn’t have time.”

Another saying came from assistant coach Alan Williams, who coaches the safeties.

“As Coach Williams says, you don’t want to be a recidivist,” Johnson said. “That’s going backward.”