Former Baylor center Philip Blake’s path to the NFL has been one full of twists and turns, and got off to an unusual start compared to the majority of his counterparts at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine. The ‘Big Canuck,’ as NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock nicknamed him, turned heads at the Combine, where he posted 22 reps of 225 pounds, a vertical of 29.5 inches and a broad jump of 105.0 inches.
Blake, who was born in Toronto, didn’t step onto a football field until his senior year of high school. Average sized growing up, he began his athletic career playing basketball and shinny (street) hockey.
In high school, Blake hit his growth spurt, which transformed him from a hockey goalie to a lineman.
Walking in the hallway one day during his senior year of high school, his friend Jeremy Maruso, who played on the school’s football team, said to him, 'You're pretty big. Why don't you come out and play football?'
Convinced to give the new sport a shot, Blake went out to the field that day and immediately found a role on the offensive and defensive line for Father Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School’s squad.
FROM CANADA TO TEXAS
One year of high school football was enough to convince Blake that he had a chance to make it to the professional level, but he knew that NFL scouts would be unlikely to find him playing in Canada.
"I was recruited by Canadian universities and stuff like that, but I wanted to play in the NFL,” Blake said. “So going to college in the United States gave me my best chances."
His road to a Big-12 university turned into a three-and-a-half-year process that included stops at Champlain Regional College in Quebec, University of Houston and Tyler (Texas) Junior College, since the NCAA clearing house did not accept his high school and Canadian regional college grades.
At Baylor, Blake learned that his Canadian dialect of English differed from that of his Texan teammates.
"When I first got here the accent threw me off,” he laughed. “Because sometimes it'd be like, 'Huh? What'd y’all say?' But about two months in I was kind of starting to sound like them. I'd call back home and they'd be like, "Oh, you don't even sound Canadian anymore. You're not from Canada.'"
His teammates joked with him about their inability to understand him as well.
“I used to say, 'Eh?' and 'aboot' and stuff like that,” Blake said. “But I'm Canadian, and I'm proud of it."
Blake’s first exposure to football in Texas served as an eye-opener given his limited exposure to the sport in Toronto, where his school’s football games were played in the middle of the school day.
“When I came down here, and how football was in Texas, I was just blown away,” he said. “Our games (in Toronto) were played in, like, the fourth period. People would get out of class and walk around and check out the game, or not. You come here and it's different."
The different culture around the game didn’t pose significant problems for Blake. After transferring to Baylor from Tyler Junior College, Blake stepped in and started all 12 games his first season with the Bears posting 76 knockdowns as the team’s right tackle.
He credited the seamless transition to the fact that his coach at Tyler Junior College was tutored by Baylor Head Coach Art Briles, meaning the offensive line scheme and terminology remained the same.
"It wasn’t much of a learning curve, because the (junior college) coach was also coached by Coach Briles. So we kind of had the same system,” Blake said. “So it was kind of like I was being brought into coach Briles' system at the JUCO I was at."
The lineman never missed a start at Baylor, opening all 38 career contests with the Bears. A two-time All-Big-12 honoree, he finished his career with 254 knockdowns and earned spots on Yahoo! Sports’ and ESPN.com’s All-Bowl team following Baylor’s 67-56 win over Washington in the 2011 Alamo Bowl.
From goalie to offensive lineman, from Canada to Texas and from tackle to center, Blake has moved around through his entire athletic career.
After starting all 12 games at tackle during his first year at Baylor, the coaching staff moved him to center, where he opened the final 26 games of his college career. In his first year at the position, he was named honorable mention All-Big 12 by the coaches and Associated Press.
"You have to be a quick learner,” he said. “Coach Briles used to always say, 'We didn't bring you all the way down here for you to sit on the bench.' I had to pick up everything real fast, so I didn't have any problems with that."
While projected in the NFL as a center, Blake pointed out that he’s played every position along the line and even took snaps at guard during the 2012 Senior Bowl.
He thinks that his versatility – both on the offensive line and in life – will help his NFL prospects.
“I guess they can see that I can play in cold weather, in hot weather,” he said. “I've never had a problem with moving around, or anything like that. I love seeing new places. It was a good ride for me."
Despite being drafted 23rd overall in the 2011 Canadian Football Draft by the Montreal Alouettes, Blake had his sights set on the NFL and decided to return to Baylor for his senior season.
"Basically, it was my coaches telling me I have a great opportunity to play at the next level, the NFL, and we'd like you to come back and play another year,” he said of his decision to return to school. “So I talked to my mom, talked to my family and stayed back another year."
He has experience playing with NFL-caliber players, including Broncos center
Blake feels that his experience playing in front of Griffin III will help him make the leap to the next level.
"The play is never over until the whistle is blown,” he said about what he expects to see in the NFL. “(Griffin III) can make a lot of things happen, as we've seen this year — breaking tackles and making plays downfield. So, play to the whistle.
"It's a lot of fun. You're blocking your man and you look up and see the ball is in air about 30 or 40 yards downfield, and you see someone catching the ball and the crowd is going crazy. It's very exciting."
As he’s already made the jump from a hockey goalie to the NFL Combine, Blake has no reservations that the NFL is the next stop on his long and winding road. While there will certainly be adjustments for him to make, history has shown that he is capable of adapting.
"Just being a better player,” he said about what he’d have to improve on to play in the NFL. “You never play at your best, and I'm not good or great because I haven't played at this level yet. I'm kind of anxious and waiting to see what's out there."