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In Good Hands

As a finalist at the ESPYs, Derek Kinder had a chance to rub elbows with Hollywood stars and professional athletes. To know Kinder, it should come as no surprise that his lengthiest discussion came with one of his peers.

Kinder was seated next to Dwayne Jarrett, the former Southern Cal All-American receiver who was drafted in the second round by the Carolina Panthers.

They got to discussing their respective recruitments by Pitt, as they missed each other’s official visits by a week. Jarrett recalled the bitter cold at Heinz Field for the 2003 Miami game, when Walt Harris unbelievably had Jarrett, Michigan’s Adrian Arrington, USC’s Fred Davis and the Miami Dolphins’ Ted Ginn Jr. all making official visits.

If Pitt wins that game, maybe one or more of those players picks the Panthers and we might have never heard of Kinder. Instead, Kinder has developed into a first-team All-Big East receiver who hasn’t forgotten his roots.

Or how far he’s come.

You don’t have to remind Kinder that he was a running back at Albion (N.Y.) High School and that his receiving experience consisted primarily of bubble screens. He freely offers up that his original No. 48 was “an ugly number for a receiver,” but fitting for someone lost in learning the nuances of route running and stopping on a dime.

Kinder can now laugh at the difference.

“If anybody would go back and watch clips, I was so raw,” Kinder said. “I had never played receiver at all.”

Yet Kinder is a fourth-year senior who played as a true freshman, mostly because of his enthusiasm for special teams. That’s what earned him a trip to Hollywood for the ESPN awards show, his first time setting foot in California.

Let’s put this in proper perspective: It was Kinder who threw the devastating block that lifted two West Virginia players off their feet and allowed Darrelle Revis to score a 73-yard touchdown on a punt return that drew an ESPY nomination for “Best Play.”

How many players who lead their team in receiving and receiving yards, as Kinder did last season, even play special teams? Kinder’s affinity for all aspects of the game is what separates him from the rest of the receiving corps.

“He’s a great example to use in recruiting from the standpoint of, here’s a player that wasn’t highly recruited, who was asked to change positions and who, really, earned his starting role,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “Think about this: Derek Kinder was our leading receiver, a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award and one of the top 10 in the country in yards per catch and the talk of our special teams meeting because he made two tackles on kickoffs.

“What does that tell you? No. 1, he’s a team guy. He’s tough. And he’ll do whatever helps the team. Derek is probably the most recognizable guy we have. You combine that with a guy who’s been given nothing. He’s earned everything he has.”

Which is why Kinder has drawn comparisons to Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who would probably give up his diamond earring to add another highlight-reel block like Kinder’s to his resume of downfield destruction.

“That’s a great comparison,” Wannstedt said. “When Hines came out of college, people were saying he was a tough guy who had good hands and was very dependable. He could play special teams, a variety of positions. Derek Kinder falls into that role a little bit.”

Like Ward, Kinder is trying to assume a greater leadership role. Wannstedt isn’t worried about the soft-spoken Kinder becoming more vocal, noting that “behind closed doors is really when it counts.”

That didn’t stop Kinder from expressing his desire to return Pitt to prominence this season, even though he admits the Panthers are deservedly “flying under the radar.”

“We want to lead this team to a bowl game,” Kinder said. “We haven’t been there in two years. The Fiesta Bowl was great, but we’re starting to forget the memories.”

Is anything less a disaster?

“I think so,” Kinder said. “I think we have so much potential. We’ve been working so hard, we’ve got to get to a bowl game and get this program where it should be. Hands down, we’re definitely going to be a tougher, stronger team mentally.”

Starting with their best player.

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