As if the expectations already placed on Jonathan Baldwin weren’t enough, the latest developments in Pitt football have placed an additional burden on the Aliquippa All-America receiver.
First, sophomore receiver Maurice Williams was ruled academically ineligible for the 2008 season. The Panthers were counting on Williams to be a deep threat who could push redshirt junior Oderick Turner for the starting job at split end.
Then, Baldwin played a starring role in Pennsylvania’s victory over Ohio in the Big 33 Football Classic. His play in both practice and the game impressed his future teammates to the point they were speaking in superlatives of one of their peers.
“I knew Jonathan Baldwin was a good football player, but I didn’t know he was a freak of nature,” said Cameron Saddler, the slot back/return specialist from Gateway. “That dude is ridiculous. There were some plays he made where you said, ‘How did he do that?’ Baldwin, he gave me the feeling that he’s got to play (this fall). There’s no second-guessing it.”
That leads to this question: Is Baldwin ready?
At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, there’s no doubting his physical attributes. Baldwin also claims to run the 40-yard dash in the 4.4-second range and has explosive leaping ability, as evidenced by his penchant for thunderous dunks during his basketball career.
Yet Baldwin spent much of his high school career playing tight end — out of necessity — for the Quips, and is a relative novice in the nuances of route-running, hand placement and blocking. That isn’t meant to suggest he can’t learn those skills.
“I think I’m a natural at receiver,” Baldwin said. “I played tight end just to help the team because we didn’t have a tight end. I need to learn the routes and I’ll be fine.”
But Baldwin is not as polished as the last All-America receiver Pitt landed. That would be Larry Fitzgerald, the player Baldwin is most often compared to by Panthers fans. Where Fitzgerald played receiver his entire career — and learned from Chris Carter and Randy Moss as a Minnesota Vikings ball boy — Baldwin is much less experienced than the current Arizona Cardinals All-Pro.
But Baldwin has the same sense of confidence as Fitzgerald, and has advantages in size and speed. I’m not much for comparing high school athletes to pros in any sport, but if you’re looking for one, Baldwin is closer to another NFL receiver.
I recently spent some time on an elliptical trainer — not enough, some could say — next to a former Division I basketball coach who said Baldwin reminded him of Plaxico Burress, the former Steeler who caught the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII for the New York Giants.
They are similar in size and their ability to stretch the field, although I would argue that Baldwin uses his leaping ability to his advantage more than Burress. It will be interesting to see how Baldwin develops, especially under the weight of expectations.
Baldwin, for one, hopes to make an early impact.
“I feel it adds a lot of momentum going into camp, having played in the All-American Game with the best in the nation and the Big 33 with the best in the state,” Baldwin said. “I feel I can compete with those guys. I’m going to go into camp working as hard as I can. Hopefully, I get my chance.”
• Saddler, by the way, is already living up to his reputation as a super-talker and ambassador for the Pitt football program. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt told me how impressed he was with the way Saddler handled himself as a speaker at the Big 33 banquet.
Even more important is Saddler’s ability to be a leader. Despite his diminutive size, Saddler is the one who the rest of Pitt’s recruiting class rallies around. He even criticized Gateway teammate and Pitt recruit Shayne Hale for bypassing the Big 33.
“Shayne doesn’t really understand the magnitude of the Big 33 game,” Saddler said. “I had to let him know what he was missing out on, that it’s the Pennsylvania-Ohio Super Bowl. We all bonded; he might feel left out.”
In fact, of all the incoming freshmen, Saddler is the one who I expect to play right away. Others might contend for positions in the starting lineup, but Saddler should have a shot at returning punts and kicks. He’s proven to be a dynamic return man.
Imagine Pitt pairing Saddler with either LaRod Stephens-Howling, T.J. Porter or Aundre Wright on kick returns. And with Saddler available, there’s no reason to risk injury to Aaron Berry on punt returns. Plus, I don’t see the point in redshirting Saddler when he’s probably not going to get much bigger.
If nothing else, Saddler embodies the right attitude.
“We’re all coming in with a goal: we all want to get playing time,” Saddler said. “Some of us are going to play this year; some of us aren’t. But we’re going to work hard to get opportunities.”
• One other dose of Saddler:
Even though he played against him in the WPIAL Class AAAA final, Saddler was more impressed with Tino Sunseri after playing with him in the Big 33.
“Tino’s arm strength surprised me,” Saddler said. “He throws a real good ball, way harder than I thought.”
Sunseri could be a surprise in Pitt’s quarterback battle, with his strong arm and deceptive speed. He is a better scrambler and open-field runner than people give him credit for.
But after the way Pat Bostick and Kevan Smith struggled last season — and with the return of Bill Stull and the addition of Greg Cross — Sunseri has his work cut out for him this season and could be destined for a redshirt.
“Even though he’ll be competing,” Wannstedt warned, “with a veteran quarterback we found out from experience that it does take some time.”
• I talked with one of the coaches of the PSFCA East-West Game who raved about two Pitt recruits before the game: Bishop McCort tight end Mike Cruz and Wilmington tailback Chris Burns.
Although fans tend to make much of the statistical performances in such all-star games, coaches are more impressed by how players perform in practice. The coach I spoke with said the staff talked about Cruz and Burns being “the two best players” on the West all-stars and noted that they are “both good kids, too.”
Where Burns impressed with his feet and balance, Cruz displayed terrific hands and route-running in spread sets. The coach, however, projects Cruz to have a short-lived stay at tight end, saying Cruz is “a natural to move down” to guard or tackle.
• As for recruiting, I also was warned that Gateway’s Corey Brown could pick Ohio State shortly after his visit there last weekend but that “the longer it goes, the better chance Pitt has.”
No surprise then, when Brown committed to the Buckeyes on Monday.
It’s a bit alarming, though, that Ohio State has so successfully raided the WPIAL for some of its top prospects in recent years: Devon Lyons, Rory Nicol, Kyle Mitchum, Andy Miller, Evan Blankenship, Terrelle Pryor, Andrew Sweat and, now, Gateway’s Brown and Dorian Bell and Jeannette’s Jordan Hall.
But for those panicking about Pitt losing prospects in June, let me remind you that at this time last year the Panthers were out of the running for Saddler, Sunseri, Hale and Cruz, among others. All four ended up signing with Pitt in February.
If memory serves correct, Pitt’s latest recruit, Juantez Hollins, has a unique distinction at Aliquippa. He’s poised to become one of the first, if not the first ever, to start all four years for the Quips.
I remember watching Hollins start at right guard when Aliquippa played Beaver Falls on a Thursday night in the first season of FSN Pittsburgh’s High School Football games in 2005, and that Quips coach Mike Zmijanac told me how rare it was.
At 6-4, 265, Hollins has the size to play defensive end or defensive tackle. But his future might be on offense, where the Pitt coaches loved his footwork at their individual skills camp. And Wannstedt has a habit of moving players into their projected positions once they grow into their bodies.
Plus, Pitt also is actively recruiting several defensive ends. They are involved with Steel Valley’s Tyrone Ezell, Central Dauphin’s Jack Lippert and recently offered Allderdice’s Will Clarke, the son of former Duquesne University basketball player Bill Clarke, who was a teammate of Sam Clancy’s at Fifth Avenue.
There’s a pattern in his philosophy: Safeties become linebackers. Linebackers become defensive ends. Ends become interior linemen. And defensive linemen, as well as oversized tight ends, become offensive linemen.
That’s not to say Wannstedt doesn’t recruit offensive linemen (see: King, Cory), but he’s looking for athletes, not plodders. Which is why Pitt is taking its time figuring out which offensive linemen to offer. The Panthers like Brashear’s John Wetzel, West Mifflin’s Adam Gress and North Allegheny’s Ryan Schlieper, to name a few, and are deciding which they like the best.
Another WPIAL offensive lineman to keep in mind is Montour center Serafino Caliguire, a 6-2, 285-pounder who is the nephew of former Panthers’ lineman Dean Caliguire.
• Look for Pitt’s next commitment to come from Thomas Jefferson tight end Brock DeCicco (6-6, 225), who might visit Illinois and Wisconsin this weekend but is expected to eventually join his brother, sophomore safety Dom, in playing for the Panthers.