Pitt's Baldwin looks to echo Fitzgerald all the way to NFL
July 20, 2010
By Chris Steuber
The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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Some scouts clearly remember Pittsburgh Panther wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin's coming-out party as a top tier pro prospect. It was Nov. 14, 2009. Attendees included 65,374 fans, most of whom celebrated the moment, and the Notre Dame Irish, who did not.
The setup: Pittsburgh and Notre Dame were tied 3-3 in the second quarter. Panthers quarterback Bill Stull and Baldwin have just connected on a 21-yard crossing pattern on a crucial 3rd-and-10. The ball was at the Irish 36-yard line, as the clock kept running with 2:44 remaining -- first down.
Notre Dame knows all too well how good Jonathan Baldwin can be. (US Presswire)
Notre Dame knows all too well how good Jonathan Baldwin can be. (US Presswire)
Baldwin was flanked out to the far right -- clock ticking 2:43, 2:42. The offensive line settled with Stull in the shotgun -- the clock still in motion 2:41, 2:40; set go ...
Working on the outside, Baldwin got upfield quickly against cornerback Darrin Walls on a straight go-route. Stull worked fast into his five-step drop. Baldwin reached the 19-yard line as the ball left Stull's hand. At the two-yard line, Baldwin leaped, stretched and made a reception that launched the Pittsburgh crowd into a frenzy. The clock rested at 2:31. The Panthers took that 10-3 lead into halftime.
Pittsburgh went on to defeat Notre Dame, 27-22, and improved its record to 9-1. But, as important as that game was for the Panthers and their optimistic national championship hopes at the time, it was a game that burned Baldwin's name into the memories of NFL scouts.
Baldwin showed flashes of brilliance before that game and finished his sophomore campaign with 57 receptions for 1,111 yards and eight touchdowns. But his five catches for 142 yards and a touchdown against the Irish -- most notably the acrobatic touchdown reception he hauled in late in the second quarter -- came in front of a number of NFL scouts.
"I was at that game scouting Stull and [tight end Dorin] Dickerson," said one scout in attendance. "I knew who Baldwin was, but I had never seen him play in person. That drive was impressive, and it really showed how dominant he could be on the big stage. But, that catch he made in the end zone, against a pretty good defender, brought back memories of Larry Fitzgerald."
It has been seven years since Fitzgerald resonated with Pitt fans. He had an unforgettable two-year career for the program and amassed 161 receptions for 2,677 yards and 34 touchdowns. As a sophomore in 2003, Fitzgerald put together a season that went down as one of the best in NCAA history when he caught 92 passes for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns. For his efforts, he became the first sophomore to win the Walter Camp Award, claimed the Biletnikoff Award as the country's top wide receiver and was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
Following the season, Fitzgerald declared for the NFL Draft and was selected by the Arizona Cardinals with the third overall pick in 2004.
As an Aliquippa, Penn., native, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Baldwin witnessed Fitzgerald's record-breaking year first hand. In '03, he was in the eighth grade and had aspirations of one day playing in the NBA. But watching a tall, athletic receiver like Fitzgerald dominate on the gridiron the way that he did that year made Baldwin think about how he could translate into football. "It was all about basketball for me growing up," Baldwin said. "I didn't start playing football until I was in ninth grade. I wouldn't say that watching Larry [that year] made me want to play football, but I did enjoy the way he attacked the ball and caught passes over people. He looked like a basketball player playing football and I thought, 'I'm a big guy, I can jump pretty high and I have good hands; I can do those things.' So, I did."
Aggressively recruited by Pitt out of high school, Baldwin was thrown into the fire as a true freshman. Playing in all 13 games, and starting the last three games of the 2008 season, Baldwin was primarily used as a deep threat and didn't have a chance to show what he could do as a receiver. He finished the season with 18 receptions for 404 yards (22.4 yards per catch) and three touchdowns.
Since his playing time was sporadic and he didn't start a game until the end of the '08 season, Baldwin views his freshman year as the beginning of his sophomore year. If that were the case, his career statistics of 75 receptions for 1,515 yards and 11 touchdowns would have been from this past season; drawing the comparison between Baldwin and Fitzgerald even closer. As a freshman, Fitzgerald caught 69 passes for 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Comparing Baldwin and Fitzgerald on measurables and numbers alone is an easy exercise. An AFC scout who has observed Baldwin in person a handful of times understands the comparisons, but doesn't necessarily agree with them. Still, he views Baldwin as a premier prospect; he's the fourth-ranked underclassman wide receiver by NFLDraftScout.com.
"In my opinion, he's the best receiver in the country," the AFC scout said. "Now, is he a Fitzgerald clone? I don't know about that. Baldwin is a little taller and faster, and Fitzgerald is stronger and more sure handed. With that said, Baldwin has the talent to play in the NFL right now. As good as he's been, it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to a new quarterback throwing him the ball."
After catching passes from Stull the last two years, Baldwin will have to build a bond with redshirt sophomore Tino Sunseri. Sunseri played in five games last season, and in those games he completed 10 of 17 passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Even though Sunseri has some game experience, he and Baldwin haven't worked together on a consistent basis. That worries Baldwin to an extent.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried, because Tino and I haven't been on the field together that much," Baldwin said. "But recently we went out to dinner and discussed some things. Then after dinner, around 10 p.m., we went over to the practice facility to work on routes. We're trying to get our timing down.
"This is a big year for me, and I made him aware of that; he knows it's an important year for me, and he's going to try to help me have a big year."
After every game, Baldwin likes to compare statistics with the top junior receivers in the country. He named his competition in the exact order that NFLDraftScout.com has them ranked for the 2012 receiver class: Alabama's Julio Jones, Georgia's A.J. Green, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, and Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles. All of the aforementioned receivers are potential first-round prospects in next year's draft if they declare early. And, while Baldwin is concentrating on the upcoming season and would like to bring a national championship to Pittsburgh, he's motivated by his competition and wants to prove that he should be the nation's top receiver.
"I know there's a lot of competition out there, and I welcome that competition," he said. "I'm just going to do what I got to do, and I know that those guys are trying to accomplish the same thing I'm trying to accomplish. I may not be as highly touted as Julio and A.J., but I think I'm just as good, if not better than them. And, if I produce similar numbers or better than the ones they post, there's no question that I'm leaving early [for the NFL]."
Chris Steuber is a Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Email Chris at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter twitter.com/ChrisSteuber.
The year's upcoming draft and the college game can be discussed here.
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