In a star-studded class of 2006, Darrin Walls was one of western Pennsylvania's best. The No. 3 cornerback prospect in the nation and a USA Today second-team prep All-America selection, Walls was a four-star recruit from Woodland Hills who signed with Notre Dame after considering more than 30 colleges. Along with Dorin Dickerson, who signed with Pitt, Walls was the biggest name in a high-profile class.
Apparently word of Walls' prowess never got back to Beaver County.
"I never even heard of him before we played them last year," Pitt junior receiver Jonathan Baldwin, an Aliquippa native, said this week. "Everybody was telling me he was from North Hills or Woodland Hills - I'm not even sure - so I never even knew him before that time."
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Walls may or may not have been aware of Baldwin prior to the Pitt-Notre Dame game at Heinz Field last November, but he certainly knew about the 6'5" 230-pound receiver after the game. Baldwin put up an epic performance in the Panthers' 27-22 victory, catching five passes for 142 yards and one touchdown.
Among Baldwin's five receptions against the Irish were a huge third-down conversion and an athletic catch on the sideline when he leapt over Walls to pull the ball in. But the most legendary of Baldwin's catches that day was his diving 36-yard touchdown grab, a play that instantly ranked among the greatest in Pitt history and one that rivaled some of Larry Fitzgerald's best.
Walls was the defender in coverage on that play, but overall, Baldwin didn't notice too much of the former Woodland Hills standout.
"He didn't really press that much, so I can't really determine if he was physical from the pressing standpoint," Baldwin said. "He didn't tackle me, so I wouldn't be able to tell you that."
Now Walls and Baldwin are set to meet once again, as Pitt (2-2) will travel to South Bend to take on Notre Dame (2-3) this Saturday. In Baldwin's first trip to Notre Dame Stadium two years ago, he caught just two passes for 31 yards and one touchdown. Now he's looking forward to heading back to South Bend.
"It's a great tradition to play at Notre Dame stadium. My first game there, I was a little nervous, but I just circled the game on my calendar for the next season. I played a great game last year, so I circled the game on my calendar for this year and I plan to have a great game this time, too."
If Baldwin lives up to his words and has a great game on Saturday, it could very well be considered his first great game of 2010. Through four games, he has 15 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns, with a six-catch/100-yard/one-touchdown performance against New Hampshire as his high-water mark for the season. And in the last two games, he has caught a total of five passes for 41 yards.
He has been the top target for first-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri, but the two have had difficulty getting on the same page. In the 44-17 win over Florida International, Baldwin was targeted on five of the first seven passes, but made one catch for seven yards; conversely, while Sunseri was completing 13 of his final 14 pass attempts against FIU, Baldwin was targeted on just two of the 14 throws.
"It's just a matter of time," Baldwin said. "Other guys have been successful, and we just have to keep chucking at it. I'm pretty sure [offensive coordinator Frank] Cignetti will figure some different ways to get me the ball, too.
"You have to keep going out there and try to make plays. Sometimes I'm not going to be able to make the play, but a majority of time, I'm going to make the play. That's basically what I have to say about that."
Among the plays Baldwin has not made this year have been several would-be catches in the end zone that went awry either because he landed out of bounds or was unable to hold onto the ball. The degree of difficulty was high on those plays, but as a receiver with NFL aspirations, Baldwin expects to make even the toughest catches.
"As a receiver, you want to make every play, but the nature of the game is that you're not going to be able to make every play," Baldwin said. "You just have to get up and try to make the next play. I'm pretty sure I'll make a lot of plays like that this Saturday.
"I had a lot of catches like that last year, and I'm sure I'll have a lot of catches like that this year starting on Saturday."