When Cam Saddler was asked about the fact that Syracuse has given up a couple of big punt returns this season, Pitt's always-talkative receiver and return man gave a knowing smile.
That's not to say Saddler was predicting he would break one when the Panthers travel to Syracuse to take on the Orange Friday night at Carrier Dome, but he knows a big play from the special teams could go a long way in helping to stretch Pitt's current winning streak to three games.
"I try to tell the [punt team] every time we take the field, 'Just block your man, and I'm going to try to do the rest,' " Saddler said.
Saddler, a fifth-year senior, has been returning punts on and off for Pitt since his redshirt freshman season in 2009 and has handled all seven this season. In 39 career attempts, though, he has yet to take one all the way.
Syracuse ranks last in Division I-A in net punting with 28.1 yards per kick. The Orange allowed an 82-yard return for a touchdown in their season-opener against Northwestern and a 31-yard return the next week against Southern California.
Saddler said the fact that the Friday night game is being played inside the Carrier Dome should help him get a read on balls before he sets up his return.
"I'm a fan of the indoor thing," he said. "The punts are easier to catch in there. That's the only reason why. The ball travels different indoors."
Becoming a viable weapon as a punt-returner would add another facet to Saddler's game that continues to develop in his final year with the Panthers. He had five catches for 82 yards in Pitt's victory Sept. 22 against Gardner-Webb.
"I thought he did a heck of a job last game," offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "I thought he made some really big plays that weren't all that easy and I was pretty proud of the way he performed."
Saddler said that in the past off week, he focused on healing his banged up shoulder, as well as staying upright when he catches the ball. As exciting as the diving catches are, they don't help you get in the end zone.
"I want to stand up and score a touchdown," Saddler said. "So I've been trying to practice catching low balls, high balls, staying on my feet."
Even though the offense has clicked the past two games, Saddler hasn't gotten in the end zone.
That's a trend he hopes to change Friday, whether it's on offense or a big-play punt return.
NOTES -- Pitt coach Paul Chryst said defensive end Jack Lippert would miss the game because of an injury, but said everyone else who sat out against Gardner-Webb should return. That means defensive tackle Aaron Donald and tight end Hubie Graham should return to the starting lineup. ... Freshman running back Rushel Shell has missed some practice time this week, but Chryst expects him to play Friday. ... Linebacker Todd Thomas, out since the early portion of camp, likely will return this week. Chryst said he was not sure how he would rotate Thomas with current starter Eric Williams.pittsports
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.