Jonathan Baldwin's brilliance appears in flashes.
Rapid, blink-and-you-miss-it bursts, his cleats a few feet off the turf, his hands reaching those seemingly inaccessible heights and then -- flash -- the football's flight is interrupted, yanked violently yet simultaneously softly into his grasp.
So precisely what does Pitt's 6-foot-5 sophomore wide receiver with the penchant for making the crowd ooh-and-ah and defensive backs want to run and hide think about when he sees that spiraling football high in the air, knowing he must jump to grab it?
• Game: Annual intrasquad game to end Pitt spring practice.
• When: 2 p.m. April 11.
• Where: Heinz Field.
"That's an easy question, I just think all the time that the ball is mine, that it belongs to me and it is my job to catch it," he said. "That's the way I have to think. Every time I see it up there, I just look at it and say, 'That's mine, I got to go and get it.' If you want to make catches, you can't have any fear and you have to be that way."
Baldwin, an Aliquippa High product with the pogo-stick-type legs, showed as much early in a spring scrimmage yesterday. Just a few plays in, with fans standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the playing surface on the South Side, quarterback Bill Stull dropped back, avoided a rush, stepped up in the pocket and let fly as Baldwin zipped down the middle of the field. Two defensive backs were no match, as Baldwin easily jumped higher than both, pulled in the pass at about the 7 and sauntered in the rest of the way for a 55-yard touchdown reception.
It was a brilliant flash, one that people who see Baldwin perform on a regular basis are accustomed to, and one that offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who is still getting settled into his new job, can't see enough.
When asked about Baldwin after practice, Cignetti replied with a simple yet tremendously telling one word answer.
"Wow," he said.
Cignetti paused for a moment and then continued, "The first thing you notice, obviously, is his physical stature. And there is also his ability to make plays."
That ability allowed Baldwin to play significantly, and start the final three games last year as a freshman. He finished with 18 catches for 404 yards and averaged 22.4 yards per grab. He also reeled in three touchdown passes.
But, all that said, while Baldwin has made his name making catches that look like he should get a spot in Cirque du Soleil, it is those underneath routes, those more unassuming patterns that he admitted he has been working on even more.
In short, he loves all the sizzle, but he knows to be a great receiver, he has to deliver with a steak time and again.
"I'm ready for any challenge," Baldwin said. "Last year, when I was in there, it was like everyone knew I was just going to run a streak or a post. Now, I have worked to critique and run all my other routes better. I think that's the main thing now, that I don't want to the defense to know what to expect when they see me come out of the huddle. Sometimes, yeah, it does bother me that people think I just go in the air and make all the catches on high balls. I want them to think of me as a complete receiver."
Whatever the case, Cignetti knows offensive weaponry when he sees it. The catches Baldwin made in the scrimmage yesterday, and the ones he has made during this spring camp have made Cignetti take notice. The results of which Pitt fans most likely will see the fruits of in game plans in the fall.
"When you look at your offensive team, you ask yourself who are your playmakers?" Cignetti said. "And who are those guys who you have to get the ball, well, obviously, Jonathan Baldwin is one of those guys who we have to make sure gets his touches."
Colin Dunlap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1459.