Pitt head coach Todd Graham spent Tuesday talking a little about the receiver position. On paper, the receiving corps might be at a disadvantage having to replace first-round pick Jon Baldwin. Losing Baldwin hasn’t been a concern at all. One reason is the return of players like Mike Shanahan, Cameron Saddler and Devin Street, the position boasts the most number of key returners from last year’s team.
The production from the receiver position hasn’t dropped off in camp due to the injuries the position has suffered in training camp. Street, Saddler as well as Ed Tinker and Salath Williams have had to miss parts of camp. A big reason for the continued production from the receiver position in August is because of how steady Shanahan has been—not just for the position, but for the team as a whole. Graham also considers Shanahan one of the team’s leaders.
“I think he’s going to have a major role,” Graham said. “Mike has great ability. He runs really good routes. He’s a big, physical receiver that’s going to catch a lot of balls.”
Graham also likes to point out that Shanahan—just because of his size—is not the prototypical possession receiver. He feels he can be much more than that.
“I think he’s gotten faster,” Graham added. “I think he’s fast enough. What he does, is he’s a 6-5 guy. When you’re running read routes with him, you can just post him up. He’s got great ball skills. He’s one of our best deep threats because he is a long strider. He’s eating up a lot of grass. He’s deceptive at how he can get quick, deep.”
Shanahan is the prototypical five-back—a player who can get physical in the slot against linebackers and safeties. He is also willing to use Shanahan at the nine-back—the position where a lot of the big plays come from, including the deep ball.”
“Right now, I have the ability to go deep on any ball and run any kind of route,” Shanahan said. “Right now, I’m just working at getting off the line, getting good releases so I can stretch the field when they need me to.”
Though he expects to have more than the 43 catches he had a year ago—second on the team only to Baldwin—Shanahan has other individual goals besides just establishing new career-highs.
“I’ve been thinking about things,” Shanahan said. “Obviously, I was honored, very humbled to be on the Biletnikoff Award Watch List. Really, I’m focused on team goals. That is to win championships. If we do that, then things will take care of itself.”
In addition to those returning, players like Tinker and Williams who have another year under their belt. Graham signed Josh Brinson and Ronald Jones in his first recruiting class—two players who have stepped up in wake of injuries.
Most of Pitt’s formations will include at least three receivers—the five-back, the nine-back and the two-back. Graham said Tuesday that he expects Saddler, Brinson and Jones to all contribute at the two-back, a position that Tulsa’s Demaris Johnson saw great success at last year. Johnson will be a senior at Tulsa this year, and is already the NCAA’s career leader with 7,796 all-purpose yards.
“It’s off the ball to the passing strength side, where the most receivers are,” Graham said of the two-back position. “When we move our five-man out, (the two-back) is our slot receiver. The two is kind of our slot receiver, speed-sweep, under routes, rail routes, things like that.”
Jones has earned a lot of praise over the last week. Graham talked about why Jones is getting that praise, and why he feels the freshman who only had other offers from Georgia Southern and The Citadel coming out of high school, is making an impact.
“Probably why I’m so excited about (Jones), is I just coached a kid (Johnson) who is one of the most phenomenal kids I’ve ever been around,” Graham said. “He was a game-changer, and Ronald has a lot of the similar characteristics. He’s got to get a little bit better route-running, but Ronald can have a significant impact. He’s a tremendous punt returner. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he can do some special things. I’m really excited about Ronald.”
Jones caught six passes in the team’s closed scrimmage on Saturday, and also returned a punt for a touchdown. Jones played quarterback in high school, and is still learning the position. He seems to have a good understanding of his assignments and responsibilities, despite playing a whole new position.
“I can relate to the defense pretty well,” Jones said. “My high school coach, he taught me a lot on the defensive side—what kind of defense are they running, two high safeties, one high safety, what to do and what not to do. I’m comfortable with the defense.”